For a working-class industrial area, North Brooklyn has played an outsized influence on American sculpture. The great Western artist Fredrick Remington cast many of his iconic western sculptures at the Roman Bronze works on Green Street in Greenpoint.
The famous Wall Street Bull and the Iwo Jima Memorial were also cast on India Street at the Bedi-Makki Art Foundry. As if those two accomplishments were not enough, there is still more. One of the giants of abstract metal sculpture, and one of the greatest American sculptors ever, David Smith, lived in Williamsburg and mastered his technique on a pier in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
He was born in Indiana in 1906. Perhaps, metal was in his blood. He was, ironically, the great-grandson of a blacksmith, and the artist even as a child had a fascination for heavy industry saying, “we used to play on trains and around factories. I played there just as I played in nature, on hills and creeks.”
Smith attended college for a year, but dropped out in 1925, to work at the Studebaker automobile factory in South Bend, Indiana where Smith learned soldering and spot-welding techniques that he would later use to create his sculptures.
Smith came to New York City in 1926 and he soon met his first wife, the sculptor Dorothy Dehner. Smith enrolled in The Art Students League, where he studied painting and drawing over the next five years. Smith and Dehner settled in North Brooklyn because as artists they could not afford to live in Manhattan.
Though Smith never received formal sculptural training, one of the instructors at the Art Students League, Jan Matulka, encouraged him to start adding three-dimensional elements to his paintings. Matulka also introduced Smith to the abstract art of innovators such as Picasso and Kandinsky.
Smith was on the verge of an artistic revolution at the start of the 1930s. Wanting to master metal work, he set up his workshop in the Brooklyn Navy Pier in New York in 1933, sharing the space not with artists, but with professional welders and others who worked with metals.
At that time, most sculptors worked in a bronze foundry, a marble quarry or a conventional studio. At the Navy pier, Smith mastered the technical aspects of cutting and welding different kinds of metal. In the unlikeliest of places, Smith became the first American artist to make welded metal sculpture.
In 1940, he left Brooklyn for Bolton’s Landing, a rural community in the Adirondack Mountains. When World War II broke out, Smith worked in a factory welding metal used in tanks and locomotives, but when not working he kept tinkering and refining his artistic vision.
After the war, Smith experienced a vibrant period of great productivity that was completely unique. Whereas previously, metal sculpture meant using bronze casts, shaped by molds. Smith, avoided casts, welding together pieces of steel and other metals with an oxyacetylene torch, almost in the way a painter applied paint to a canvas. The results were historic and a new artistic medium was born.
Smith saw himself as a painter and stressed that a sculptor was merely adding a third dimension to a painting and that sculptors could be as free in their selection of subjects as painters. Thus, he sculpted subjects other sculptors had almost never dared to dream of including landscape, still life and even a written page.
One of the Cubi Series 1963 courtesy of M.O.M.A.
With a growing reputation, Smith received prestigious fellowships and university positions. He became the first to burnish metal sculptures into unique pieces of art and was one of the first to use spray paint in art. Smith died at age 59 in a traffic accident.
Fire Place Series Created in Brooklyn by Smith in 1939 courtesy of M.O.M.A
Today, he is perhaps most famous for the Cubis, which were among the last pieces he completed before his death. The sculptures in this series are made of stainless steel with a hand-brushed finish similar to the paint strokes used in Abstract Expressionist painting. Smiths’ sculptures are displayed in M.O.M.A and the Guggenheim, and in other museums around the country and the world.