Freedom & Anarchy: David Smith at LACMA

Freedom must be a trending topic. It’s the title of a Jonathan Franzen bestseller, and it’s what the Tea Party claims to want. This morning I read a review of Charlie Sheen’s Detroit meltdown that likened it to the Simpsons episode where Homer accidentally shatters an ant farm on a space station. The ants stream into the cosmic void, screaming “Freedom! Horrible, horrible freedom!”

Freedom is the ever-fascinating subtext of “David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy,” now occupying the center space of LACMA’s Resnick Pavilion. Smith was schooled in the political radicalism of John Sloan, the Ash Can painter who lived in an age when anarchists tried to exterminate Henry Clay Frick and the whole Rockefeller clan (pictured, the June 1914 cover of The Masses, with Sloan’s illustration of the Ludlow Massacre). Smith reimagined himself as a downtrodden worker and ultimately boxed his aesthetic into the blocky sculptures called Cubi. No matter: The surface finish, created by a proletarian circular sander, screams freedom. It was retroactively hailed as the 3D counterpart to gestural abstraction, even though the Cubi date from the age of minimalism.

The first two works you see are LACMA’s Cubi XXIII and Eli Broad’s Cubi XXVIII (ex-collection Norton Simon, who paid 1/366 what Broad did). They’ve rarely looked better. This show has the second-best lighting of any large-scale Smith survey. Best was Storm King Art Center’s 1997-1999  “The Fields of David Smith,” which was outdoors in an upstate NY sculpture park. Smith believed his sculptures looked best in sunlight and displayed them outdoors at his Bolton Landing studio. The LACMA show approaches that ideal about as close as is possible for an urban museum. Renzo Piano’s building offers beautiful natural light from above and Robert Irwin-curated greenbelt views from two sides. The light turns the planes of the Cubi into mesmerizing holograms. The “cubes” dissolve into translucent boxes of weirdly luminous drawings in space.

The exhibition also presents an alternate meditation on freedom, namely, how best to show largish 3D works in a museum. Post-Guggenheim Bilbao curators have become libertarians. They demand more space, more light, no columns, no rules. Frank Gehry said he built Bilbao to house  big Richard Serras and to challenge artists to fill the space. Fair enough, but an encyclopedic museum shows artists who lived long pre-Bilbao. Smith’s sculptures, many quite large for their time, are swallowed up by the Resnick’s acre of art.

Were you happily anticipating the spectacle of a football field packed chockablock with Smiths, be warned that this show doesn’t quite deliver that. Instead, the installation (credited to Levin & Associates Architects) breaks up the view with white scrims. The effect is like a May morning in Santa Monica. Near things are sharp, distant things blur into snowblind white.

The concern must have been that the silhouettes of the sculptures would interfere with each other, creating visual clutter. The scrims also make it easier for curators to phrase a visual argument. A curator wants to say, “Look at these objects; next, look at these and compare.” That’s tough to do with the untrammeled freedom of a partition-free space. Of course, exhibition circulation is another controversial point. The tone of the room is that the Barr-era MoMA was wrong to insist on its circuit of modern isms. The new, improved MoMA corrects that, sort of.

Speaking of freedom: The many photos of Smith’s studio-estate (one above) make it clear that the artist had no particular problem with sightline clutter. Bolton Landing was a frigging trailer park. I’ll end with Smith’s photo of his daughters, Rebecca and Candida, freely posing in Circle III (it’s in the show).