The sculptor David Smith (1906-65) always insisted that he “belonged with painters.” He probably meant it quite literally. Most of his closest friends and colleagues were painters: in the Twenties and Thirties John Graham, Edgar Levy, and Adolph Gottlieb, and later Jean Xceron, Helen Frankenthaler, Robert Motherwell, and Kenneth Noland. Smith liked to point out, too, that much of the best modern sculpture had been made by painters, citing works by Degas, Matisse, and Picasso as examples. His own approach derived not from sculpture’s traditional heritage of modelling and carving, but from painting, via Cubism’s legacy of collage and open planar construction.

Smith’s only formal art training was in drawing and painting. When he arrived in New York, in 1926, never having seen anything in Paulding, Ohio, “other than a very, very dark picture with some sheep in it in the public library,” Smith knew that he...


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