David Smith at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

David Smith, The Royal Bird (1947), bronze and stainless steel, 22-1/8″ x 59-3/16″ x 8-1/2″; courtesy Walker Art Center

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David Smith (1906-1965) is generally considered the most significant American sculptor of the 20th century. Certainly, Carmen Giménez, curator of David Smith: A Centennial, has bet the farm—or, rather, the better part of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum—on the “melancholy solitude,” “independence” and “grandeur” of the “Blacksmith of Space.”

In thrall to Smith’s protean gift for absorbing the lessons of Modernism—Surrealist portent and Russian Constructivism no less than the sculptural innovations of Picasso and Julio González—Ms. Giménez has laid out an appreciative and perhaps definitive accounting of the oeuvre. Smith’s adventures in welded-steel sculpture, derived from the Cubist-inspired practice dubbed “drawing in space,” are given a generous airing. So, too, are his robust sense of humor and his surprising lifelong dedication to the human form, however obscured or distilled.

Clement Greenberg asserted that Smith was “higher than any sculptor since Donatello”—for such a stringent critic, Greenberg was prone to wild hyperbole. Whether or not Ms. Giménez would agree is less important than the dignity she affords the sculptor’s work. In its attention to pacing and aesthetic principle, the installation is a model of its kind. The Guggenheim has rarely been such a pleasant place to visit.

Or so sobering. As a retrospective should, David Smith: A Centennial illuminates one artist’s contribution to culture, but the light it shines is less flattering than one might have anticipated. Notwithstanding the scope of Smith’s ambitions or the heady propulsion that motivated the sculptures, the artist who emerges at the Guggenheim seems never to have mastered his métier. The pieces get ample room—many are placed in the rotunda’s walkway, allowing visitors to move around them. Yet this tack only underscores how ineffectively Smith engaged with actual space. For a sculptor, that’s some shortcoming.

In fact, Smith failed to understand the dimensionality of sculpture. Too often, the sculptures seem like physical transcriptions of pictorial ideas. As a consequence, the pieces can be flabby. Blackburn, Songs of an Irish Blacksmith (1949-50), can’t even work itself up to meandering; its juxtapositions lack contrast, rhythm and rationale. Smith’s hokey figurative allusions are reminders that he was a Surrealist before he was anything else. Scale has little import—when the work is big, there’s no discernible reason. Materials are a drag on Smith’s remarkable talent; they’re never completely transformed. In the end, he comes across as a painter working in the wrong medium.

Absent is the lilt of Miró, the gravity of Giacometti, the grace of González, the brute magic of Picasso—all pivotal influences on Smith’s art. Instead, we get an earnest but fussy resolve that’s not exacting enough to merit great-sculptor status. To be sure, there are fine pieces on view—The Royal Bird (1947-48) melds the primitive and the industrial to impressively tensile effect—but even the best work doesn’t much transcend pastiche.

Ultimately, it’s Smith’s influence that is his true legacy. Richard Stankiewicz, Sir Anthony Caro and Mark di Suvero are all followers. Their art, while not necessarily as rich or as complex as Smith’s, is more sculpturally true and, as a result, more aesthetically justified. David Smith: A Centennial highlights a wide-ranging but deeply flawed accomplishment. Excitement buzzes around its edges, but less because of the actual art than the possibilities it set into motion.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the February 19, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.

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