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David Smith
David Smith, Zig III, 1961, estate of David Smith, New York, photo by Jerry L. Thompson © estate of David Smith


Oct. 5, 2011

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The timeline of the new exhibition of Ab-Ex sculptor David Smith at the Whitney Museum of American Art spans from “his earliest small works through the monumental late masterpieces that he created in the final years of his life” -- but it’s not a retrospective, curators emphasized during a press preview for the exhibition “David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy,” Oct. 6, 2011-Jan. 8, 2012..

Smith's career received a masterful retrospective treatment in "David Smith: A Centennial," organized by Carmen Gimenez at the Guggenheim Museum in 2006, a mere five years ago. That show "set out the broadest range of Smith's extremely diverse output," said Peter Stevens, executive director of the Smith estate. With the retrospective done, Stevens noted, the time had come to focus specifically on Smith's interest in geometric abstraction.

The new Whitney exhibition, which debuted at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art earlier this year and is slated to travel to the Wexner Center in Columbus, Oh., is designed to demonstrate a career-long obsession with geometry in Smith's work, via 60 drawings, paintings, photos and sculpture. And, indeed, the exhibition omits any of the Surrealist-inspired assemblage works from the 1940s and '50s that include tools or seem like landscapes drawn in space.

The show was organized by Carol S. Eliel for LACMA, and its installation in New York is overseen by longtime Whitney curator Barbara Haskell -- in association with artist Charles Ray, a well-known Smith fan. When asked why the museum was hosting another Smith show so soon after the Guggenheim retrospective, she gave a simple answer: It was the museum's first monographic David Smith exhibition, and what contemporary curator wouldn't want to help put that together?

The exhibition is beautifully installed, and has a good mix of photographs, small paintings and works on paper. More notable, certainly, is the large selection of artist's trademark industrial, assembled steel works from his Cubi and Zig series. These include the Whitney's own eight-foot-tall, stainless steel Lectern Sentinel, 1961, which is the only work from the museum's substantial Smith holdings to make the show, and the ten-foot-tall Cubi XXI from 1964, from the Lipman Family Foundation Inc. The Lipman Family has been a great patron of the museum and insiders hope that Cubi XXI, which was also recently on view at Gagosian Gallery (which represents the estate), might someday enter the museum collection.

Several works in the show, such as his orange Zig IV, 1961, exemplify Smith’s employment of color as a structural component. Art lovers with long memories may remember the controversy from the 1970s over Clement Greenberg's decision to paint or strip or leave to rust several partly finished sculptures after Smith's unfortunate death in a car accident in 1963, at age 59. None of these works are on view.

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David Smith
David Smith, Untitled, 1963, collection of Jon and Mary Shirley © estate of David Smith

David Smith
David Smith's Cubi XXI, 1964, installed at the Whitney Museum for "David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy," Oct. 6, 2011-Jan. 8, 2012