David Roland Smith is born March 9, 1906, in Decatur, Indiana to Harvey Martin Smith, a telephone engineer and part-time inventor and Golda Stoler Smith, a schoolteacher. In 1921, the family moves to Paulding, Ohio. While still in high school, Smith enrolls in a correspondence course in cartooning offered by the Cleveland Art School and makes illustrations for his high school yearbook. After graduation, he studies for one year at Ohio University in Athens. During summer vacation, he works for the Studebaker automobile factory in South Bend, Indiana, as a riveter; he also does soldering, spot-welding, and works a lathe. He briefly attends Notre Dame University, then takes a job in Studebaker's Finance Agency.
Smith moves first to Washington, D.C., then to New York City to work at the Morris Plan Bank. He meets a young painter, Dorothy Dehner (they marry on December 24, 1927), who is studying at the Art Students League (ASL). Smith enrolls at the ASL, taking evening painting classes with Richard Lahey.
From autumn 1927 until 1932, Smith studies full time at ASL. He takes classes with the American realist painter John Sloan, drawing instructor Kimon Nicolaides, and Czech modernist painter Jan Matulka, a former pupil of Hans Hofmann. After Matulka's classes at ASL end in 1928, Smith studies with him privately (until 1931). Matulka introduces Smith to the works of Mondrian, Picasso, Kandinsky, and the Russian Constructivists. Smith also explores other aspects of New York's cultural life, developing strong interests in jazz and modern dance that will continue for the rest of his life.
From February to May 1928, Smith works for the A.G. Spalding sporting goods store. In May, he sails as a seaman on an oil tanker from Philadelphia, through the Panama Canal, to San Pedro, California. In autumn, Smith returns to his job at Spaulding (where he works until October 1931); he and Dehner move to Brooklyn.
In the summer of 1929, Smith and Dehner visit Bolton Landing, near Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York, where they buy a dilapidated house and barn on eighty-six acres of land. (For the next eleven years, they will spend each summer and autumn at Bolton Landing, then move there permanently in 1940.)
Smith meets John Graham, a Russian émigré, intellectual, and artist. Through Graham, he meets the avant-garde painters Stuart Davis, Jean Xceron, Arshile Gorky, and Willem de Kooning. Smith sees photographs of Picasso's 1928 Project for Sculpture in a 1929 issue of Cahiers d'art and experiments with painting, collage, and reliefs created in an abstract Surrealist style. He becomes increasingly interested in combining constructed forms and painting.
From October 1931 to June 1932, Smith and Dehner live in St. Thomas, in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Smith paints, assembles small constructions using pieces of wood, coral, and other found objects, makes his first stone sculpture, and experiments with photography.
When he and Dehner return to Bolton Landing, Smith installs a forge and an anvil in his studio. He makes more constructions from wood, wire, stone, aluminum rod, soldered metal, and "found" materials. He also begins to weld metal sculptures using an oxyacetylene torch; these are probably the first welded metal sculptures made in the United States. John Graham introduces Smith to the work of the Spanish sculptor Julio González, three of whose sculptures, including the forged iron Reclining Woman, c. 1929, Graham had acquired from the Spaniard. (In 1934, Graham gives one of his González works - a small metal relief Head - to Smith).
Smith rents work space in "Terminal Iron Works, Boiler-Tube Makers and Ship-Deck," a commercial blacksmith and iron foundry located on the Brooklyn waterfront. This will be his primary studio until 1940. Throughout the 1930s, Smith works in the mural and public sculpture departments of various U.S. government-sponsored public works art programs.
In October 1935, Smith travels for the first time to Europe, with Dehner. During a month spent in Paris, they meet many artists through Graham, but not Picasso; according to later comments by Dehner, Smith, upon being told that Picasso insisted on being addressed as maître, declined to meet him. After Paris, Smith and Dehner visit Athens, Crete, Naples, Malta, Marseilles, and London, and travel by ship to Leningrad and Moscow for a twenty-one day tour. They see the great collections at the Museum of Modern Western Art, including works by Matisse, Cézanne, and Picasso. On July 4, 1936, Smith and Dehner return to New York.
