David Smith: Lineage

April 5, 2011

Working on the exhibition David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy over the past six years has caused me to muse more than once on “lineage”—the many relationships each of us has to history.  Let me explain.

Renowned American sculptor David Smith (who was born in 1906) briefly attended the University of Notre Dame and worked one summer at the Studebaker automobile factory, both in South Bend, Indiana.  I was born and grew up in South Bend and my father was on the faculty at Notre Dame.  Pure coincidence, but it makes me feel connected, a part of a historical trajectory.

David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy is the first major exhibition on the West Coast devoted to this outstanding sculptor in over forty-five years.  The last one, also at LACMA, opened in November of 1965.  It was organized by Maurice Tuchman, who was the head of my curatorial department (then known as Twentieth-Century Art) when I first arrived at the museum as a curatorial assistant in 1984.  Another personal link in a historical chain.

cover, David Smith: A Memorial Exhibition, published by the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 1965

The two exhibitions are very different, however.  Cubes and Anarchy is a thematic exhibition—including not only Smith’s sculptures but also his drawings, paintings, and photographs—tracing the sculptor’s use of geometry from the very first years of his career in the early 1930s to his unexpected death in 1965.  LACMA’s 1965 show, by contrast, started out as an exhibition of then-recent large-scale sculptures—a dozen from the Cubi series and two from the Zig series—all made between 1961 and 1965.  On May 23, 1965, in the midst of the preparations for that show, Smith was killed in a car accident at age 59.  As a result, the show became David Smith: A Memorial Exhibition.  As Anne M. Wagner writes in the Cubes and Anarchy catalogue, “The [1965] catalogue…took up the task of mourning, its cover speaking…of tragic martyrdom, and its concluding photograph—the artist’s welding helmet, still sitting where he had left it in the studio—offering a more subtle and immediate evocation of bodily loss.”

Since 1965 David Smith has ascended into the artistic pantheon, not only of great American artists but of all great artists.  So, for the art historian and curator—for me, that is—as well as for the visitor to Cubes and Anarchy, the sense of a personal connection to this remarkable artist is now enhanced by a broader cultural perspective.

Carol S. Eliel, Curator of Modern Art


1913: A Year for Debuts

October 22, 2008
The corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, c. 1920

The corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, c. 1920

Opening at LACMA this Sunday, Vanity Fair Portraits: Photographs 1913-2008 spans the entirety of the magazine’s history, stretching back to the launch of Dress & Vanity Fair in 1913. It was a pretty illustrious year for debuts.

In March, the legendary Armory show opened in New York, captivating and confusing critics and crowds alike. Causing the biggest stir were the galleries for cubist and futurist artists, whom former President Theodore Roosevelt described as “the lunatic fringe.” Noting Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, American Art News offered $10 to any reader who could identify either a nude or a staircase.

Plenty was also happening in Los Angeles in 1913. On November 6, the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art opened in Exposition Park, and the Owens River Valley Aqueduct began bringing water to the city—a primary force in making this soon-to-be metropolis a livable region.

About three weeks after water and culture arrived in L.A., Cecil B. DeMille followed—fleeing the East Coast because Thomas Edison’s Motion Picture Patents Company had monopolized the industry. In L.A., DeMille filmed his first feature, The Squaw Man; it was shot in a rural part of town—Sunset and Vine.

DeMille stayed in Hollywood for the rest of his career. An aviation enthusiast, he bought up land all over the city for airfields—one of which was located at the corner of Wilshire and Fairfax, right across the street from the future site of LACMA. Next time you drive by Johnie’s or the 99 Cent Store, imagine DeMille taking off in his JL-6.

Scott Tennent


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