Critics have long noted the use of linear invention in Smith’s work which leads to tributes of his innate skill for “drawing in space”. As a sculptor, Smith’s predilection for painted and treated surfaces, often with a gestural expression akin to his abstract brethren on canvas, extended his use of two-dimensional practices in volumetric form, particularly in the series of Zigs, Wagons, Circles, and Primo Pianos. Along with the three Primo Pianos, Circle and Box, Oval Node and 2 Circle 2 Crows, all of 1962-1963, Untitled comprises a group of all-white painted sculptures that Smith particularly intended for outdoor installation. Famously, Clement Greenberg was taken to task for stripping five of the eight white sculptures during the time he was custodian of the artist’s estate, inciting a dispute with headlines that questioned “an aesthetic crime” (The Washington Post, September 22, 1974). All have been repainted under the supervision of the artist’s estate, returning them to Smith’s original intent as masterful statements of his genius for positive and negative space. In the spray paintings and drawings, Smith had placed metal geometric parts on the sheet or canvas while applying the pigment and in their removal he created a white negative space from the absence of the objects. In similar fashion, the cubist solidity of Untitled 1963 is pierced by several circles, providing the spectator with a myriad of views of the surrounding landscape as we ourselves circle around the sculpture. In a reversal of the Spray Paintings, Smith has here rendered the solid “positive” volume in white, while the woods, sky and fields of Bolton Landing provide the open “negative” and limitless space of Untitled 1963. In its relation to the landscape, Untitled 1963 is a thoughtful juxtaposition to the grand series of Cubi sculptures which also occupied Smith that same year. The reflective qualities of the polished stainless steel surface of the Cubis, burnished with almost painterly abandon, merged Smith’s most volumetrically forceful sculptures into the landscape, as light and imagery of sky and landscape created an optical synthesis which was the final development of his lifelong preoccupation with the possibilities of color in sculpture.
Aside from Smith’s innate love of the positive/negative duality of the “cut-out” aesthetic, another dominant theme present in Untitled is the singular emphasis on the circle. In its purity, ubiquitous presence and metaphorical possibilities, the circle was a central and indispensable motif in Smith’s aesthetic vocabulary. Not simply a geometric form, the circle holds connotations to both figurative and landscape elements that Smith employed masterfully in sculptural contexts. As such, Untitled 1963 exemplifies the apt presence of the circle as a unifying principle in Smith’s great installation of his sculpture throughout the Bolton Landing fields outside his studio. In its verticality and minimalist form, Untitled 1963 joins ranks with the anthropomorphic use of the circle in the marching Sentinels, elegant Tanktotems and robust Voltri sculptures in Smith’s canon of “series sculptures” for which he was justly famous. At the same time, in its illusions to landscape, Untitled 1963 harks back to the presence of the circle as nature in works such as the Surrealist Helmholtzian Landscape from 1946 and the linear masterpiece of the Hudson River Landscape from 1951. In his essay for the celebratory retrospective of Smith’s work in his centennial year of 2006, Paul Hayes Tucker writes of the poetic resonance of this elemental geometric form in Smith’s oeuvre: “The circle held special meaning for Smith …It is a perfect, utopian shape, unbroken, continuous, and eternal, something he yearned for in life as well as in art. It is the earth, the sun, the stars, the heavens, a symbol of nature to which he was devoted. It is the head, the stomach, the womb, the buttocks ….It is innocence and sophistication, youthfulness and maturity, suppleness and security.” (Paul Hayes Tucker, “Family Matters: David Smith’s Series Sculptures” in Exh. Cat., New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and travelling, David Smith: a Centennial, 2006, p. 80) Just as the swirling and reflective stainless steel of the Cubis allows light and nature to exist within the steel rather than on it, Smith’s white surface of Untitled 1963 balances an elegant, yet volumetric presence of solidity with open spaces and the expansiveness of nature. As a universal symbol, the circles that pierce and liberate the spatial potential of Untitled are the ultimate agency for this transformation.
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