For David Smith, Sculptor and Painter, a Happy Equilibrium in White

The white of these pieces is raw and gritty, an accidental result of Smith’s inspired choice to leave his material as found. There’s a mild but inescapable allusion to classical statuary, too, and in the surface’s similarity to bone, an invocation of gleefully Surrealist grave robbing. But more than any of that, there’s an assertion that the roughness itself is the beauty.

Photo

Smith’s “2 Circles, 2 Crows” in “David Smith: The White Sculptures.”

Credit
Philip Greenberg for The New York Times

When we next meet the color, though, in a 1955 inverted steel trapezoid punctured with five large circles and a square, it’s distinctly the white of typing paper, an artificial blankness that strikes the eye with its aggressive readiness to express anything but itself.

Of course, the holes play their part. You can’t help but look through them as if through a series of frames — in this case out a window at some other David Smiths. But it’s primarily the piece’s whiteness, in combination with its flatness, that gives it the illusionistic malleability of a painting without relinquishing the solid presence of sculpture. Two of Smith’s own photos hanging nearby show the piece outside in different seasons. In a winter scene, heavily shadowed and with snow at its foot, the sculpture is black with shadow; in a summer scene, it’s so bright that the circles of pine visible through its holes look like a photo collage.

Down the hall from this piece, a silent 16-millimeter film that the sculptor Robert Murray shot shortly after Smith’s death documents how he laid out his work at Bolton Landing. In one particularly striking image, the colorful pieces stand like watchful farm animals as Mr. Murray’s camera zooms up the approach. Look out for “Two Circles IV,” two large circles painted yellow and blue, and compare it to the much subtler and more complicated white “2 Circles, 2 Crows” outside.

In three elegant sculptures down another hall, “Tanktotem VII,” “Black White Forward” and “Tanktotem IX,” white is just another of Smith’s sturdy, hard-working colors. A smile-shaped slice of a boiler tank end sits atop a vertical white rectangle in “Tanktotem IX,” supported by three legs as long and delicate as a grasshopper’s — one orange, one pink and one black. In “Black White…

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