by David Smith: Writings & Lectures
of the Early Thirties
Tradition and Identity
Questions to Students
The QuestionWhat is Your Hope
of Smith's speeches, articles and other writings are collected in
Gray, Cleve, ed. David
Smith by David Smith. New York, Chicago, and San Francisco:
Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., 1968.
McCoy, Garnett, ed. David
Smith. New York and Washington: Praeger Publishers, Inc., 1973.
Écrits et discours: David Smith. [Writings and Lectures: David Smith]. Compilation and introductory essay by Susan J. Cooke; translations by Jeanne Bouniort, Simon Duran, Laurent Penisson, Delphine Perru and Christine Piot. Paris: École national supérieure des beaux-arts, 2007.
of the Early Thirties
following notes are from a note-and-sketchbook that Smith
kept c. 1952.
did not feel disownedonly ignored and much alone, with a vague
pressure from authority that art couldnt be made here. It
was a time of temporary expatriates, not that they made art more
in France but that they talked it, and when here were happier there;
and not that their concept was more avant than ours but they were
under its shadow there and we were in the windy openness here. Ideas
were sought as the end but the result often registered in purely
performance. Being far away, depending upon Cahiers dArt and the return of patriots often left us trying for the details
instead of the whole. I remember watching a painter, Gorky, work
over an area edge probably a hundred times to reach an infinite
without changing the rest of the picture, following Grahams
recount of the import put in Paris on the edge of paint.
We all grasped on everything new, and despite the atmosphere of
New York worked on everything but our own identities. I make exceptions
for Graham and Davis, especially Davis, who though at his least
recognized or exhibited stage was the solid citizen for a group
a bit younger who were trying to find their stride. Matulka had
a small school on Fourteenth Street but maintained a rather secluded
seriousness painting away on Eighty-ninth Street East, as he still
does. [Joseph] Stella often was around Romany Maries but I
did not think his work matched the monopoly discourse he preferred.
Xceron was back and forth between Paris and New York, and in Paris
wrote art criticism for several American papers.
Our hangouts were Stewarts Cafeteria on Seventh Avenue near
Fourteenth Street close to Daviss studio and school, and 5¢
coffee was much closer to our standards, but on occasion we went
to the Dutchmans, McSorleys and Romany Maries.
We followed Romany Marie from Eighth Street, where Gorky once gave
a chalk talk on Cubism, to several other locations. Her place came
closer to being a Continental café with its varied types
of professionals than any other place I knew. It was in Maries
where we once formed a group, Graham, Edgar Levy, Resnikoff, de
Kooning, Gorky and myself with Davis being asked to join. This was
short-lived. We never exhibited and we lasted in union about thirty
days. Our only action was to notify the Whitney Museum that we were
a group and would only exhibit in the 1935 abstract show if all
were asked. Some of us were, some exhibited, some didnt, and
that ended our group. But we were all what was then termed abstractionists.
following speech was given on April 17, 1959, at Ohio University
in Athens, Ohio, which Smith attended for a year in 1924-25.
I lived and studied in Ohio, I had a very vague sense of what art
was. Everyone I knew who used the reverent word was almost as unsure
Mostly art was reproductions,
from far away, from an age past and from some golden shore, certainly
from no place like the mud banks of the Auglaze or the Maumee, and
there didnt seem much chance that it could come from Paulding
Genuine oil painting was
some highly cultivated act that came like the silver spoon, born
from years of slow method, applied drawing, watercoloring, designing,
art structure, requiring special equipment of an almost secret nature,
that could only be found in Paris or possibly New York, and when
I got to New York and Paris I found that painting was made with
anything at hand, building board, raw canvas, self-primed canvas,
with or without brushes, on the easel, on the floor, on the wall,
no rules, no secret equipment, no anything, except the conviction
of the artist, his challenge to the world and his own identity.
Discarding the old methods
and equipment will not of course make art. It has only been a symbol
in creative freedom from the bondage of tradition and outside authority.
Sculpture was even farther
away. Modeling clay was a mystic mess which cam from afar. How sculpture
got into metal was so complex that it could be done only in Paris.
The person who made sculpture was someone else, an ethereal poetic
character divinely sent, who was scholar, aesthetician, philosopher,
Continental gentlemen so sensitive he could unlock the crying vision
from a log or a Galatea from a piece of imported marble.
I now know that sculpture
is made from rough externals by rough characters or men who have
passed through all polish and are back to the rough again.
The mystic modeling clay
in only Ohio mud, the tools are at hand in garages and factories.
Casting can be achieved in almost every town. Visions are from the
imaginative mind, sculpture can come from the found discards in
nature, from sticks and stones and parts and pieces, assembled or
monolithic, solid form, open form, lines of form, or, like a painting,
the illusion of form. And sculpture can be painting and painting
can be sculpture and no authority can overrule the artist in his
declaration. Not even the philosopher, the aesthetician, or the
I have spoken against
tradition, but only the tradition of others who would hold art from
moving forward. Tradition holding us to the perfection of others.
