William Poundstone
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Freedom & Anarchy: David Smith at LACMA

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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).

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  1. by John Lenting

    I have to agree being a big David Smith fan (admirer of his sculpture) it never quite smacked me as this show at the “LACMA” it most likely is the light in this show that really brings forth the life of these pieces. Unfortunately “Anarchy and Freedom” are not doing as well with the crack down of artist, writers, poets in Beijing China.
    The arrest and disapearance of Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei is very disturbing and as artist we should all be up in arms and protest against this action by the Chinese government. All artists and gallery owners, museum directors should shut down and cover their display windows with black fabric/cloth in protest. Its not only on the cultural field but also on our economic front, the massive job losses in America are a direct condition of huge multi-national corporations utilizing slave labor wages from the Chinese and walking away with huge profits, and we sit idly by watching as if its a art performance. Lets wake up!

  2. I am sure the communist dictators will care about your “protest”. And what the Chinese are going through is very much like what we did at the turn of the last century. However,they will never become the middle class society we once were, but is slipping away. Look at home to protest for true effect. We are becoming more like the Chinese today, though they have almost plateaued.

    We were the nation with the greatest natural resouces with river systems and transportation in the world, with only 100 million after wiping out the untameble,small indigenous populations and free labor(slavery and enservitude of immigrants). They are overcrowded at over a billion, limited in resources, and why they are going to Afghanistan and make deals with dictators without regard to politics, and horribly polluted. Their options are few,and are progressing best they can. Oil prices rising will force them to become more efficient,and that is where the future lies. Using the least to get the most. We Americans are the best, at conspicuous consumption.

    The art world now the embodiment of that. Giant hanging choochoo trains and levitating rocks, building new museums of sterility and soulessness while the older buildings are quite fine, and renewable with a little creativity. Something truly in short supply these days of color fear and games, therapy and exhibitionism to amuse the wealthy.

    Mr Poundstone is right, all art looks better outside when involved with the real world, away from the sterile white cubes. Cities look best when with different styles and forms of architecture create pulsing patterns, not sterile decaying entities like Brasilia and Chandigarh. I take my paintings outside all the time to make sure they can hold up to Gods creation, which is infinite and IS life. Artists never had white walls til the newly rebuilt Academies decided that was best, taking after MoMA. White is fine for some, we Californians are of Spanish Mission architecture, and colors for others. Look at old BW photos of painters like Matisse and Picasso. The walls are never white, they have tone.

    These scupltures are much better outside, interacting with life and one another. They are sole entities,and relationships is all. That is the live force, inside they become but things. And as materialism is everything to the patrons of art, they want that as investment adn tradable commodities. To us who do and work, we want interaction, life, passion, joy. His works dont do alot by themselves, but are meant for being involved, where moving around one constantly sees and feels relationships building and ebbing. Life.

    Save the colorful, spiritual Creative art of the Watts Towers(Nuestro Pueblo).
    Tear down the sterile, souless monstrosities of the Ivories.

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