Review of David Smith: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Interviews | Leonardo/ISAST

Review of David Smith: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Interviews

David Smith: Collected Writings, Lectures, and Interviews
Susan J. Cooke, Editor

University of California Press, Los Angeles, CA, 2018
312 pp. illus., 11 b&w; 28 col.
Trade, $90.00; paper, $34.95
ISBN: 9780520291874;
ISBN: 9780520291881.

Reviewed by
Rob Harle
June 2018

It is both a treat and a privilege to be able to share the details of an artist’s life as revealed through the artist’s own words, this book affords us this pleasure.

Susan Cooke has done a marvellous job of editing this comprehensive volume of the Collected Writings, Lectures and Interviews of the brilliant, iconoclastic American sculptor, David Smith.

I could not put this book down, partly because Smith “tells it like it is”, and also because his – commitment to materials, passion for creating sculpture above all else, and his existential artistic authenticity – so closely paralleled my own sculpture practice over the years to the extent that at times it hurt! “Smith spoke of the artist’s identity. Smith defined identity as an inner confidence and certitude strengthened by constant struggle and a “defensive belligerence” to all externally imposed rules. It originated in the artist’s visual-perceptual responses to his [sic] immediate world and expressed itself through “eidetic” images” (p. 9).

Smith’s words throughout his lectures and personal musings shows him to be what most of us perceive as the archetypal traditional artist. It seems almost like there is a genetic predisposition to live a life with so many difficulties: seldom enough money for materials or rent, never enough hours in the day to fit everything in (including at times to eat), always at odds with a conservative society that covertly, or at times, overtly, attempts to suppress or destroy the artist. In the case of sculptors, the use of potentially dangerous materials, chemicals, and industrial working processes makes the job even more hazardous. As Smith says paradoxically in one of his lectures regarding the teaching of sculpture, “There is a need for art. The artist has a social obligation, as well as his own ego satisfaction to produce to the fullest extent of his ability. It is society’s duty to make the effort to understand before it takes an active prejudice. . . . “To the majority there is no need for art on the basis that creative art is produced. We live in a hypocritical world” (p. 110).

The book has a most informative and useful Introduction written by Cooke, then three major sections of Smith’s own writings; Thirties & Forties, Fifties, and Sixties. These are followed by a Chronology, and an excellent Index as would be expected in such a comprehensive research compendium as this. There is a smattering of illustrations, both colour and black and white, consisting of scans from Smith’s notebooks and sketchbooks together with a few photographs of his finished sculptures.

My one minor criticism of this book is the dearth of photographs of Smith’s finished sculptures. It would be helpful for readers and researchers to have these, particularly in situ major works, at hand rather than have to search for them elsewhere.

It will be of considerable interest to Leonardo supporters and associates to know that David Smith was lauding the symbiotic relationship of art, science, and technology way back in the 1940s! In his own words, “Art cannot be divorced from its time, place or science. It has never been dependent on but has always been related to science.” “In the creative sense art has been related to science, but the inverse is likewise true.” (p. 66) He then goes on to give examples of this relationship to support his statement.

David Smith was an eccentric, iconic figure in the art world of the early to mid 1900s, possibly never getting the full recognition he deserved, especially in his own lifetime, which incidentally ended tragically in a car crash. This book will go a long way in redressing this situation. I cannot recommend it highly enough to art students, researchers, art teachers and art historians. To the artist reader particularly, I will end this review with a poignant quote (from his NY. Skidmore College lectures 1947) which to me epitomises Smith the archetypal artist: “So, you the artist – if you are an inspired mind, if you feel you can express something that has not been expressed before, if you are willing to lay yourself open to opprobrium and tough sledding in a wealthy country with a narrow culture – be the artist – have the courage of conviction – for you will never be happy being anything else” (p. 67).