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. Continue reading →
Long before Greenpoint had the shipbuilding, oil refining or sugar refining industries, ceramicists had established Greenpoint as America’s first ceramic capital and it is more than a little ironic that recently a number of New York’s best ceramic artists have decided to call the area home. These artists are reviving an art form with over a hundred and fifty years of local history.
There are in fact so many first-rate potters working locally that just to mention them all would require too much space. Visit galleries like Greenpoint Hill (Freeman St.) or Wilcoxson Brooklyn Ceramics (67 West St.) to acquaint yourself with just some of the many talented locals turning out a stunning variety of ceramic art pieces.
The great poet Walt Whitman was also a journalist and in August of 1857 he visited The American Porcelain Works on Freeman and West Street to profile Greenpoint porcelain production. The pottery there stood atop a hill that was later leveled, appropriately called Pottery Hill, on account of the number of local potters there.
Englishman Charles Cartlidge, who established the American Porcelain works there way back in 1848, came to Greenpoint from a family of potters in Staffordshire, the center of English pottery. The Englishman’s Greenpoint company manufactured tea sets, pitchers, busts, and other porcelain pieces, but the firm really excelled at porcelain busts of famous figures, sculpting busts of John Marshall, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, John Joseph Hughes, Roman Catholic Archbishop of New York, Senator Daniel Webster, and President Zachary Taylor. Cartlidge’s Greenpoint Pottery exhibited wares that won a “first premium” award at the Crystal Palace Exhibition in 1853 in New York. The firm, however, could not pay the bills and became bankrupt.
To survive local potters would need to find commercial uses for porcelain. The man who first set up an economically viable local pottery was Thomas Smith, whose stately home on Milton Street is now occupied by the Greenpoint Reformed Church. Smith, a successful builder, never trained as an artist or a potter, so his success as a ceramicist is all the more remarkable. Continue reading →