Foster Reviews the David Smith Exhibit

In the London Review of Books, Hal Foster reviews the David Smith exhibit at the Guggenheim.

David Smith is often seen as the Jackson Pollock of modern sculpture, the artist who transformed European innovations (in welded steel above all) into an American idiom of expanded scale and expressive power. Like most legends in art history, this isn’t false, despite the immediate catch that his greatest follower, Anthony Caro, is English. Yet it does play too neatly into the usual story of Modernist art: that it was smashed by Fascism and totalitarianism in prewar Europe, then triumphally restored in postwar America as the analogue of American Freedom.

A good show disturbs settled views, and this centennial survey by the Spanish curator Carmen Giménez (on until 14 May) does so beautifully. As befits an exhibition that will travel to Tate Modern and the Pompidou, its perspective is European, which freshens the work dramatically. American accounts of Smith tend to race through his long apprenticeship to European masters – in particular Julio González, Picasso and Giacometti – in order to focus on his distinctive series of the 1950s, such as the Tanktotems, non-objective ‘personages’ that ask to be compared with Abstract Expressionism, and of the early 1960s, such as the Cubi, geometric constructions that seem to relate to Minimalism. In short, Americans cut to the American chase. In this exhibition, on the contrary, one ascends the spiral of the Guggenheim slowly, as if accompanying Smith in his arduous struggle with his European predecessors.