He's been called the Paul Bunyan of modern sculpture: David Smith was a 6'4" abstract expressionist with a reputation for brute strength. At home in the upstate-New York mountains, he welded some 200 sculptures in the last five years of his life.
This week, his works crowd the Mall.
The National Gallery uses its vast central spaces to give the sculpture a display similar to the fields of Bolton Landing farm near Lake George. The 63 works are grouped by series on all levels of the East Building.
A 21/2-ton "Wagon" leads the way to the oddly human "Sentinels," aloof standing figures keeping watch on the ground floor. The colored "Circle" series acknowledges the work of Smith's painter-colleagues; when aligned, they yield a Kenneth Noland target. On the concourse, burnished, hollow stainless-steel blocks from the "Cubi" series change sheen hourly. More "Cubis" upstairs mimic Smith's sculpture deck -- he was working on the series when he died.
Colorful "Zigs" (for ziggurats), on the mezzanine, are playful gigs with open curves and flat planes. And a hoedown of "Agricolas," made from discarded farm tools, leads to the upper level. ("Agricola I," an animated figure with a plowshare head, belongs to the Hirshhorn but is a parody of the National Gallery's bronze Mercury; it's at the top of the Gallery's shopping list come deaccession time, says curator E. A. Carmean Jr.)
The arena, built in 1978 for the opening exhibit of works made from an abandoned steel mill at Voltri, Italy, showcases Smith's jolting "Voltri-Bolton" series. Unpainted tongs, bars, handles, rims and discs form dynamic figures with strong personalities. It's the placement of the scraps, not their resemblance to body parts, that gives the sculptures character.
His quirky welded-metal figures are familiar, but who knew David Smith could paint and draw, too? It's a zoo in the Hirshhorn basement: 163 bizarre abstractions show the artist's talents as painter and draftsman. Surrealist creatures on the walls mirror the three-dimensional sculptures. Overlapping planes spray-painted on canvas recur as painted metalworks. Cello players, in oil and steel, are merged with their instruments in harmony with Smith's vision. The mixed media is the message: The unity of an idea stretches from sketches to steel and bronze.
Smith brought a sense of humor to bear on surrealism, cubism, abstraction and expressionism -- using discarded machine parts and a welding torch. "(My) only rules are that there be no rules," he wrote.
The Hirshhorn's show of 52 paintings, 44 drawings and 59 sculptures includes an easy-to-miss hanging sculpture obviously influenced by Calder's mobiles.
One of the show's largest pieces marks the midpoint between painting and sculpture. "Zig IV" from 1961 is steel, painted red- orange and chartreuse. It's grounded on a tilted plane -- a spray-painted collage taking off into space.
A display of sketchbooks, letters and photographs accompanies the works in the first showing of the David Smith papers, left by the artist who died at 59 in 1965. DAVID SMITH: PAINTER, SCULPTOR, DRAFTSMAN -- At the Hirshhorn, 163 works, through January 2. DAVID SMITH -- At the National Gallery of Art East Building, Sunday through April 24. SYMPOSIUM -- Saturday, 10:30 to 12:30 at the Hirshhorn auditorium and 2:30 to 4:30 at the National Gallery East Building auditorium. Free.