Please note that in the print catalogue for this sale, this lot appears as number 34T.
Marlborough Fine Art, Ltd., London
Hon. Michael Astor, London (acquired in 1969)
Hon. Mrs. Michael Astor, London (by descent from the above and sold: Christie's, New York, May 1981, lot 19)
Acquired at the above sale by A. Alfred Taubman
Williamstown, Lawrence Art Museum, Williams College, December 1-19, 1951
New York, Willard/Kleeman Galleries, David Smith: Sculpture and Drawing, April 1-26, 1952, no. 1, illustrated in the catalogue
New York, Saidenberg Gallery, January 1953
Southfield, Michigan, Lawrence Technological University, Selections from the Collection of Mr. and Mrs. A. Alfred Taubman, April 20-21, 2013, illustrated in color in the catalogue
"Williams to Show Metal Sculpture in Unusual Exhibit," North Adams Transcript, November 29, 1951, p. 13
Seena Israel, "Dynamic Sculpture Pieces Exhibited by David Smith," Bennington Weekly, November 30, 1951
"Museum Displays Unique Sculpture," Williams Record, December 8, 1951, p. 1
Robert Goodnough, "Reviews and Previews: David Smith," Art News, vol. 51, April 1952, discussed p. 43
"An Artistic Smith at Work," Life Magazine, vol. 33, no. 12, September 22, 1952, illustrated p. 78
Jane Harrison Cone, David Smith 1906-1965: A Retrospective Exhibition (exhibition catalogue), Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1966, no. 190, listed p. 72
Cleve Gray, ed., David Smith by David Smith: Sculpture and Writings, New York, 1968, illustrated p. 100
Garnett McCoy, "Artists and Writers in America," Archives of American Art Journal, v. 16, no. 4, 1976, illustrated p. 13
Rosalind E. Krauss, The Sculpture of David Smith: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York and London, 1977, no. 254, illustrated and listed p. 52 (incorrect size)
Howard Nemerov, Sentences, Chicago, 1980, p. 22
E. A. Carmean, Jr., David Smith: Seven Major Themes (exhibition catalogue), National Gallery of Art, Washington, D. C., 1982, fig. 1, illustrated pp. 66-67 (outside the artist's home in Bolton Landing, circa 1952)
Stanley E. Marcus, David Smith: The Sculptor and His Work, Ithaca, 1983, discussed p. 99
David Smith: Photographs 1931-1965 (exhibition catalogue), Matthew Marks Gallery, New York, 1998, pl. 58, illustrated p. 71 (outside the artist's home in Bolton Landing, circa 1952)
David Smith: Related Clues, Drawings, Paintings & Sculpture 1931-1964 (exhibition catalogue), Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2004, illustrated p. 86 (outside the artist's home in Bolton Landing, circa 1952)
Jed Perl, New Art City: Manhattan at Mid-Century, New York, 2005, pp. 342-343
Alex Potts, David Smith: Personnage (exhibition catalogue), Gagosian Gallery, New York and London, 2006, illustrated p. 42 (outside the artist's home in Bolton Landing, circa 1952)
Michael Peppiatt and Alice Bellony-Rewald, "Studios of America," The Studio Reader: On the Space of Artists, Chicago and London, 2010, pp. 68-79, 76 and 78
Piece by piece recruited from the odd
Detritus of an iron age gone wrong—
Turnbuckle, poker, unidentified
Flanges and bolts—so soldiers get along,
Staggering but yet rigid about the trunk,
One on hands and knees, wounded or else drunk.
Although it was an iron discipline
Did this to them, they gained their gaiety
On honorable service; being done
Out of mortality, they are set free
As though by natural virtue in the rust
That answers to their privacy in dust.
Soldier, it is the warfare of the world
Weathers you, and this ruin alone is glory;
Faithfully suffer for the ruining lord
His timely work, and earn a place in the story.
May the machine this way redeem the part
And nature for some time consent to art.
Smith’s profound body of work independently expanded the realm of sculptural possibility, challenged the boundaries of three dimensional art and propelled modernist sculpture toward previously uncharted formal territories. In its remarkable geometry and draftsman-like technique, Four Soldiers from 1950-1951 exemplifies Smith's transcendence of distinctions between mediums, and represents a groundbreaking paragon of postwar abstraction. Here, Smith presents a kinetic progression of four figures frozen in motion, rising upward like stages in the evolution of man. The interconnected found steel elements of the present work thrillingly conflate Duchampian modes of conceptual thought with the most advanced formal understanding of abstract line and spatial organization.
Smith began work on Four Soldiers in 1950, after being awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship, which freed him from teaching and gave him time to develop many of his greatest works to date. The start of the 1950s saw the artist at a critical summit: he was included in an important exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1951, and was United States delegate to the first São Paulo Bienal in 1951. Completed in 1951, Four Soldiers belongs to a year of Smith’s production in which he executed such early masterpieces as Australia (Museum of Modern Art, New York) and Hudson River Landscape (Whitney Museum of American Art). 1950 also saw the beginning of the Korean War, a sociopolitical event that undoubtedly influenced the military allusions in Four Soldiers, which in turn inspired Howard Nemerov's poem included in the catalogue for the 1952 Willard/Kleeman Galleries show that featured the present work.
