|Joan Pachner provided the following article. Publishing copyright by © Joan Pachner.
Sculptor David Smith
Adirondack Life, vol. 38, no. 3 (May/June 2006), pp. 80-85, 92-93.
The ironworks in Brooklyn was surrounded by all night activity—ships loading—barges refueling— ferries tied up at the dock. It was awake 24 hours a day.… In contrast the mountains are quiet except for occasional animal noises. Sometimes Streevers' hounds run foxes all night and I can hear them baying as I close up shop. Rarely does a car pass at night, there is no habitation between our road and the Schroon River 4 miles cross country. I enjoy the phenomenon of nature, the sounds, the Northern lights, stars, animal calls, as I did the harbor lights, tugboat whistles, buoy clanks, the yelling of men on barges around the T.I.W. in Brooklyn. I sit up here and dream of the city as I used to dream of the mountains when I sat on the dock in Brooklyn.
I like my solitude, black coffee and day dreams. I like the changes of nature, no two days or nights are the same. In Brooklyn what was nature was all man made and mechanical but I like both….
I like my solitude... I like the changes of nature, no two days or nights are the same. In Brooklyn what was nature was all man made and mechanical, but I like both...
—David Smith, 1951
David Smith, the leading sculptor and artist of his generation, called Bolton Landing home for more than twenty-five years, from 1940 until his death in May 1965. This tall, barrel-chested man, usually wearing steel-toed factory boots, was the only artist whom most people there knew; he was accepted as one of their own, although the locals were generally wary of his leftist political views. His favorite haunts were Bill Gates Diner, where he went almost every day for coffee, and Alex’s Restaurant, where he would savor a beer and owner Mary Drooby’s legendary apple pie. Today you can still meet former waitresses and who remember him fondly. He even ran for Justice of the Peace in the 1949.
Smith was born in Decatur, Indiana and came to New York City when he was twenty years old. Intending to be an artist, he began studying at the Arts Students League and supported himself with an array of jobs. He married the artist Dorothy Dehner in 1927 and settled in Brooklyn. They first visited Bolton Landing for a month in the summer of 1929 and, taken with the Adirondack’s rugged beauty, decided to buy the Old Fox Farm, more than sixty-four acres, for three thousand dollars, just two months before the stock market crashed The grounds had a dilapidated wood-frame saltbox built in the 1820s, plus a woodshed and barn. Their new treasure had neither electricity nor indoor plumbing, and the well often ran dry.
Around the house were fields, which had been clear-cut long ago; for additional income, Smith sometimes rented out this pasture to local farmers as grazing land. Only a few other families lived on Edgecomb Pond Road, about three miles from the shores of Lake George, including one across the road and another about a half-mile away. Smith and Dehner usually drove to shop for groceries at the A&P in Glens Falls, where there was also a movie theater. They did some socializing in town, but more often went to Warrensburg, less than ten miles away.
For a decade Dehner and Smith spent every summer and fall on the farm, years when few other tourists ventured north because of the Depression. They chose the hardships of rural life over those of the city, and took great pride and satisfaction in their new-found ability to live off the land. Smith liked to brag that they were eating entirely their own produce— corn and string beans, squash, tomatoes and cucumbers—everything except milk, butter and bread. They teased friends who chose to rent a room instead of roughing it with them, in what Dehner described as “a nice clean house with a city pot.”
Both Smith and Dehner had expected to find artistic inspiration in the mountainous countryside. It was on the farm, in 1932, that Smith hade his first freestanding sculptures, incorporating natural materials that he brought back from the Caribbean, where they had lived during the previous fall and winter. By 1933 Smith—who had started as a painter, followed the lead of Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez and began experimenting with a gas-powered welding torch to make sculpture from discarded metal parts. Welding separate pieces together was as radical an innovation for sculpture as collage had been for the two-dimensional arts— the artist was no longer bound to the size of a block of marble or a piece of wood.
For a while Smith was welding in their apartment in Brooklyn, but Dehner had to follow him around with a watering can to put out the steady stream of small fires that kept erupting because of the flying sparks thrown by the torch. He found work space in an unlikely place, on the Brooklyn Navy Pier, inside a modest shed from Terminal Iron Works, whose name he appropriated for his studio. Smith enjoyed working outside the mainstream, and his example helped to release future sculptors from the confines of traditional art studios. In Bolton Landing Smith turned the shack alongside the house into a studio, complete with a forge, a blower and an anvil. Since the farm had no electricity, he had to do his welding in town, often at Barney Snyder’s garage. He also used the grinding and power equipment in the blacksmith shop at Bradley’s riding stable.