In this context tradition can only say what art was, not what art
is. Tradition comes wrapped in word pictures; these are traps which
lead laymen into cliché thinking. This leads to analogy and
comparative evaluation and conclusion, especially in the hands of
historians. Where conclusions are felt, the understanding of art
has been hampered and the innovations of the contemporary scene
are often damned.
Art has its tradition,
but it is a visual heritage. The artists language is the memory
from sight. Art is made from dreams, and visions, and things not
known, and least of all from things that can be said. It comes from
the inside of who you are when you face yourself. It is an inner
declaration of purpose, it is a factor which determines artist identity.
The nature to which we
all refer in the history of art is still with us, although something
changed; it is no longer anecdote or robed and blind-folded virtue,
the bowl of fruit, or that very abstract reference called realistic;
it is very often the simple subject called the artist. Identifying
himself as the artist, he becomes his own subject as one of the
elements in nature. He no longer dissects it, nor moralizes upon
it; he is its part. The outside world of nature is equal, without
accent, unquestioning. He is an element in the atmosphere called
nature, his reference to nature is more like primitive man addressing
it as thou and not it. Aura and association,
all the parts into the whole expression, all actions in an emotional
flow, manifest the artist as subject, a new position for the artist
but natural to his time. Words become difficult, they can do little
in explaining a work of art, let alone the position of the artist
in the creative irrational flow of power and force which underlies
the position and conception. Possibly I can explain my own procedure
more easily. When I begin a sculpture Im not always sure how
it is going to end. In a way it has a relationship to the work before,
it is in continuity with the previous workit often holds a
promise or a gesture toward the one to follow.
I do not often follow
its path from a previously conceived drawing. If I have a strong
feeling about its start, I do not need to know its end; the battle
for solution is the most important. If the end of the work seems
too complete and final, posing no question, I am apt to work back
from the end, that in its finality it poses a question and not a
Sometimes when I start
a sculpture I begin with only a realized part; the rest is travel
to be unfolded, much in the order of a dream.
The conflict for realization
is what makes art, not its certainty, its technique, or material.
I do not look for total success. If a part is successful, the rest
clumsy or incomplete, I can still call it finished, if Ive
said anything new, by finding any relationship which I might call
I will not change an error
if it feels right, for the error is more human than perfection.
I do not seek answers. I havent named this work nor thought
where it would go. I havent thought what it is for, except
that it is made to be seen. Ive made it because it comes closer
to saying who I am than any other method I can use. This work is
my identity. There were no words in my mind during its creation,
and Im certain words are not needed in its seeing; and why
should you expect understanding when I do not? That is the marvelto
question but not to understanding. Seeing is the true language of
perception. Understanding is for words. As far as I am concerned,
after Ive made the work, Ive said everything I can say.
following series of questions appears in an undated typescript
among the David Smith Papers. It was probably written about 1953-54.
Do you make art your life, that which always comes first
and occupies every moment, the last problem before sleep
and the first awaking vision?
2. Do all the things you like or do amplify and enjoin the
progress of art vision and art making?
3. Are you a balanced person with many interests and diversions?
4. Do you seek the culture of many aspects, with the middle-class
aspiration of being well-rounded and informed?
5. How do you spend your time? More talking about art than
making it? How do you spend your money? On art materials
firstor do you start to pinch here?
6. How much of the work day or the work week do you devote
to your professionthat which will be your identity
7. Will you be an amateura professionalor is
it the total life?
8. Do you think the artist has an obligation to anyone but
9. Do you think his contemporary position is unique or traditional?
10. Do you think art can be something it was before? Can
you challenge the ancients?
11. Have you examined the echoes of childhood and first
learning, which may have once given you the solutions? Are
any of these expectancies still operating on your choices?
12. Do you hold with these, or have you recognized them?
Have you contradicted them or have you made metaphoric transposition?
13. Do you examine and weigh the art statements of fellow
artists, teachers, authorities before they become involved
in your own working tenets?
14. Or do the useful ideas place themselves in a working
niche of your consciousness and the others go off unheard?
15. Do you think you owe your teachers anything, or Picasso
or Matisse or Brancusi or Mondrian or Kandinsky?
16. Do you think you work should be aggressive? Do you think
this an attribute? Can it be developed?
17. Do you think your work should hold within tradition?
18. Do you think that your own time and now is the greatest
in the history of art, or do you excuse your own lack of
full devotion with the half belief that some other time
would have been better for you to make art?
19. Do you recognize any points of attainment? Do they change?
Is there a final goal?
20. In the secret dreams of attainment have you faced each
dream for its value on your own basis, or do you harbor
inherited inspirations of the bourgeoisie or those of false
history or those of critics?
