“Sculpture is a poetic statement of form.” (Cleve Gray, Ed., David Smith by David Smith: Sculpture and Writing, New York, 1968, p. 71)
Throughout his career, Smith was inspired by the most avant-garde artistic innovations – including Cubism, Constructivism, and Expressionism – to create innovative sculptural forms, which combined aesthetic daring with impressive technical skill in a variety of sculptural materials. By the 1960s, Smith arrived at a transcendent synthesis of this broad range of influences, and the Zig series, along with the contemporaneous Cubi series, embody the eloquent sophistication and erudite refinement achieved by Smith at this mature stage of his career. With particular allusions to Cubism, Smith’s geometric forms are balanced and juxtaposed with assurance, and they ultimately surpass the earlier masters of Cubist form such as Picasso, through a unified structural elegance that introduced a more open and fluid interplay between volume and line as well as positive and negative space. Named for the ancient terraced pyramidal form of a ziggurat, the Zigs exhibit a monumental presence consisting of tiered combinations of convex and concave forms derived from sections of tubular cylinders. The greatness of Zig I is most fully appreciated in the round, as the viewer circumnavigates around the work. The sinuous curves alternate in a myriad of vertical and horizontal juxtapositions with one another, as we fully experience the complexity of Smith’s compositional vigor.
Beginning with his Agricola series in the early 1950s, Smith’s oeuvre evolved in groups of thematic forms, each series acting as both an organizational and inspirational focus for Smith; each group of works developed its own vocabulary of aesthetic relationships and principles which grew out of previous sculptures and informed the creation of simultaneous series as well as sculptures to come. The first five sculptures of the series, Zig I, Zig II, Zig III, Zig IV and Zig V, all from 1961, premiered at the 1961-1962 Pittsburgh International Exhibition of Contemporary Painting and Sculpture at the Carnegie Institute, where Smith was awarded third prize. The Zig series had been identified as an eight sculpture series by Rosalind E. Krauss in her 1977 catalogue raisonné, but only seven sculptures were inscribed with this title by the artist. An eighth work from 1964 was posthumously postulated as Untitled (VI) by E. A. Carmean when Zig I joined all the Zigs except Zig IV in his David Smith exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D. C. in 1983. This “Seven Major Themes” exhibition was conceived by Carmean, the Curator of Twentieth Century Art, to highlight the critical role that serial conception and execution played within Smith’s inventive oeuvre, and to celebrate the Agricolas, Sentinels, Zigs, Circles, Voltri-Boltons, Wagons and Cubis series.
Concurrently filling his studio and creative imagination in the 1960s, Zigs and Cubis share a thematic purity among David Smith’s series and oeuvre. The titles and the compositions are devoid of a single literally rendered figurative motif such as in the Agricolas or Sentinels, and their steel material has no romantic allusions to previous functions or histories that the industrial and farm detritus bring to the Agricolas and Voltris. In his chapter devoted to the Zigs, E. A. Carmean linked the Zigs to the Cubis, describing both as “being made up of elements that have no clear identity beyond that of being essential geometric shapes.” (Exh. Cat., Washington, D. C., National Gallery of Art, David Smith: Seven Major Themes, 1982, p. 108) The main attributes of the Zigs and Cubis – their monumental scale, the use of reflected or applied color, and the shared characteristics of shape – align the two series together as the primary innovative works of the artist’s last years. Begun in the same year of 1961, they can be seen as an artistic dialogue, interplaying with one another and leaving tantalizing hints, at the time of his untimely death in 1965, of the direction either series might have led Smith in his celebration of sculptural form, geometry, mass, space and color. As the artist eloquently stated, “When I begin a sculpture I am not always sure how it is going to end. In a way it has a relationship to the work before, it is in continuity to the previous work – it often holds promise or a gesture towards the one to follow.” (Cleve Gray, Ed., David Smith by David Smith: Sculpture and Writing, New York, 1968, p. 56)
Smith acknowledged one particular pedestal-scale sculpture, Bouquet of Concaves (1959, Phillips Collection, Washington, D., C.) as a direct inspiration for the curved steel plate constructions in the more monumental series of Zigs. “My thoughts saw concave and convex – and the sculpture I recently finished called Bouquet of Concaves, and immediately my vision grew to concaves larger than my own being, …This was a flash of recognition. ….[I] appreciatively recalled Léger in 1913 like the pictures of so called Tubism in the Arensberg Collection in Philadelphia.” (Ibid., p. 114) Unlike the more three-dimensional units of shape in the Cubi series, Zig I and its sister sculptures are composed of more two-dimensional plates of steel, but Smith’s three tiers of horizontal curved sections arrayed around a strong vertical centralized spine succeed in achieving a palpable sense of volumetric shape in Zig I. This commanding presence that inhabits the viewer’s space is emphasized by the other critical characteristic of the Zigs and Cubis, mainly Smith’s surface treatment as a compositional component.
