- The Washington Times - Friday, March 3, 2006

To enter the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s softly lit “David Smith: A Centennial” at nightfall is to experience an apotheosis.Light magically streams from Frank Lloyd Wright’s approximately 100-foot-high glass dome, enveloping the ground-floor rotunda where Smith’s “Hudson River Landscape” (1951), “Australia” (1951) and “Cubi I, 1963” are located.

With 104 sculptures, 52 framed drawings and eight drawings-filled notebooks, it’s the first Smith retrospective since the joint venture of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden and the National Gallery of Art in 1983.

Yet the show purposely narrows its scope by focusing on the crucial ties between the sculptures and drawings and the significance of the 1930s experiments with cubism.

In the eminently readable exhibit catalog, curator Carmen Gimenez writes that “Smith’s drawings not only complement the sculptures, but rather fuse with the sculpture in a way that makes the two inseparable.”

She sees Mr. Smith (1906-1965), a former Indianapolis assembly line welder, at his most innovative in the 1920s when, as she puts it, “he drew with space” — as when he translated Julio Gonzalez’s and Pablo Picasso’s new, abstract network of welded metal forms into his own distinct sculptural language. Mr. Smith used his familiar industrial welded sheets and rods of metal to organize forms around empty space — a revolutionary approach in the United States at the time.

Consider the museum rotunda’s “Australia” and “Hudson River Landscape,” two of Mr. Smith’s greatest sculptures that define space with a variety of calligraphic lines. Mr. Smith opens up “Landscape” with geometrized rectangles, squiggles and circles that race around a central void. By contrast, he explodes metal calligraphies in “Australia,” a piece that threatens to jump off its cinder-block base.

The sculptor treats line differently in the rotunda’s shining stainless steel “Cubi I, 1963.” Mr. Smith burnished the “Cubi” surfaces with steel wool and power grinders reminiscent of Japanese calligraphic tensions and Jackson Pollock-like skeins.

In addition to the variety of the lines, the works are different in size, too. Miss Gimenez gathered works ranging from tabletop sculptures to room-sized ones. She first pulls visitors up the physically challenging ramps to the smallish, 1930s sculptures where Mr. Smith worked out his European cubist and constructivist influences.

She next presents Mr. Smith’s leap toward the larger, 1940s to early 1950s surrealist, linear and volumetric steel sculptures such as the “Landscape” series, famous “Star Cage,” playfully prehistoric “Jurassic Bird,” and the “Agricola” series, with their more abstract linear spatial weavings.

Drawings, displayed in an auxiliary room, also become more realized and resolute. For example, some relate directly to the aggressive African-and-primitive-art-inspired “Tanktotem” series, and determinedly vertical “Forging” series and “Sentinel” series.

Others are delicate ink-wash-and-pastel studies for “Australia” (perhaps from Australian aboriginal drawings). Still others are sympathetic studies for the more rectilinear “Landscape” series.

They’re one of the show’s great pleasures and could have been juxtaposed with some sculptures along the ramps. It’s unfortunate that Miss Gimenez chose not to juxtapose Mr. Smith’s sculptures and the studies. And with space constrictions, the curator, unfortunately, had to display the rest of the very large “Cubi,” “Voltri” and “Voltri-Bolton” series in auxiliary galleries.

The 6-foot-plus Paul Bunyan-like artist deserves this kind of showing with a major reservation: The role of artist Dorothy Dehner, his first wife, is scarcely mentioned. They had met at New York’s Art Students League and married in 1927. Her $2,000-yearly family stipend enabled them to absorb Europe’s older — Greek and Sumerian — cultures and newer cubist and surrealist styles, according to the catalog “Dorothy Dehner and David Smith: Their decades of search and fulfillment,” organized by Joan Marter.

Those years, impossible without Miss Dehner’s funds, directly led to Mr. Smith’s seminal 1930s cubist-derived works, one of the exhibit’s highpoints.

While the exhibit isn’t perfect, it’s a landmark show worth seeing. Catch it before it leaves for London and Paris.

WHAT: “David Smith: A Centennial”

WHERE: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 1071 Fifth Ave., at 89th Street, New York

WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. Saturdays through Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Fridays, closed Thursdays, through May 14

TICKETS: $18 for adults (2-for-price-of-1 Fridays); $15 for students and seniors 65 and older; and free for children younger than 12.

PHONE: 212/423-3500

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