During the 1930s Smith, who had began his career as a painter, sustained himself largely by work for various government-sponsored art projects, including the Treasure Emergency Relief Administration’s mural division, followed by the Works Progress Administration’s sculpture division. In 1940, when public works programs ended, he and Dehner left the city for good, agreeing to try and stay in Bolton until Christmas. They continued to tend their garden and also began raising pigs, which Smith butchered, following instructions from a Department of Agriculture booklet. It was cheap to live in the Adirondacks, which was important because they had no regular income, except for Dehner’s small inheritance. For a short time Smith worked as a machinist in Glens Falls; he also had an art student from Glens Falls, whom he liked because the student paid in advance. Aside from occasional lectures, Smith wanted as few distractions from making art as possible. Dehner, an artist herself, was a particularly supportive spouse.
In Bolton Landing landscape became part of David Smith's every waking moment. Nature was a physiological reality—the constantly changing light conditions particular to the mountains, the dramatic change in seasons, especially summer to fall and winter to spring, the way the temperature would plunge from day to night. Deep snow, dense fog, rain, bugs, animals were all part of his everyday experience. At first Smith and Dehner loved everything about their new life, even the notoriously hard winters, which Smith described with wonder: “The lake is frozen - and autos drive on it now. Skates, skis and everything goes. Even below zero it’s nicer than New York in winter.” The clear, dry air was invigorating and even the snow and ice were beautiful.
The spell of the early idyllic years was broken by the onset of World War II. At first they remained in Bolton Landing, but Dehner described the changes wrought by wartime in a letter to a friend, “This town is as dead as a door nail... [but] Its like a boom town every weekend when they come home. They all get drunk as hell.” In 1942 Smith studied welding at a wartime government school in Warrensburg. Later that year the couple moved to Schenectady because he accepted a job with American Locomotive in Schenectady, working the graveyard shift seven days a week assembling M7 destroyer tanks and locomotives. There he joined United Steelworkers of America, Local 2054 and became a certified Class A welder.
Dehner especially resented the move because they had to close the farm and haul their belonging—including their bed, dishes, even the icebox—to a cramped attic apartment. They also had to provide their own heat, which meant buying their own coal and shoveling it too. On a weekend visit to Bolton in 1943 Dehner noted the positive impact of the war economy on the local population: "everybody has work and money for a change and the whole town goes to the saloon at night...We learned to square dance finally and I never had such fun..."
They returned to Bolton Landing in May 1944 and with money saved from Smith's work at American Locomotive and proceeds from the sale of timber on the farm, Smith was finally able to buy an electric welder, install a foundry and finish building the studio that he had started prior to the war. The simple, open-plan cinder-block structure had a concrete floor, and a sloped roof with a north-facing skylight window. The fireproof building was sited away from the house and close to the road, because electricity had only just come to their road; Smith had to run the wires to the building himself. At the same time he was returning to a life in nature, he was also shaping a factory environment for creating art, even calling the new studio Terminal Iron Works, in honor of his original Brooklyn workspace, asserting his identity as an artist with close ties to industry.
The couple started to make plans for a new house, but life was not the same; winters lost their gloss. Dehner complained that "We have had nothing but snow snow snow all winter and I am simply fed up with sweeping it out of the kitchen and away from the back steps.” Even in the spring she was weary of the work demanded by a large garden and in no mood to raise another pig. Smith, however, was overjoyed to be able to work again, and work he did, often "a shift and a half" a day. New formally complex welded sculptures, also rich in content and varied in mood, ranged from landscapes to frightening surrealist avian creatures
The end of the war bought a new tourist boom to the area around Lake George. Summer traffic caused prices locally to skyrocket. All of a sudden it cost more to live in Bolton than Brooklyn, according to Dehner. They needed income (the Museum of Modern Art had purchased a sculpture in 1943, but other sales were few), so in 1948 Smith accepted his first teaching position at Sarah Lawrence College, in Bronxville, at that time an all-girls liberal arts college, just north of New York City. Smith often drove the long commute in his truck, staying one or two nights a week at the college or with his friends in the city.
Construction on a no-frills cinderblock house had begun in March 1947 and took place over two economically and emotional difficult years. The psychic toll was enormous during the trying winter of 1948-49. Dehner wrote that “I have never known a winter like it… There has been more mayhem… wife beating, rape marital infidelity, suicide, attempted suicide, general drunkeness than ever before. It has served to entertain the place but the casualities have been pretty bad.” At one point the next winter they had to put all their stoves in the new house to dry the plaster; meanwhile they were living in the gusty old wooden home where the temperature indoors plummeted to twenty-six degrees. The frigid weather was followed by spring floods, but Smith took care to outfit his studio against anything that might interfere with his work. While the house was leaky and freezing, his studio had an extra stove inside so that he could continue to work in relative comfort.
After they finally moved into the new house, which had the luxury of running water, there was a drought. The house project drained Smith and Dehner emotionally and financially. It had been the entire focus of their lives, taking time and money away from making art, which further strained their marriage. Dehner, who had already left Smith in the summer and fall of 1945, left for good in November 1950. Smith made Bolton Landing his home and studio for the next fifteen years—for the rest of his life—punctuating rural living with occasional visits to New York City to see friends and to see art. In 1942 he had written to a friend: “This hermit life has its drawbacks, I long for a week of chewing the rag with the coffee pot art forum in the Village and around with the galleries and museums. But a week of it and I’m fed up and ready to get back to the mountains.”
