Although the sculptures themselves feel slightly out of place in the galleries, as if they have been dragged from secret gardens to be examined, somewhat to their discomfort, under artificial and excoriating light, in the photographs they feel as at home among the mountains and the trees as Saint Francis among his birds. Sharp camera angles and tricks of perspective make them seem larger than life, yet elemental parts of the landscape, not detached from it.
Smith spoke of allowing his material to determine its own form, of waiting and watching until a truckload of metal began to suggest the right connections to him. "Sculpture can come from the found discards in nature, from sticks and stones and parts and pieces," he wrote, as if it was the artist's job not to forge those connections, but detect and enact them.
It's too easy to fit Guston into the role of the urban painter, preoccupied with history, himself and his relation to other painters, and Smith into a more naive category, taking inspiration from nature, subordinating ego to materials and intimations from the natural world. But a powerful sense of gloom lifts as you move from the Guston rooms to the Smith ones.
Two of Smith's untitled, long vertical paintings, one from 1956 in which suggestions of Jackson Pollock shine forth from a ladderlike assemblage of forms, and another from 1958 in which blunt, Guston-like dark lines give form to a spray enamel surface, are some of the most exuberant objects in either show. Artists often talk nonsense about their work, but the sense of humility that Smith claimed in the presence of his metal contrasts sharply with the heavily worked, contained, over-constructed paintings of Guston's. And it translates, not surprisingly, into work that feels more free and expressive than anything in Guston's "lexicon" of cartoon glyphs.
Until, that is, you reach the last room of the exhibition, where two sculptural "paintings" by Smith suggest the same, tortured, over-manipulated material that defines Guston's work. One is made of plaster and oil paint and the other, which looks like something scraped off the floor of a lazy drip-painter's studio, is made of clay. Smith struggled to believe that there was fundamentally no difference between painting and sculpture, and here he made objects that proved he was wrong. By aiming at some place in between both forms, these hybrids fail entirely. And yet you're thankful that curator Susan Berhends Frank has included them in the show; without them, neither Smith's self-delusion, nor his remarkable accomplishment, would be entirely clear.
Smith once wrote of wanting to "push beauty to the very edge of rawness" and "shove it as far as possible towards that precious edge where beauty balances but does not topple over the edge of the vulgar." He knew how to get to that edge, and in at least a few cases, he pushed beyond it, with unfortunate results.
Where Smith occasionally strayed, Guston set up camp, for the last decade of his life. There are obvious and superficial reasons to examine their work together. They shared an historical era, witnessed the same decades of atrocity and social failure and explored similar ideals in their abstractions. Some of Smith's sculptures even have swipes of paint on them that superficially recall the pinks of so much of Guston's work.
But it is their differences that matter, especially their fundamental difference in temperament. Guston may have chosen what felt like freedom at the time, but it drew him only deeper into himself, into a personal hermeticism and despair. Smith died in car accident in 1965, a full five years before the first of Guston's Roma paintings. He was only 59, but it was easy to see a limitlessness in what he might have done. Guston died in 1980, still pursuing the intentional vulgarity he had invented in the late 1960s. If he had lived longer, perhaps the work would have become yet more biographical, more insular, more contained and built up and densely interconnected with other Guston paintings. But it's hard to imagine that he had any more revolutions in him.
Philip Guston, Roma; David Smith Invents Through May 15 at the Phillips Collection, 1600 21st St. NW. Call 202-387-2151 or visit phillipscollection.org.