Oh, was I ever looking forward to seeing David Smith's work at the Whitney! I actually loved his early work best. Some of his sculpture looked like oriental calligraphy in metal; others like Paul Klee paintings in steel. I learned about him in college in the 60's and the whole time I schlogged through my art classes, it appealed to me that he had left Notre Dame after a year because they didn't have art courses. From there, he took a summer at an assembly line at an auto factory. Unlike other sculptors who had to cast a piece in bronze and then send it to a foundry, Smith learned to do everything himself.
In 1926, he married and came to New York City to study at The Arts Student League when it was really a happening place. John Sloane, Hans Hoffman, and Jan Matulka taught there. (Does anyone really get a start at the Art Students League anymore?) Matulka introduced Smith to the work of Picasso, Kandinsky, and the Russian Constructivists. John Graham introduced Smith personally to Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky, and De Kooning. Around that time, Smith discovered the welded sculptures of Picasso and Julio Gonzales. Once Smith saw his path, he couldn't stay in a studio in NYC anymore. He needed space.
In 1932 he moved to a farm in Bolton Landing (Lake George) and began large scale constructions and broke from the NY art scene. During WWll, besides teaching at Sarah Lawrence, he went to work for the American locomotive company assembling trains and tanks, which perfected his skills and allowed him to do whatever came into his mind.
So I get to the Whitney on 1/11/2011, armed with all my information and memories just in time to see David Smith's crated sculptures being wheeled out the front door. The wheels of a huge crate got stuck and no visitor could leave. A security guard took mercy on the grumbling crowd and let us out the side door. Smith's sculptures are on their way to the Wexner Arts Center in Akron, Ohio, where I'm not going to be.
Lessons learned: Go to a show you want to see as soon as it opens. Don't put it off. And still, David Smith's work is quite moving!