By the 1960s, Smith reveled in the use of polished stainless steel, exhibited outdoors in the Bolton Landing fields not only for the white reflective sunlight effects that dazzle the eye, but also for the reflection produced by the myriad colors of the landscape. The bright blues of the sky, the deep greens of the woods, and often the white snow blanketing Bolton Landing’s hills – all of these were as much of an expressionistic surface “palette” as the enamel painted surface of the Zigs and Circles series. As Smith commented in regard to the Cubis, “[They] take on the dull blue, or the color of the sky in the late afternoon sun, the glow, golden like the rays, the colors of nature. And in a particular sense, I have used atmosphere in a reflective way on the surfaces. They are colored by the sky and the surroundings.” (interview with Thomas B. Hess printed in Exh. Cat., New York, Marlborough-Gerson Gallery, David Smith, October 1964)
In an earlier 1961 interview, the same year of Zig I, Smith discussed his painted sculptures, “I belong with painters, in a sense; … Some of the greatest departures in the concept of sculpture have been made by Picasso and Matisse… Painting and sculpture are not very far apart. I painted for some years. I’ve never given it up.” (BBC radio interview with David Sylvester, June 6, 1961, published in Living Arts, Vol. 1, No. 3, April 1964) While Smith also employed painterly surfaces in other series such as the Tanktotems and Circles, several of the Zigs, and most notably Zig I, echo the swirling patterns in the polished stainless steel of the Cubis in the looping, gestural and scumbled application of the enamel paint. In both series, Smith invited a close union between surface and dimensional composition, activating the surfaces through either the colors of the brush or the colors of the landscape.
Smith began his artistic career as a painter, and continued to draw and paint on paper and canvas throughout his life, often employing his sculptural forms as motifs. In discussing his transition from canvas to sculpture, Smith cited the iron constructions of Picasso and Julio González from 1931 as the “liberating factor”, and acknowledged the evolution of dimensionality that overtook his creative output. “After my student period in painting, ….my painting had turned to constructions which had risen from the canvas so high that a base was required where the canvas should be, I was now a sculptor.” (Cleve Gray, Ed., David Smith by David Smith: Sculpture and Writing, New York, 1968, p. 68) At the time that Zigs I-V were on display at the Carnegie in Pittsburgh, several reviewers noted the new sophistication and refinement in Smith’s compositional geometries, and noted in particular the successful use of color as an important quality to Smith’s work during this period when his creative powers were at their height. Irving Sandler noted, “Color now provides a lyrical balance, softening the strict forms cut from massive steel sheets up to an inch thick – even threatening to dissolve them. …the masterful way in which Smith fuses these disparate plastic elements into organic wholes generates the drama in his sculptures.” (Irving Sandler, “In the Art Galleries,” New York Post Magazine, October 22, 1961, p. 12) And the Zig series and the use of color were even more eloquently celebrated by Brian Doherty: “Brightly colored, remarkably inventive, thoroughly transforming their compositions, they command attention like signposts,… Color is rarely used with any success in sculpture. …But Mr. Smith’s colors initiate a lively dialogue with the forms about them. They control, amplify and modify surfaces, like the color in precise abstract painting. The whole effect is to create sculpture that is lively and profound without being solemn." (Brian O’Doherty, “Art: Still-Lifes and New Sculpture,” New York Times, October 11, 1961, p. 44)
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