The great American modern art critic Clement Greenberg grandly described David Smith simply as “the best sculptor anywhere”. Although David Smith never came to Australia, his influence on Melbourne’s sculpture can be seen in several public sculptures. There are works by Dan Wollmering, Anthony Pryor and Geoffrey Bartlett that are clearly influenced by Smith.
Smith had a massive influence on Australian sculpture, a tidal wave of American mid-century modern rolling across the Pacific Ocean. He helped change sculpture’s format from the vertical portrait to the horizontal landscape; Henry Moore’s abstracted figurative sculptures of mothers were already reclining in that direction. He also changed the basic structure of sculpture from a solid core to an extended form, which he created in space and steel. And the source of inspiration from an external model, illustrating the civic consciousness, to the sculptor’s unconscious, connected to the collective unconscious.
You can see Smith’s influence in Geoffrey Bartlett’s sculpture at RMIT (on the right). It almost quotes Smith’s Hudson River Landscape, 1951 (on the left). It is part of an early series of sculptures and similar to his sculpture that used to be in the NGV’s moat. It is a framed landscape that contains a gravity-defying dynamism. A tension and stored energy in the collection of forms attached to rods that suggest pivot, pitch and spring. I always expect Bartlett’s early sculptures to do something.
Smith wrote clear and concise statements about sculpture. “I start with one part, then a unit of parts, until a whole sculpture appears.” (David Smith “Notes on My Work” Arts, Feb 1960 Special David Smith Issue)
This could be the instructions for Dan Wollmering’s Xanthe 1988. It is sited in a garden outside the white neo-classical Glen Eira City Hall (in Caulfield at the corner of Glen Eira and Hawthorn Roads). An energetic 3.5-metre metal sculpture with its curving and angular forms frames the spaces between its metal form. One part responding to next part like a guitar solo.
It is entirely modernist, not only influenced by Smith but the blue edges and white planes colours reference to the Cubist works of Fernand Léger. Xanthe was a brave choice for Caulfield City Council, with the controversy over Ron Robertson-Swann’s Vault still hanging over local commissions of modern public sculpture.
Vault is another example of Smith’s influence. Even though it has the metal planes and colourful skin of Anthony Caro’s sculptures. For Smith’s influence din’t just roll west; it spread across the Atlantic too. He influenced British sculptors like Anthony Caro and generations of English (and Australian) artists through him.
If there was an Abstract Expressionist version of the Village People (an ugly, alcoholic version of the disco ensemble), David Smith would be the construction worker (both shared the same moustache). (Jackson Pollock the cowboy, and you can fill out the rest.) For there is the macho energy of Smith’s background as a car and tank fabricator in his welded metal sculptures. And like disco, it is a style from the last century.
Will David Smith continue to be an influence on Melbourne sculpture?