A painting, rather than an example of the sculpture that made David Smith famous, introduces the visitor to “Songs of the Horizon: David Smith, Music and Dance,” The Hyde Collection’s sensational exhibition that will close on September 17.
A mythic, half-prone figure representing a cellist is splayed above an expansive landscape; his simple physicality may seem at odds with the complex notations in his head, but in fact, the strength and conviction of his fingers and arms are the organ of a febrile creativity.
Dr. Jennifer Field, the executive director of The Estate of David Smith, who organized “Songs of the Horizon,” made the point at the opening of the exhibition in June that the cellist’s shoulders form the silhouette of a mountain range and at the bottom of the canvas, one can see rough sketches of bridges, presumably those of Manhattan, Brooklyn and Queens.
Both landscapes – the blue mountains of the southern Adirondacks and the built environment of New York, were important to Smith’s identity, said Field.
But if one is in a speculative mood, one might go even further: in place of the Adirondacks and New York City, think nature and custom, or physis and nomos, as the ancient Greeks labeled those two supposedly discordant worlds. In the cellist, both worlds, however much they may oppose one another, are embodied. He embraces, comprehends and ultimately transcends both nature and custom, convention or history.
The painting, completed in 1946, is titled “Untitled (Piat),” a reference to the renowned cellist Gregor Piatigorsky who lived in the Adirondack community of Elizabethtown for much of the 1940s.
Although Smith and Piatigorsky were both living full-time in the Adirondacks simultaneously, there is no evidence to suggest that they knew one another, or had even met.
An émigré who had fled pogroms, the Russian Revolution and the Nazi Holocaust, Piatigorsky was, in essence, a citizen of no country but that of art – which is perhaps, why Smith chose him to be the avatar of art or the artist.
As the exhibition’s subtitle, “David Smith, Music and Dance,” makes abundantly clear, the subject of “Songs of the Horizon” is art and the artist.
Franziska Boas and her dancers, harpsichordist Sylvia Marlowe, Hugh Allen Wilson’s keyboardist’s hands, the musical instruments – are at once the objects of Smith’s painting and sculpture here and their themes, their poetry.
Smith deployed the vocabulary of surrealism for much of the decade in his approach to his subject, perhaps because surrealism is, appropriately enough, the language of invention. But therein also lies its limitation. Great art, a college professor of mine once said, discovers rather than invents.
As the decade progressed, Smith increasingly turned toward abstraction.
In 1946, for example, Smith revisited the figures of dancers that he had portrayed in 1941, but now less literally, in a nearly non-representational way. Indeed, they anticipate his Sentinel V, the stainless steel sculpture from 1959 installed on lawn of The Hyde, or perhaps “Forgings,” a mid-1950s series of thin, steel, monolithic sculptures.
Of course, Smith was aware that 20th century abstraction is essentially Hegelian – the idea that at art’s final stage of development, it is the embodiment of consciousness, released from cultural and historical contingencies, from commentary. At the end of history, abstract art has no point of reference beyond itself.
Perhaps to suggest as much, Jennifer Field has placed arguably the most significant piece in the exhibition, “Egyptian Landscape,” a non-representational sculpture from 1951, last, near the exit. It both recapitulates Smith’s reflections on art and artists during the previous decade and looks forward to the groundbreaking sculptures he would make over the next fifteen years. Rather than representing “The Home of the Welder,” as he did in a 1946 painting in the exhibition, he will turn his attention to the mind of the welder.
The Hyde Collection is located at 161 Warren Street in Glens Falls and is open to the public Thursday through Monday, 10 am to 5 pm. For information, call 518-792-1761.