The Letter, 1950. Welded steel, 37.5 x 25 x 12 in. Courtesy the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, where “David Smith: A Centennial” is on view from February 3 through May 14, photo: David Revette Photography, Inc., Syracuse, NY.

David Smith: Freedom and Myth

David Smith is one of American art’s great apostles of freedom. He spoke about it, wrote about it, and embodied it in his life and art. He refused to be confined by rules or any other boundaries, did not let anyone else dictate to him what was aesthetically acceptable, was ever-alert to unorthodox materials and new ways of working. Are his Sprays—in which he placed found objects intact or in scraps on paper and sprayed enamel paint over and around them—drawings or paintings? What about his almost shockingly unrestrained sexualized line drawings of female nudes—made by squirting enamel onto canvas with an ear syringe— which in 1964 Smith exhibited together with his pristine stainless steel Cubis? Not only did Smith work most of his sculptural surfaces but he handled them in unexpected ways: the Cubis are burnished; Wagon I (1964) has the thick slick sheen of car hoods; other steel surfaces are coated with softer brushy or scumbled gestures that suggest Abstract Expressionist paintings. Smith kept his options open. He made it clear that he would do what he wanted and could not be owned.