Smith joins the newly organized American Abstract Artists group and exhibits with them in 1938 and 1939. Deeply troubled by the rise of fascism and inspired by German war medals he saw at the British Museum and by Sumerian seals he studied in Greece, Smith begins work on a series of fifteen (over-sized) bronze medallions he calls Medals for Dishonor (finished and exhibited in 1940).
In January 1938, Smith presents his first solo show (welded iron sculptures and drawings dating from 1935 to 1938) at Marian Willard's East River Gallery, in New York City. Smith makes his first arc-welded sculptures. He exhibits his sculpture in a group show, American Art Today, at the 1939 New York World's Fair.
In February, Smith affirms the value of abstract art, in contrast to the then fashionable Social Realism, in his lecture, "On Abstract Art in America," presented at a forum of the United American Artists group. In March, he presents a solo show at Neumann-Willard Gallery, New York.
Smith and Dehner move permanently to Bolton Landing in the spring. He names his studio Terminal Iron Works because he had already established credit under that name and knew it would be easier to get loans for a commercial business than for an art studio. He earns money by working as a machinist in nearby Glens Falls. With iron and steel scarce during World War II, he makes few sculptures, but does experiment with other materials including marble, cast aluminum, and wood; his themes range from the physical and psychological violence of war to the liberating potential of music and dance. He also continues to draw and paint.
At Bolton Landing, Smith brings in electricity and builds a cinderblock, open-plan machine shop with a concrete floor to use as his studio. From 1942 to 1944, he lives in Schenectady, New York (near Albany) and works the midnight to 8 a.m. shift, six days a week, for the American Locomotive Company, assembling M7 tanks and locomotives. Sometimes, after work, he drives forty miles to Saratoga, where he learns to carve marble while also working half-days at Saratoga Funeral Monument Yard.
In January 1943, works by Smith are included in a group show, American Sculpture of Our Time, at Willard and Buchholz Galleries, New York. Art critic Clement Greenberg writes in the progressive periodical The Nation about Smith's sculpture Interior, 1937: "If [Smith] is able to maintain the level set in the work he has already done, he has a chance of becoming the greatest of all American artists." In April, Smith has a solo show at Willard Gallery (eighteen sculptures and five drawings from 1939 to 1943). The Museum of Modern Art, New York, purchases its first Smith sculpture, Head, 1938.
Declared unfit for military service, Smith quits his job at the locomotive plant and moves back to Bolton Landing in the summer of 1944 to work full-time on his artwork.
The narrative content and formal language of the work Smith creates immediately following WW II is highly symbolic and influenced by Surrealist imagery. In January 1946, Smith presents fifty-four sculptures, including thirty made in 1944 and 1945, at the Willard and Buchholz Galleries, in New York. Several works from this show are sold, including Cockfight - Variation, 1945, bought by the Whitney Museum of American Art. Later that year, a show of Smith's sculptures and photographs of his sculptures is organized by the American Association of University Women and travels across the United States until 1952.
Working on a new house at Bolton Landing and teaching at Sarah Lawrence College (1948 to 1949) in Bronxville, New York leaves Smith little time to make sculpture; it takes him until June of 1949 to complete the house.
In April 1950, Smith receives a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship (renewed in 1951), which temporarily frees him from having to take teaching and other non-art jobs. The scale of his work expands dramatically; his forms become more lyrical and abstract, and their content less narrative. He initiates a practice of making distinct bodies of related works over many years, beginning with his Agricola series (sixteen sculptures, 1951 to 1957). That summer, Smith exhibits in his first European group show, the International Open-Air Exhibition, at Middelheim Park, in Antwerp. Dehner leaves Smith in late 1950 and they divorce in December 1952.
Smith begins his Tanktotem series (ten sculptures, 1953 to 1960). Each Tanktotem incorporates parts of commercial boiler tops that Smith orders from a catalogue. He also explores, with increasing intensity, the formal and expressive qualities of abstract gestural imagery by making drawings using a medium of his own invention: India ink combined with egg yolk.
Art News magazine lists Smith's 1952 solo sculpture exhibition at the Willard-Kleeman Gallery as one of the ten best shows of that year. In April 1953, while teaching at the University of Arkansas, he marries Jean Freas. Six sculptures by Smith are included in Douze peintres et sculpteurs américan contemporains, organized by The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and circulated in France, Switzerland, Germany, Sweden, Finland, and Norway.
