David Roland Smith (1906–1965) By Thyssen, Esther T.
David Smith was the pre-eminent sculptor of the New York School. Best known for his iron and steel constructions, Smith created cohesive sets of sculptures, each organized around a particular system of forms, metaphors, and methods. He studied painting in New York with Czech modernist Jan Matulka (1890–1972), and later worked for the Works Progress Administration (WPA) sculpture division (1939). He learned most about the European avant-garde from the émigré intellectual John Graham (1886–1961), originally a friend of Smith’s wife Dorothy Dehner (American sculptor 1901–1994). Through Graham’s introductions, the couple met avant-garde artists in Europe during their travels there in 1935–1936. Smith considered the constructions of Julio Gonzalez and Pablo Picasso the forebears of his oeuvre. Smith sculpted found metal with the oxyacetylene torch and welded the cut shapes together. Planar parts are joined at angles to entrap space, or layered thinly to slice through space rather than to displace it. From the mid-1950s until his death in a car accident in 1965, Smith’s output was prolific and monumental, his process driven by his wartime experience as a machinist and metals fabricator. Smith defined a new status for American sculpture with origins in European modernism and American industry and production, and by the critical validation his oeuvre attained.