In March 1950 Smith received much-needed good news—he was awarded a grant from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation. It gave him enough money so that he could quit teaching at Sarah Lawrence College and reject another teaching offer he had been considering out of desperation. The house was complete and he had guaranteed income for the year, and he was finally freed to focus on his making sculpture. The cash was immediately used to buy a large stock of quality materials. Smith’s work achieved new maturity and grandeur during this extraordinarily innovative period. Welded, lyrical masterworks such as Hudson River Landscape and Australia, were made of thinner, often curved steel bars. Literally open to the world around them, they were often called “drawings in space.” Smith began working on an unprecedented scale, attempting to realize his “mural ambitions in steel.”
The Guggenheim grant was renewed in 1951 and Smith’s prodigious output continued, as he completed twenty-two sculptures that year. But when the two-year term was over, money was once again a constant problem. He complained more often of loneliness, and wrote that his enjoyment of nature is now “only occasional and not complete enough.” He was not a self-sustaining farmer anymore, but he still went fishing, enjoyed harvesting mushrooms and cooking.
By the spring of 1953 teaching again took him away from Bolton for extended periods. At the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, he married the writer Jean Freas of Washington, D.C., whom he had met while she was a student at Sarah Lawrence. The next year he taught at the University of Indiana, Bloomington. Their two daughters, however, were both born in the North Country—Rebecca in 1954 and Candida in 1955.
Although Smith generally ignored the din of seasonal tourism, summer often was the season when friends came to visit. The artists Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler, as well as the art critic Clement Greenberg were among his guests from the avant-garde art world. Painter Jackson Pollock and his wife, the artist Lee Krasner, appear in a photograph on the patio outside the house with Smith's new love, the young Jean Freas, seated between them.
Smith’s second marriage, however, dissolved by 1958, when Freas left with Rebecca and Candida. Smith, once again alone at Bolton Landing, threw himself into his work with extraordinary intensity. Work was his emotional salvation, "The only way to snap out of it," he said. Almost every day though he managed to go to town, stopping in at places such as the Bill Gates diner, which had been open since 1937. Nights, however, were very quiet and long: “There are only two bright lights in town,” he wrote. “Even the saloons have closed up. There are 2 wet wash laundries, 2 coin laundries whose lights are still on, there’s not another damn thing open in town.” But work filled the emotional spaces. Between 1958 and ‘59 he added another factory-like studio space to the original shop. He was working twelve to fourteen hours a day on the project, which he bragged "is a beauty built as good as a general electric factory."
The mid-1950s were lean years for Smith—despite his critical acclaim, he still sold few works—but he kept developing innovative kinds of sculpture at a furious pace. For instance, he made cast bronze assemblages, such as The Sitting Printer, while at the same time as he was using prefabricated stainless-steel plates ordered from an industrial steel company catalogue. The changeable colors and moods of the mountain light became a literal part of his work when, in 1957, he first ground the stainless steel surfaces with a circular sander, creating brilliantly reflective planes that seemed to change with every flicker of light, like a painting in motion. These new pieces were intended to be placed outdoors because Smith anticipated that their appearance would with shifts in natural light and the seasons. “…I polished them in such a way that on a dull day, they take on the dull blue, or the color of the sky in the late afternoon sun,” he wrote
Around this time he began placing his sculptures in the grassy fields that surrounded the house and studio, literally planting them in the soil on poured concrete bases, aligning them in neat rows. The arrangement grew to include examples from various periods and styles; new works were often added as soon as they were finished. Smith could see his increasingly large scale works in relation to each other, and in relation to the pine trees and rugged, mountainous terrain. His largest sculptures, those over twelve-feet high, would go straight to the fields because there was almost no indoor space large enough to show them and, he thought, almost no one to buy them. It was an enormous effort not only to place the works, but also to move them around, as he did, experimenting with various positions.
Smith’s sculpture fields were an extension of his studio, the seeds of his identity strewn in nature. The large metal sculptures gradually took over the fields, giving them a new definition, changing the natural world in which they were set. Perhaps he needed to fill the empty spaces with his work, most of which remained in his possession. Smith lived with his sculptures, in a sense as his companions. When a group of works was ready to go out on exhibition, he often took a photograph that had the uncanny feeling of a family portrait.
These sculptures were Smith's connection to the world around him. The relationship between his art and nature had never been based on representation but was forged in modern sculpture, based on reciprocity between the artist, the work, and the world.
By the time Smith died after a car accident near Bennington, Vermont, in May 1965, seventy-eight sculptures were set in his Bolton fields. The farm had become a sculpture farm. He had created a new forest, more than making up for the one that had been cut more than a century earlier.