“The material called iron and steel I hold in high respect. What it can do in arriving at a form economically, no other material can do. The material itself possesses little art history. What associations it possesses are those of this century: power, structure, movement, progress, suspension, brutality.” (The artist cited in Karen Wilkin, David Smith, New York, 1984, p. 20)
“American machine techniques and European cubist tradition, both of this century, are accountable for the new freedom in sculpture-making. Sculpture is no longer limited to the slow carving of marble and long process of bronze. It has found new form and new method… The building up of sculpture from unit parts, the quantity to quality concept, is also an industrial concept, the basis of automobile and machine assembly in the steel process.” (The artist cited in Exh. Cat., Los Angeles, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy, 2011, p. 26)
Sacrifice is an important example of David Smith’s renowned sculptural alchemy, in which he transformed obdurate metal into elegant yet volumetric presences, all created around open spaces rather than carved from a solid piece of wood or stone. This greatest of all American sculptors of the mid-Twentieth Century began as a painter and sustained an affinity for draftsmanship throughout his oeuvre, introducing a new kind of sculpture in which “drawing in space” balanced void with substance, figuration with abstraction, linear design with volumetric composition. Employing industrial materials and modern technologies such as welding, Smith displayed an innate genius for organizing space. His work of the late 1930s to early 1950s also alluded to Smith’s love of Surrealism, bringing a poetic and expressive element to his abstractions. With its poised tension of landscape and figurative elements joined into an ideographic composition, and its interplay of solid and void, Sacrifice stands as a culmination of Smith’s formative decades, and acts as a gateway to the masterpieces to come in the 1950s and 1960s. Extensively reproduced and discussed throughout the literature on the sculptor, Sacrifice was first exhibited in 1951 at the Willard Gallery in New York, and was subsequently chosen by the Museum of Modern Art, New York for its 1957 Smith retrospective exhibition. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum included Sacrifice in their two celebrated retrospective exhibitions of Smith's work, first in 1966 and again in 2006 for their influential travelling retrospective that celebrated the artist’s centennial year.
Smith acknowledged the influence of European innovators such as Pablo Picasso, Julio González and Alberto Giacometti, yet he also embodied the independence of spirit that characterized many American artists of the 1930s and 1940s, when society was in an as much ferment and turmoil as the artistic theories and practices of the time. Refusing to accept one convention over another, Smith forcefully followed a path toward his own singular vision, and Sacrifice manifests this artistic journey in its combination of Surrealist totemic imagery with the spatial innovations of modernist sculpture, culminating in a masterwork of the 1950s that established a new kind of sculptural idiom.
Smith was introduced to modernism by the artist John Graham, a sophisticated mentor to many young artists in New York in the 1930s. Moving between Paris and New York, Graham brought his protégés into contact with the latest European developments. Through Graham, Smith encountered the works of González and Picasso in Cahiers d’Art, and felt an affinity for their work. As he stated in 1955, “Cubism freed sculpture from monolithic and volumetric form…, [and] the poetic vision in sculpture is fully as free as in painting.” (Garnett McCoy, ed., David Smith, New York, 1973, pp. 16-17) Just as Cubism exposed the interior core of traditionally opaque objects, the Surrealist vocabulary gave form to intangible reality, emotions, associations, and symbols. The mythically resonant title and the rhythmic form of Sacrifice convey the Surrealist heart of this composition, while the formal structure and the stepped base speak of the reductive qualities and spatial innovations of Alberto Giacometti. In the early 1950s, Smith’s love of landscape is often expressed in a linear two-dimension as in The Forest (1950, Nasher Sculpture Center) and Hudson River Landscape (1951, Whitney Museum of American Art). Sacrifice is also reductive with its horizontals and verticals, but retains the planar depth familiar to Giacometti’s table-top tableaus such as Le Forêt (1950) and Trois Hommes qui marchent II (1948). The critic Emily Genauer focused on Surrealist content when she wrote of Sacrifice: “Another symbolic piece whose allusions go back to ancient myth and legend.” (“Art: Some Themes of the Machine Age,” New York Herald Tribune, April 1, 1951, p. 7) Yet there is a formal rigour and increasing scale that sets Sacrifice apart from other Surrealist tableau by Smith such as Home of the Welder (1945, Tate Modern, London). In Giacometti’s Le Forêt (1950), space seems to press in on the elongated and emaciated figures, constricting them, whereas in Sacrifice, Smith’s forms celebrate their space and freely circulate within the third dimension. Pedestals and bases traditionally acted as a transitional device – a formal distance – between the viewer and the artistic object. In Sacrifice, the graduated base, which echoes the form of a sacrificial altar, also enhances the volumetric presence of the totemic forms and integrates the work holistically, rendering a far more dimensional composition than The Forest, also of 1950. As the viewer experiences the various aspects of Sacrifice, the eye revels in the overlapping, layered effects amongst the various heads atop Smith’s figures. In this regard, Sacrifice is a tantalizing and pivotal bridge between the surrealism of Smith’s work of the 1930s and 1940s, and his monumental sculptures to come in the 1950s and 1960s: the Agricola, Voltri, Tanktotem, Sentinel, and Cubi.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale