“The beauties of the forge shop, parts dropped partly forged, cooled now but stopped in progress – as if the human factor had dissolved and the great dust settled – the found tombs of the early Twentieth Century.” (the artist quoted in Garnett McCoy, ed., David Smith, 1973, pp. 156-7)
“One spring morning he reached the idle scrapheap, those still skeletons, relics of the flesh of steel, inanimate forms that had, not long before, been living symbols of the latest great Iron Age. Glancing around the boneheap, he pondered awhile, and set to work. With his own hands, he improvised a forge, and then he summoned his alter-ago, fire!” (Giovanni Carandente quoted in Exh. Cat., Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, David Smith: The Voltri Sculpture, American Art at Mid-Century, 1978, p. 217)
David Smith’s epic sojourn in Voltri, Italy in May and June 1962 was an artistic paradise for the sculptor, inspiring him to create a legendary body of work in a dramatic burst of inventive activity. In roughly thirty days, Smith famously produced twenty-seven sculptures – an unprecedented pace for any artist working in welded metal. Through a happy confluence of working conditions and available materials in a richly evocative cultural atmosphere, Smith achieved one of his greatest series of works at a critical moment in his career. The Voltri series had a profound influence on the sculptor’s aesthetic and on the masterworks he created in the final years before his untimely death in 1965. Voltri III beautifully embodies the seminal role of this series; with its traces of figuration and found material, Voltri III is linked to the 1950’s Agricola series while its evocative placement within an ancient Roman amphitheater helped inspire the unprecedented display of sculptures such as the Cubi series throughout the fields of his home in Bolton Landing.
The occasion of Smith’s trip to Voltri was the Festival of Two Worlds in nearby Spoleto, a yearly performance and fine arts celebration coordinated by the composer Gian Carlo Menotti. In 1962, fifty sculptors were invited to exhibit one or two works in the streets of Spoleto, and the monumental Teodelapio by Alexander Calder stands in a city square to this day as the modern symbol of this most ancient city. Yet in the annals of modern art history, the penultimate event of the 1962 festival remains Smith’s magnificent Voltri sculptures, not only for the fascinating narrative of their creation and installation, but also as landmarks of the artist’s ambitious sculptural inventiveness.
The sponsor of the show was Italsider of Genoa, a smelting and steel conglomerate who provided Smith’s ideal working environment in their abandoned steelworks at Voltri. As he wrote in a 1962 letter to David Sylvester, Italsider was “a complex of some five factories… once making springs, trucks, parts for flatcars, bolts, … many things for forging.” Enthralled by the romance of industrial detritus and assisted by local workers, Smith drew ideas with white chalk, and used hoists and wheeled carriages to assemble large sculptural formations, all on the factory floor. Industrial methods had long inspired Smith’s preference for welding techniques, but in Voltri, the sculptor gave full expression to his deep affinity for industrialization as a societal and artistic metaphor, as it pervaded every aspect of the inspiration and creation of works such as Voltri III.
Throughout his oeuvre, Smith melded his abstract compositions with traces of figuration and landscape, much as Willem de Kooning retained these elements in his masterworks of Abstract Expressionist painting. Voltri III bears some of the strongest traces of figural characteristics among this series with its curved vertical sheet of steel acting as torso for the cubist abstracted head. The verticality and humanist contours resonate with other “sentinel” figures in Smith’s canon so it is perhaps no surprise that Voltri III was placed on the highest tiers of the Roman amphitheater, standing guard over the remarkable display of Smith’s surprisingly large group of works for the festival. Voltri III was further memorialized in one of the most reproduced photographs of the artist from this period. As discussed by Sarah Hamill: “Equally as resonant for Smith as seeing his sculptures in this classical setting was the installation of his works atop an empty railroad car, a display that photographer Ugo Mulas documented and helped conceive. In Mulas’ photograph, Smith stands on the rail car, moving Voltri III, Voltri V, [Voltri IX, Voltri X] and Voltri IV into place. The sculptures rise up from the car, a large-scale iteration of the wheel-based sculpture Voltri XIII. …[The photo] relays how, in the Voltri series, the sculptor’s ambitions were monumental suggesting that sculpture be physically on par with the once ultramodern industry that they were memorializing.” (Sarah Hamill, David Smith: Works, Writings and Interview, Barcelona, 2011, pp. 56)
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