Head, 1958 is a seminal example of David Smith's sculptural mastery. At once iconoclastically declarative and historically reverent, Smith's rigid metal structure defines volumetric presence in a paradoxically elegant fashion. It is defined, not so much by the physical presence of the media, but by its consequent displacement and creation of space. Through this work and the rest of his oeuvre, we can witness Smith's supreme talents as a fine artist, as well as his innate gift as an architect of the material void.
Smith, who began as a painter and sustained an affinity for draftsmanship throughout his sculptural oeuvre, introduced a new language of sculpture that balanced presence and absence, figuration and abstraction, and linear design and volumetric composition. In a very literal way, Smith's sculpture can be characterized as an act of "drawing in space" just as Pollock's style was often described as "drawing into painting." Thus, Pollock and Smith redefined the traditional classifications and methodologies of sculpture and painting. By constantly challenging the archetypes of fine artists, both men embodied an independence of spirit characteristic of those American artists who began emerging in the 1930's and 1940's. These artists combined a natural pugnacity with an almost preternatural determination to absorb and then annihilate artistic precedent.
Throughout this period, Smith created one of the most consistently individualistic bodies of work, which culminated in his masterworks of the 1950's, including Head, 1958. These works established a new kind of sculptural invention that used innovative techniques and material to express an intensely personal fusion of abstraction and figuration. Utilizing modern welding technologies, found objects and machine parts, Smith conveyed volume and character through an innate genius for organizing space.
Yet, even as he literally fabricated a new sculptural vocabulary, Smith consistently acknowledged his artistic forebears including Pablo Picasso, Julio González and Umberto Boccioni. These towering figures of Modern Art were introduced to the young artist by the imposing aesthete, John Graham, an artist himself and a highly sophisticated authority on primitive and modern art. Graham was the mentor to many young artists of the New York School including Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning, and kept his coterie in tune with the latest European developments via visits to Paris and publications such as Cahiers d'Art. Despite their near-mythic stature, through Graham, the European modernists became collegial voices with whom the young Americans could declare their break from tradition. One could certainly sense Smith's indebtedness when he noted, "Cubism freed sculpture from monolithic and volumetric form... [and] poetic vision in sculpture is fully as free as in painting. Like painting, sculpture now deals in the illusion of form as well as its own particular property of form itself." (Garnett McCoy, ed., David Smith, New York, 1973, pp. 16-17.)
Perhaps no artist was more influential to Smith than the Cubist/Surrealist Julio González, with whom the present work bears the strongest affinity. Like Smith, González was a master metalworker and welder whose use of line to 'draw in space', was a significant feature of his sculpture, specifically of the 1930's. Indeed, the artist once hailed González ''the father of all iron sculpture of this century." (Grace Glueck, "Art: González Survey, A Sculptor's Reshaping," The New York Times, March 11, 1983) When we compare the present work with masterpieces such as González' Head from 1935, we can see the depth of Smith's esteem. Yet despite their evident similarities, Smith's translation of the traditional genre of the portrait bust, via González, is decidedly more radical.
Head, 1958 asserts its presence with an unprecedented forcefulness and authenticity alien to the wild, whimsical and fantastic Surrealist methodology. Volume is not merely suggested, but declared by the perpendicular arcs suggesting the scalp and eye-line. Power and concreteness have replaced mysticism and the theoretical to construct a form that is immediate and brimming with agency. Indeed, with Head, 1958, Smith brought sculptural portraiture to a new, Contemporary plane. Though there are only 10 known sculptures by the artist from 1958, the pivotal years before which he created the Cubi series, the present work is certainly the most self-aware. Smith once asked, "Can or do the critics, the audience, the philosophers ever possess the intensity of affection for the work which the creator possessed? Do they have the belligerent vitality of understanding which seems the attribute of contemporary work? Can they project this intense affection to the work of art?" (David Smith, David Smith by David Smith, New York, 1968, p. 139.) With a work such as Head, 1958, the answer is yes.
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