David Smith Retrospective Shines at Yorkshire Sculpture Park: Review


Set amid 500 acres of rolling countryside at Bretton Hall Estate, Yorkshire Sculpture Park opened in 1977 and features sculptures by local heroes Henry Moore and Barbara Hepworth, as well as Joan Miro and other giants of the discipline. To the delight of the park’s many child visitors – mine included – there are also actual giants, such as Eduardo Paolozzi’s “Vulcan”, a 23-feet metallic humanoid.

The park’s latest exhibition is a retrospective of US sculptor David Smith (1906-65), who worked mostly in metals, and whose work can be admired around the vast grounds as well as having pride of place at the park’s Underground Gallery. More than 40 of the artist’s work are on view, all of them created between 1932 and Smith’s untimely death in 1965.

Now widely viewed as one of the 20th century’s foremost sculptors, David Smith started his working life as a welder and was the first US artist to weld metals, though the exhibition – the first in the UK since the 2006 show at the Tate Modern – also includes some of his earlier works which used seashells, wire and nails.

In 1940 Smith moved with his wife to the Adirondacks hamlet of Bolton Landing, which has a similar topography to that of West Yorkshire. This might explain why Smith’s large, stark and startling creations seem so at home, immersed in a constantly-changing light, set amid green fields, glittering lakes, and dramatic, ever-changing skyscapes. In Yorkshire, as in the Adirondacks, nature can be both harsh and beautiful, and this is reflected in Smith’s work.

In 1950-51 Smith received two successive Fellowships from the Guggenheim that allowed him to work fulltime, creating larger and more ambitious works that bring to mind Picasso and even the Surrealists. Viewing himself more painter than sculptor, Smith specialized in creating three-dimensional representations of subjects usually depicted in two, such as his “landscapes” and even a page of writing. Many of his most famous works are scattered through the park, including Hudson River Landscape (1951), and Sentinel V, a towering work that like many of Smith’s works is so robot-like you half expect (and hope) it will step off its pedestal and strut through the park.

Machines and how humans co-exist with them seem to be a recurring theme for Smith: the exhibition also includes photographs of the artist at work, including time spent at Terminal Iron Works near Brooklyn Ferry Terminal where his work seems to have been influenced by his industrial surroundings. Cubism is another obvious influence. Yet Smith’s work is never dour, nor is it wholly urban: the influence of nature is also apparent, and in some of his works there is an obvious playfulness and grace; for instance, in naming works of art after his daughters. Robert Motherwell described Smith’s work as “…an ineffable desire to see his humanness related to exterior reality, to nature at least if not to man.”

Smith often devoted his energies to associated series of works, such as the Voltri series, named after the Italian town where Smith and his assistants created them in an abandoned steel factory in 1962. Between 1961 and 1965, he worked on the acclaimed Cubi series of stainless steel sculptures which are still on display around the world, including MOMA in New York.

The park’s Underground Gallery is a beautifully-designed space which is cunningly disguised as you approach and built into the hillside. Smith’s work fills several large spaces inside, and there are video installations of the man at work as well as a representation of the artefacts Smith collected from around the world and kept on display in the living room of his Bolton Landing home.

Smith was arguably at the peak of his powers when he was killed in a car accident in 1965, leaving behind two daughters, Rebecca and Candida. His legacy continues to grow. England’s foremost sculptor, Anthony Caro, who was a friend, described him as “the most consummate artist I’ve ever met.”

Even without the Smith display, the park is well worth a visit – and a refreshing change from London’s overpriced and overcrowded galleries. On entering the park, you walk through leafy grounds in which sheep wander at will before reaching the main building, a modernist structure of wood and glass from which there are stunning views down to Lower Lake. Here you can find the new Weston, with its wildflower roof, exhibition spaces and restaurant. The Park’s main restaurant is open daily, providing hot and cold food, soft and alcoholic drinks, and is reasonably priced. The park is also wheelchair-accessible, though some of the rough paths might be difficult to navigate.

Yorkshire Sculpture Park is easily reached by car via the nearby M1 and M62 or you can take a train to Wakefield (two hours north of London) from where a taxi will cost around £10. Parking costs vary but the park itself is free to enter, making this a unique and rewarding destination for art-lovers from around the world. With its vast structures, welcoming environment and fresh Yorkshire air, YSP is a fantastic way to introduce children to modern art.

The David Smith exhibition is on display through January 5, 2020. For more information visit: https://ysp.org.uk

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