Storm King has one of the most significant institutional holdings of David Smith’s works. Of the fourteen important sculptures among the holdings, all but one entered the collection soon after Storm King’s co-founder Ralph E. Ogden visited Smith’s home and studio at Bolton Landing, New York, in 1967, two years after the artist’s death. Ogden was struck by the outdoor installation of sculpture, which Smith had devised during his lifetime, and acquired thirteen works. Several are on permanent display just outside the Museum Building, while five, too fragile for the outdoors, are on view inside. The acquisition of Smith’s works was instrumental in shifting Storm King’s primary mission, leading Ogden to focus his collecting efforts specifically on outdoor sculpture.
The Sitting Printer, one of the earliest sculptures by Smith in Storm King’s collection, is assembled from cast-bronze elements, including an old printer’s box and a stool. Smith found these objects in another artist’s studio that he used while teaching at the University of Indiana, Bloomington, in the fall of 1954. As Smith later recounted the experience: “I had to take another sculptor’s studio…. It was a hell of a mess when I walked in there, and I didn’t know what to do, so I started picking up things that he had left behind. This is the top of a broken stool … this is the center part of a chair…. The first thing I did was to make a sculpture out of them.” The sculpture forms a human-like figure, its elements suggesting body parts.
Inspired by a drawing of a mother and child, Study in Arcs metamorphosed into a less specific image as it took form. Comprised of nine long and two short arcs of steel gathered from Smith’s stockpile and welded together, the sculpture resembles a drawing in space, its sweeping lines analogous to dance or flight. Study in Arcs was composed on the artist’s studio floor, then raised up, its flat arrangement projected into three dimensions with the addition of extending arcs. The sculpture’s pale pink color contrasts boldly with its natural surroundings, while simultaneously its ample negative space integrates the outside world into the work, making it vital to the whole.
The witty Personage of May originated with a hoe and part of a truck fender, which Smith coated with plaster, subtly modifying the original objects’ found forms. The “spine” of Personage of May is a shovel that Smith also covered with plaster, accentuating its long handle, making it longer and thicker. Impressed “eyebrows” on the spade make it look like a face, and the smoothed truck fenders resemble a cape. Casting the assemblage in bronze unified the surface. Smith characterized this work as “sweet,” fondly referring to it as “shovel head.”
Becca is simultaneously abstract and an embodiment of its subject. It creatively depicts the buoyant energy of Smith’s daughter Rebecca, who was ten years old at the time it was made. Becca’s elements are welded together, a process in which pieces of steel are fused by being pressed together and heated with a blowtorch or other tool until reaching a melting temperature. Smith was considered a master of fine-art welding, and legions of artists have cited his influence on their work. The steel rods that compose this work are analogous to the thick brushstrokes of Abstract Expressionist paintings that other artists were creating in this era.
XI Books III Apples is constructed largely of pre-cut stainless steel pieces that Smith ordered from a Ryerson Steel mail-order catalogue then welded together. Its surface is etched into with a circular sander, which creates a brushstrokes effect—a series of arcs reflecting light to form a visual “painting” without applied color. Smith anticipated that the piece, when set outdoors, would reflect the world around it and change with the light and seasons.
In 1960, Smith noted that he preferred all of his stainless steel pieces to be viewed outdoors: “They are conceived for bright light, preferably the sun, to develop the illusion of surface and depth…. Stainless steel seems dead without light.” Smith also recognized the extraordinary physical challenge of working with steel, whose “physical laws … do not permit the flow of realization as easily as most painting materials.” Sculpture, he observed, “demand[s] more premeditation and conviction, [more] assurance … than when the same form is indicated by paint or line on the plane surface.”