21. Why do you hesitate--why can you not draw objects as
freely as you can write their names and speak words about
22. What has caused this mental block? If you can name,
dream, recall vision and auras why cant you draw them?
In the conscious set of drawing, who is acting in our unconscious
23. In the conceptual direction, are you aiming for the
successful work? (To define success I mean the culminating
point of many efforts.)
24. Do you aim for a style with a recognizable visual vocabulary?
25. Do you polish up the work beyond its bare aesthetic
26. Do you add ingratiating elements beyond the raw aesthetic
27. If you add ingratiating elements, where is the line
which keeps the work from being your own?
28. Are you afraid of rawness, for rawness and harshness
are basic forms of U.S. nature, and origins are both raw
and vulgar at their time of creation?
29. Will you understand and accept yourself as the subject
for creative work, or will your effort go toward adapting
your expression to verbal philosophies by non-artists?
30. If you could, would you throw over the present values
of harmony and tradition?
31. Do you trust your first response, or do you go back
and equivocate consciously? Do you believe that the freshness
of first response can be developed and sustained as a working
32. Are you saddled with nature propaganda?
33. Are you afraid to exercise vision, seek surprise?
34. When you accept the identification of artist do you
acknowledge that you are issuing a world challenge in your
35. Are you afraid to work from your own experience without
leaning on the crutches of subject and the rational?
36. Or do you think that you are unworthy or that your life
has not been dramatic enough or your understanding not classic
enough, or do you think that art comes from Mount Parnassus
or France or from an elite level beyond you?
37. Do you assert yourself and work in sizes comparable
to your physical size or your aesthetic challenge or imagination?
38. Is that size easel-size or table-size or room-size or
a challenge to nature?
39. Do you think museums are your friend and do you think
they will be interested in your work?
40. Do you think you will ever make a living from museums?
41. Do you think commercial art, architectural art, religious
art offer any solution in the maturing of your concepts?
42. How long will you work before you work with the confidence
which says, What I do is art?
43. Do you ever feel that you dont know where to go
in your work, that the challenge is beyond immediate solution?
44. Do you think acclaim can help you? Can you trust it,
for you know in your secret self how far short of attainment
you always are? Can you trust any acclaim any farther than
adverse criticism? Should either have any effect upon you
as an artist?
In particular, to the painter
Is there as much art in a drawing as in a watercolor--or
as in an oil painting?
Do you think drawing is a complete and valid approach to
art vision, or a preliminary only toward a more noble product?
to the sculptor
If a drawing is
traced, even with the greatest precision, from another drawing,
you will perceive that the one is a copy. Although the differences
may deviate less than half a hair, recognizable only by
perceptual sensitivity, unanimously we rule the work of
the intruders hand as non-art.
But where is the
line of true artwhen the sculptors process often
introduces the hands of a plaster caster, the mold maker,
the grinder and the polisher, and the patina applier, all
these processes and foreign hands intruding deviations upon
what was once the original work?
QuestionWhat is Your Hope
version, Smith notebook 28 (c. 1940s) final version c. 1950
would like to make sculpture that would rise from
water and tower in the air
that carried conviction and vision that had not
that rose from a natural pool of clear water
to sandy shores with rocks and plants
that men could view as natural without reverence or awe
but to whom such things were natural because they were
statements of peaceful pursuitand joined in the
phenomenon of life
Emerging from unpolluted water at which men could bathe
and animals drinkthat
harboured fish and clams and all things natural to it
I dont want to repeat the accepted fact,
moralize or praise the past or sell a product
I want sculpture to show the wonder of man, that flowing
rocks, clouds, vegetation, have for the man in peace who
glories in existence
this sculpture will not be the mystical abode
of power of wealth of religion
Its existence will be its statement
It will not be a scorned ornament on a money changers
or a house of fear
It will not be a tower of elevators and plumbing with every
room rented, deductions, taxes, allowing for depreciation
amortization yielding a percentage in dividends
It will say that in peace we have time
that a man has vision, has been fed, has worked
it will not incite greed or war
That hands and minds and tools and material made a symbol
to the elevation of vision
It will not be a pyramid to hide a royal corpse from pillage
It has no roof to be supported by burdened maidens
It has no bells to beat the heads of sinners
or clap the traps of hypocrites, no benediction
falls from its lights, no fears from its shadow
this vision cannot be of a single mind a single concept,
it is a small tooth in the gear of man,
it was the wish incision in a cave,
the devotion of a stone hewer at Memphis
the hope of a Congo hunter
It may be a sculpture to hold in the hand
that will not seek to outdo by bulky grandeur
which to each man, one at a time, offers a marvel of
close communion, a symbol which answers to the holders
correlates the forms of woman and nature, stimulates the
recall sense of pleasurable emotion, that momentarily
rewards for the battle of being