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Smith, David Forging IV, 1955


Roland David Smith, who was born in Decatur, in Adams County, Indiana, became one of the most influential sculptors of the 20th century. He began showing signs of artistic talent at Paulding High School in Ohio. He attended the Art Students League in New York City and began his artistic career as a painter. He and his first wife, artist Dorothy Dehner, lived in Brooklyn, but also had a farm in Bolton Landing, New York, which they bought in 1929. It was on the farm in 1932 that Smith, using a gas-powered welding torch, welded together discarded metal parts to create a new kind of sculpture. When in Brooklyn, Smith worked at the Brooklyn Navy Pier inside a Terminal Iron Works shed.

During World War II, Smith studied welding at a government-run school in Warrensburg, New York, and then moved to Schenectady to work at the American Locomotive factory assembling tanks and locomotives. During this time he became a certified welder and joined the United Steelworkers of America union. In 1950 and 1951, Smith received two Solomon R. Guggenheim grants that enabled him to concentrate on his art. During one of the most productive periods of his career, he created more than 22 sculptures, which he referred to as “drawings in space.” Between 1948 and 1955, Smith taught at several colleges and universities: Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, New York, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, and Indiana University in Bloomington. Because few of his sculptures sold in his lifetime, Smith began placing them in the fields surrounding his home in Bolton Landing. This outdoor sculpture park still stands today.

Smith died from injuries sustained in a car crash.

  • Forging IV, 1955
  • 82″ x 8 1/4″ x 8″
  • Estate of David Smith
  • Keywords: sculpture, forging (metal forming), varnished steel
  • Subjects: abstract

In a remarkable burst of creative activity, David Smith made 11 sculptures in 1955, which he called his “Forging” series. The title refers to the method Smith used to produce the works and shows the close relationship between the materials and techniques the artist used and the final work of art created. According to the Tate Museum, “They were the first of his works to be made entirely from stainless steel and are among the most reductive and most insistently vertical of his sculptures. They were produced using a power-driven forge hammer in the workshops of the steel fabricators, Seward & Company,” in Bloomington, Indiana. The “Forgings” series was done when Smith was on the faculty at Indiana University.

In Crossroads of American Sculpture, Holliday T. Day noted, “The Forging series was about the painted, gestural line rather then the line of a pen or pencil. Like a rapidly made brushstroke of paint, the outcome of any one of the Forging sculptures was not entirely predictable. He placed a metal plug in a previously drilled hole in a hot steel bar and then used the trip hammer to pound the plug into the hole. The pressure sent the sides of the bar outward into the area around the hole, much as a brush would splay out from pressure the hand applied to the brush.” The sculptures appear like lines drawn in three-dimensional space.

Some Points To Consider

  • After students look at Forging IV, ask them if they agree that Smith’s sculpture is a “drawing in space.” Ask them to describe the kind of line used by Smith in his sculpture. (Art 4.3.1)
  • Ask students: Is Smith’s art made to imitate, decorate, or express his ideas? Do you think that he would have chosen another philosophy for making art if he had not learned to weld in an automobile factory? (Art 4.3.1, 4.4.1)