David Smith uplifts Clark with surprising harmony

The Clark’s current exhibition of David Smith’s work has been showing with great success.photo  courtesy of berkshirefinearts.com
The Clark’s current exhibition of David Smith’s work has been showing with great success. photo courtesy of berkshirefinearts.com

This past Monday, I climbed on to my 20-year-old bicycle, wobbled down Route 2 and up the gravel drive to The Clark, dumped the bike by the door, asked for directions to the David Smith exhibition, and was told that it was a 15 minute hike up the hill at the hill center. This was very sad news for me, because 15-minute nature hikes require a level of patience and discipline that I just do not have. Still, I knew the readers of The Record were depending on me, and so, after a brief but poignant personal struggle, my sense of duty prevailed and I began to make my way up the hill.

At first I was distracted, going over my assignments in my head, queasily calculating the number of hours-in-a-day-to-homework-ratio. But as I climbed through the woods, kicking acorns over the bridge and breathing in the autumn-perfumed air, I began to feel better in spite of myself. When I finally arrived at the exhibition, I was actually feeling very charitably towards the trees and the mountains.

Setting the scene, as I have done rather elaborately here, is vital for a comprehensive understanding of the David Smith Exhibition, “Raw Color: The Circles of David Smith.” This is because Smith’s work exists as a sort of sculptural anomaly, in that despite its industrial inorganic composition of bulky metal sheets, the result represents a dialogue with nature, not a conflict. This is especially evident in the piece Primo Piano III, which is set on a terrace against a dramatic mountain view. The sculpture consists of a circle and two rectangles, and for all practical purposes, it doesn’t look like a piano at all. Perhaps Smith is attempting to capture the essence of the piano, and not the form. By interpreting his piano in brief, “simplistic” shapes, Smith more fully realizes in sculpture what a piano does, what music makes us feel. It is a powerful nod to the emotional appeal of another artistic discipline. It’s startling how easily the metallic body of the piano fits in with the natural backdrop of the mountain, but the fall leaves offer a bright punctuation to the scene, reminiscent of a staccato note or cymbal crash.

Smith’s work is in part characterized by the brash colors he paints on his sculpture. This brashness might theoretically generate discord; it should clash against the muted, natural tones of the surrounding wood. Yet, it somehow manages to exist in harmony with the environment.

In an interview with Frank O’Hara, a celebrated poet, Smith admitted his partiality for “acid greens, and raspberry,” violent, chemical colors. It’s interesting that O’Hara famously wrote in his love poem “Having a Coke With You,” “It is hard to believe when I’m with you that there can be anything as still, as solemn as unpleasantly definitive as statuary when right in front of it in the warm New York 4 o’clock light we are drifting back and forth between each other like a tree breathing through its spectacles. And the portrait show seems to have no faces in it at all, just paint. You suddenly wonder why in the world anyone ever did them.” Smith was often criticized by his fellow sculptors for his claim that “I belong with the painters,” and that sculpture was “drawing in space,” but it is possible that by melding the two disciplines, he was able to create a more convincing picture of life, a credibility O’Hara points out is missing when the two fields (painting and sculpture) are separated.

Ironically, with his rusty reds and “acid greens,” Smith inspires a natural vitality in his work, he is able to capture the “warm New York 4 o’clock light,” the “tree breathing through its spectacles,” even the sounds of a piano on an autumn afternoon.

It’s all very soothing. In another part of the exhibit, a row of Smith’s “circles” are arranged consecutively, so that if you look through the hollow in the far right circle, you feel as though you’re looking through the lens of a camera. And like a camera, Smith’s circles provide focus and perspective. It certainly lent me perspective. When I left the exhibit an hour later and biked across the traffic circle with my tires spinning across the concrete, despite all of the homework, practice, deadlines and sleep deprivation, I felt totally buoyant and uplifted.