Modernism vs. Postmodernism - David Smith's "Hudson River Landscape"

David Smith, Hudson River Landscape, 1951, welded steel painted steel and stainless steel, Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, accessed June 16, 2019, https://whitney.org/WatchAndListen/1101.

David Smith’s Hudson River Landscape, considered the artist’s first mature sculptural work (David Smith: Centennial Exhibition Resource Guide. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, 2006, 1), was completed in 1951 at his studio at Bolton Landing in upstate New York. The sculpture is a moderately sized (by comparison to his later works) construction, measuring roughly four feet tall by six feet wide, with a depth of just over seventeen inches, whose materials include painted welded steel and stainless steel. Smith learned to weld during his employment as a riveter in the summer of 1925, at the Studebaker automobile plant in South Bend, Indiana (David Smith: A Centennial Exhibition Resource Guide 2006, 1). In his later sculptures, Smith primarily worked with stainless steel which he began to favor “partly to avoid the need to paint and laboriously maintain outdoor work that was otherwise prone to rust” (Fineberg 2011, 120), indicating that this earlier work of primarily painted welded steel was intended to be maintained and preserved in its original state, and not to age, rust or decay as part of the statement or process of the work.

Smith’s early painting studies under Matulka at the Arts Students League in New York heavily influenced his sculptural style, which he first began exploring in the 1930s after his exposure to illustrations of metal sculptures by Pablo Picasso and Jose González (Fineberg 2011, 115). The cubist principles that featured so heavily in his education and early paintings – shallow plane, single viewing position, play between two and three-dimensional space – would feature heavily in his sculpture practice as well, as seen in Hudson River Landscape. His sculptural process had a two-dimensional foundation, which involved placing metal pieces against a table and “collaging” the sculpture together, adding additional elements and features once he had the work-in-progress standing upright (Fineberg 2011, 121). As early as 1946, Smith was purchasing steel scraps from local plants in order to have a supply of irregular forms on hand to incorporate into this process (Fineberg, 120), and throughout his career regularly incorporated agricultural tools and bits of machinery. It is notable that steel has an extremely high tensile strength, which made the material a suitable selection for what Smith referred to as his “drawings in space.” This work was purchased by the Whitney Museum of American Art (where it still resides) directly from the Estate of David Smith, which is recently reorganized under his two daughters, Rebecca and Candida. The work is regularly included in exhibitions on American sculpture, abstract expressionism and American artists of the twentieth century.

Hudson River Landscape can be considered a Modern work for many reasons, not least of which is the celebration of Western technological advancement and progress inherent in its materials. Smith spoke of this idea directly, saying,  “the metal itself possesses … associations … of this century: power, structure, movement, progress, suspension, brutality” (Smith 1952). Famed Modernist critic Clement Greenberg considered Smith’s work to be some of the greatest American art of its day, precisely because it promoted “the essence of the age (basically, what it meant to be an American with gusto and machismo)” (Caicco 2019).

Smith conceived of the idea for this sculpture during ten train journeys he took on the seventy-five mile stretch between Albany and Poughkeepsie. He made dozens of sketches of the Hudson River Valley landscape streaking past his window during his trips – wisps of clouds, mountains, the rolling river, blurs of trees – all of which informed the final work, which “synthesizes the feeling of that picturesque journey” (Fineberg 2011, 118). In this way, the work also adheres to Bell’s Modernist principle of provoking the aesthetic emotion – in this case, the sublime. The sculpture itself evokes this idea of viewing the passing landscape through a window or frame, with the shallow depth of the work forcing the viewer into single vantage point, to consider the work and perceive it from a set distance and perspective, not to approach, interact with, or consider it in any other way.

It is interesting that this last point, turned on its head, is a significant consideration for how Hudson River Landscape might be viewed as Postmodern work: the single vantage point of this sculpture (and indeed of many of Smith’s works) is “antithetical to the traditional techniques of sculpture” (Fineberg 2011, 123). In contradiction to the prevailing Greenbergian approach to Modernism, he does not emphasize the medium (Caicco 2019), but takes a rather anti-Modernist approach by creating a two-dimensional work in a three-dimensional space.

The work can also be considered Postmodern for its lack of a single, clear purpose, message or interpretation. Smith’s own perspective (though it seems like a distinctly Modern point of view at first glance) seems to account for the viewer’s experience and interpretation of the work, leaving the purpose of Hudson River Landscape fairly vague:

“Is my work Hudson River Landscape, the Hudson River, or is it the travel, the vision, the ink spot? Does it matter? The sculpture exists on its own. It is the entity. The name is an affectionate designation of the point prior to travel. My objective was not these words or the Hudson River, but to create the existence of a sculpture. Your response may not travel down the Hudson River, but it may travel on any river, or on a higher level” (Smith 1926-1965).

Even Greenberg “particularly appreciated the complexities of his abstract forms, which were left somewhat open-ended in terms of the possible references” (Caicco 2019).

Sources:

David Smith: A Centennial Exhibition Resource Guide. New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. 2006.

Fineberg, Jonathan David. 2011. “Art Since 1940: Strategies of Being.” 3rd ed. New Jersey: Prentice Hall.

Smith, David. 1952. A paper delivered in “The New Sculpture” symposium, Museum of Modern Art, New York; cited in Garnett McCoy, ed. David Smith (New York, Praeger, 1973), 84.

Caicco, Gregory. “Unit 1: Thinking about Contemporary Art.” Course Content, Contemporary Art from Savannah College of Art and Design, Savannah, GA, June 17, 2019.

Smith, David. 1926-1965. “David Smith papers.” Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.