Yorkshire Sculpture Park presents a major exhibition of work by the pioneering American artist David Smith

David Smith, Primo Piano II
David Smith, Primo Piano II

Yorkshire Sculpture Park presents a major exhibition of more than 40 works by the pioneering and influential American artist David Smith from June 22  to January 5.

Widely hailed as one of the 20th century’s outstanding sculptors, this is the first solo exhibition of Smith’s work in the UK since Tate Modern’s 2006 project and the largest ever outside the capital.

This landmark exhibition charts the development of Smith’s unique visual language over four decades, bringing together a number of his sculptures in the open-air that are rarely seen in this way outside the USA.

Within the Underground Gallery of the park, near Wakefield, more than 30 sculptures trace an unfolding narrative of material, technique and form.

Beginning with Smith’s earliest constructions from the 1930s that combine wood with elements including mussel and clam shells, wire and nails, the exhibition spans work through to the artist’s mature, bold, large-scale painted and stainless steel sculptures of the 1960s.

David Smith: Sculpture 1932-1965 is the sculpture park's headline exhibition for this year and its principal contribution to the inaugural Yorkshire Sculpture International, produced in partnership with the Henry Moore Institute, the Hepworth Wakefield, and Leeds Art Gallery.

Yorkshire Sculpture International comprises a number of exhibitions exploring artist Phyllida Barlow’s statement that “sculpture is the most anthropological of the arts”.

With Yorkshire’s rich history as the birthplace and inspiration for sculptors including Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore, the collaboration considers the human impulse to connect with objects, investigating both the physical diversity and the political agency of sculpture in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Smith challenged sculptural conventions and was the first artist in the USA to work with welded metal, becoming known for his mastery of steel.

Although hugely influential to the development of abstract sculpture internationally, few of his works are held in non-US public collections, so he is rarely shown in Europe.

Displayed at the park, an incisive selection of sculptures includes major loans from museums and private collections, together with works from the artist’s estate, including objects from his home that have not previously been exhibited.

Given the unique indoor-outdoor nature of Yorkshire Sculpture Park, a starting point for the exhibition is the importance to Smith of having his work in the open air.

Smith’s life was inextricably associated with his rural home and studio at Bolton Landing in upstate New York, where from the mid-1950s onwards, he filled the surrounding fields with sculpture, enjoying seeing them against the landscape, with the play of changing light across their surfaces.

These sculptures were his companions, his achievements, and inspiration for future sculptures and by the time of his death in 1965, dozens of sculptures occupied ‘the fields’. Primo Piano III (1962), one of only three similar works by Smith, also makes a critical contribution to the open-air display.

Also in the landscape at the park, three works from the important Voltri series, that the artist made in Italy during a particularly creative and prolific period working in an abandoned steel factory, show the diversity of his approach to found material and to scale. Yorkshire Sculpture Park is uniquely placed to draw out Smith’s fusion of industry and nature, in a region recognised both for its towering heritage in steel and renowned for its scenic beauty.

The impressive Cubi XIX (1964) made in stainless steel indicates Smith’s ability in working this stubborn material, which in his hands becomes fluid while retaining its inherent qualities of strength and durability.

For Smith, the burnished, reflective surface of the material made it the perfect foil to explore the interchange of sculpture and painting, and to express the evolving relationship between his work and the natural environment: “I made them and I polished them in such a way that on a dull day, they take on the dull blue, or the color of the sky in the late afternoon sun… They reflect the colours.”

Highlights inside the gallery include Smith’s earliest sculptures, made in or with materials sourced from the Virgin Islands, which he visited in 1931-32. A selection of mixed media and wire Constructions (1932-33) indicate Smith’s evolving understanding of assembled and counterbalanced forms.

Also from the 1930s and reflecting the significant developments in his work over this period are Smith’s pivotal first welded pieces comprising found industrial objects. In 1933 he saw images of welded metal sculptures made collaboratively by Spanish artists Pablo Picasso and Julio González, and he described this moment as his ‘technical liberation’, realising that the industrial processes with which he was familiar and the making of art could come together. Created soon afterwards, Saw Head (1933) and Chain Head (1933) are perhaps the first sculptures ever made in this way in the United States.

Smith’s understanding of the social practice and role of art is also drawn out. A politically engaged and strident believer in the need for the United States to be outward-facing and connected to the wider world, as well as being relevant to all branches and levels of society, his anti-Fascist stance is vividly illustrated by examples from the Medals for Dishonor series. In a prescient statement he wrote: “The tradition of our art is international, as are American people, customs and science. There is no true American art and there is no true American mind. Our art tradition is that of the Western world, which originally had its tradition in the East. Art cannot be divorced from time, place, or science.”

Smith aligned himself to an anthropological thread, embracing a creative continuity from prehistoric artefacts and ethnographic art, to that which is displayed within Eastern and Western art historical cultures. Smith spoke of his ‘workstream’, with connotations of connecting to an ancient tradition of working material by hand, and this exhibition examines the immediacy of his sculpture; its obdurate yet tactile nature; its shared space with man, machine, and natural forms; and the social and human impulse through which Smith developed abstraction from the automotive factory and foundry. For the first time ever, a number of artefacts that Smith collected whilst in Europe in the 1930s and which fed his imagination and emerging practice, will be shown in a didactic space.

Encapsulating the artist’s lyrical, linear work from the 1950s, the iconic Hudson River Landscape is a vital and dynamic sculpture that synthesises and translates a train journey regularly taken by Smith into a captivating, whorled three-dimensional form. Smith deftly captures the essence of movement and memory, melding abstraction with narrative. Within the light-filled central gallery, Smith’s striking larger scale sculptures from the 1960s reveal the importance of surface and colour alongside bold and concentrated form; an ever burgeoning output from a life and practice cut short in its prime.

The exhibition publication includes in-situ photographs and essays by Phyllida Barlow, CBE, RA; Dr Robert Slifkin, Associate Professor of Fine Arts at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University; Dr Jyrki Siukonen, Visiting Research Fellow at the University of the Arts, Helsinki; and art historian, critic and teacher Dr Anne M. Wagner.

Related events draw on Smith’s ethos regarding manual labour and industrial processes in the United States, significantly relating them to West and South Yorkshire’s industrial past and present in which steel and power production continue to play essential roles within the UK’s economy.