Smith's first child, Rebecca, is born in April 1954. In June, Smith's work is included in the XXVII Venice Biennale. Smith travels to Venice as a delegate to UNESCO's First International Congress of Plastic Arts and visits France. After his return, he lectures on "Tradition," at Columbia University, New York.
Smith begins to place his sculptures in the fields around his home and studio at Bolton Landing. From September to June 1955, he teaches art at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he learns about forging from a local blacksmith. Smith begins his Forging series and continues to create Tanktotems. His and Jean's second child, Candida, is born in August 1955.
In its February 1956, issue, Art News publishes Smith's essay, "González: First Master of the Torch," a tribute that coincides with a retrospective of González's work at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. In March, Smith presents a solo show at Willard Gallery, New York; nothing is sold.
Smith lives with his family in New York City from April through June 1956. During the 1950s, Smith visits New York City frequently and socializes with other Abstract Expressionist artists such as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, and Michael Goldberg, as well as with younger artists, such as Kenneth Noland.
Smith produces a series of twenty-two abstract, bronze, bas-relief plaques using imagery derived largely from bones and other natural forms. Smith returns to painting, producing works in varying scales on masonite panels and canvas. He also explores the relationship between color and sculpture more intensely by painting the surfaces of his steel sculptures with multiple colors applied in an expressionist manner. He inaugurates his Sentinel series - nine tall, vertical structures, several of which use industrial I-beams. In 1957, Smith begins to use commercially available aerosol enamel paint sprayed directly on paper and canvas to create drawings and large-scale paintings that use found objects and invented forms as stencils. In September, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, presents a major retrospective survey of his sculptures, drawings, and paintings from 1932 to 1957.
In 1958, Smith and Freas separate (they divorce in 1961). Solo shows of Smith's work open at the XXIX Venice Biennale and the V Bienal of Săo Paulo in 1959. He exhibits large-scale spray enamel paintings at French & Co., New York. Eighteen of the twenty-four sculptures Smith completes in 1960 are painted in vivid hues, a dramatic increase from the past. In 1961, Smith begins two new series: the Zigs (seven sculptures, 1961 to 1964) and the Cubis (twenty-eight large-scale, geometric, stainless steel sculptures burnished to a highly reflective surface with a circular sander, 1961 to 1965).
Smith is invited by the Italian government to make two sculptures for exhibition in Spoleto during the Fourth Festival of Two Worlds in June 1962. He is offered as his studio a decommissioned Italsider steel factory in Voltri outside Spoleto and provided with a team of steel workers as his assistants. With these resources, Smith makes twenty-seven sculptures in thirty days, using the tools, machines, objects, and materials he found in the Italsider factory. Before returning to Bolton Landing, Smith arranges to have material from the factory shipped to New York. Upon his return, he begins his Voltri-Bolton series (twenty-five sculptures, 1962 to 1963).
In 1962, he also creates the Circle series (highly simplified, large-scale, polychromed, steel geometric sculptures) and the Primo Pianos, three monumental, planar steel sculptures painted white. Smith also continues to expand his practice of photographing individual sculptures and the increasingly complex installations of his works at Bolton Landing to create two-dimensional images that simultaneously document and reinvent their subjects.
Sculptures by Smith are included in Documenta III in Kassel, West Germany. He adds new works to his Cubi and Zig series, begins and completes the Wagons (three welded and cast steel sculptures), begins a new series of large, symmetrical, planar stainless steel sculptures, and creates a series of smaller planar sculptures in bronze. He also completes a large series of enamel paintings of female nudes based on his own photographs. Two of these paintings were illustrated in the catalogue for an exhibition that included sculptures from the Cubi, Zig, Menand, and Bronze Plane series, which opened in October at Marlborough Gallery, New York. This was Smith's last one-man exhibition during his lifetime.
In February 1965, Smith is appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve on the National Council on the Arts. On May 23, Smith is fatally injured in an automobile crash near Bennington, Vermont; he is 59 years old. The major survey of Smith's work planned by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and organized in consultation with Smith, is presented in 1965 as "David Smith: A Memorial Exhibition."