Four Soldiers embodies another theme predominant in Smith's work; namely, the utmost significance of the symbolic associations of industrial machine metals such as iron and steel as evocative of the speed, technology, and progress of modern society. For Smith, the work of the artist was to initiate an elevating exchange, whereby the original utility of the material and its individual components is surrendered in light of a sculpture's new formal construction. Executed before the start of the artist’s Agricola and Voltri series, Four Soldiers anticipates Smith’s preoccupation with found farm machinery and industrial readymades: Four Soldiers is a superb realization of this process, particularly dynamic in its numerous interlocking parts arranged in an active thrust and progression. Here, the components are welded together to create the impression of four figures in various stages of activity like the frame of a Muybridge photograph or the striding figures of ancient Greek vase painting. Though the motif of the abstract kinetic figure recurs throughout Smith’s work, it is nowhere as articulate and compelling as in Four Soldiers.
In the present work, the linear nature of the composition is equally as evocative as its physical presence, creating a fascinating dichotomy between solidity of form and openness of design. In his essay entitled "The Beginning of a New Art," Stanley E. Marcus wrote: "The first sculptures deliberately based on the picture plane were made between 1950 and 1952. They were characterized by a return to the open linear constructions of the 1930s. ...These are the works that Clement Greenberg, seeing the compression of linear components within vertical planes, described as 'drawings in air.' The titles of those works - 24 Greek Y's, 17 h's, The Forest, ...and Four Soldiers and Hudson River Landscape (both of 1951) testify to Smith's interest in the interaction among multiple images and to a move away from the constraints of the monolithic object" ( David Smith: The Sculptor and His Work, Ithaca, 1983, p. 99). In the graceful curvature and refined geometry of Four Soldiers, Smith superseded and obscured the material's former functionality as industrial parts. Radically transforming the use value of the metals by reducing them to their purely formal, aesthetic, and geometric properties allowed the artist to free sculpture from the plastic arts toward a more transcendental reflexivity. The materials are thereby dematerialized, possessing a grace and purity that forms the essence of Smith’s engagement with the traditions of Modernism and developments in abstraction. Smith actively sought the connection between modern industry and the avant-garde, as he stated in a 1952 radio talk: “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” (David Smith quoted in exhibition catalogue, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy, 2011, p. 26).
With his mature works of the 1950s, such as Four Soldiers, Smith arrived at his own artistic apex—the first years of the 1950s marked the most radical period of the artist’s development, nearly two decades after he made his first steel sculptures. Working contemporaneously with the painters of the New York School of Abstract Expressionism, Smith parlayed his masterful proficiency with metal into a radical and invigorating approach to sculpture. Four Soldiers is abstract while still rooted in the experience of an earthly existence in both material and content, embodying Smith’s elegant command of a sculptural form whose references oscillate seamlessly between abstraction, Cubism, Surrealism, and even drawing.
AN APPRECIATION OF FOUR SOLDIERS
By Phyllis Tuchman
When David Smith gave up painting to become a sculptor during the early nineteen thirties, most of his new colleagues were still either carving or modeling their work. Not Smith. From the get go, he became a welder of metal constructions, a genre only recently introduced in Europe. As a trailblazer, the 27-year-old tried out a variety of ways to express himself with this new means of making art. Using different materials, including iron, steel, bronze, aluminum, wire, copper, and zinc, he covered all possible bases, creating tabletop-sized abstractions, eccentric figures, and pieces that combined aspects of abstraction and representation.
Born in Indiana during March 1906 and, as a teenager, raised in Ohio, Smith was too young to fight in World War I and with an essential civilian job at the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, excused from serving in World War II. But he always was conscious of the horrors and inequities of war. Sensitive to the dire on-going events in Europe, the artist, from 1939-40, interrupted the way he had been working to create a series of 15 Medals for Dishonor. Each of these bronze plaques and discs features multiple mini-narratives on such subjects as War Exempt Sons of the Rich, Propaganda for War, Munitions Makers, and Death by Gas.
Years later, Smith again momentarily changed gears to create several sculptures in response to the Korean War, which lasted from June 25, 1950 to July 27, 1953. Parallel 42, signed David Smith 2/26/1953 Arkansas—the state where he was teaching—once was described by Guggenheim Museum curator Edward F. Fry as a “macabre image of hanging and dissolution.” The title of this painted steel work that hangs from a ceiling refers to the border between North Korea and Manchuria. Though dating from 1951-52, no one ever seems to have connected The Hero, a painted steel construction, with current events, particularly a critical period during the Korean War when United Nations forces were being repelled by Chinese troops.
It’s a possibility worth considering.
Four Soldiers, from 1950-51, was exhibited at Bennington College during November 1951, and photographed near The Hero on a deck outside Smith’s studio at Bolton Landing during the winter of 1952. Welded from steel and stainless steel, the sculpture is about two feet high and five feet long, dimensions much larger than toy soldiers, which they call to mind. Made from long steel j bolts, turnbuckles, and other pieces of metal hardware, the four militiamen are a cross between stick figures and reptilian creatures. Their emotions range from defeat to elation; the way they hold their rifles expresses the state of their feelings. The work is an atypical Smith in that the artist rarely created works with four characters. But throughout his career he admired Mesopotamian reliefs and this sculpture appears to be a twentieth century interpretation of one of those massive wall carvings.
Before he began welding his steel construction, the sculptor, a master draftsman, covered a notebook page with preparatory ink sketches. He must have been pleased with the outcome. Personage Seeking Australia (1952) and Tank Totems III and IV (1953) are slightly later, larger, as spindly, and more abstract versions of Four Soldiers. They foretell the rest of David Smith’s career.
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