The Moment



March 1959

The day held the promise of spring, a mild 50 degrees. A few students were spotted at lunchtime in overly optimistic short sleeves, and some windows in the white colonial houses framing Commons Lawn were heaved open. But now there is a chill in the night air. Students walking to lecture are bundled in layers. When the just-past-full moon emerges from the cloudy sky they see their breath blowing out steamy white clouds. But it's worth going out into the cold night. They are going to hear the sculptor David Smith. He is talking about drawing.

The students love him. He was once described by a journalist as "walrus-faced," an unkind yet wholly accurate description. The students interpretation is completely different. To them, his face, his presence, his words, have the perfect mix of avuncular warmth and cool edge. It is mysterious and familiar—a hard-drinking Teddy Roosevelt in a welder's helmet. His inherent duality intrigues—a burning cigarette dangling precariously, balanced only by the dampness of his full lips, the penetrating accusation of his intense stare softened only by a hound dog droop beneath his eyes. His loneliness is palpable amid a roaring party. A photograph shows him in the Carriage Barn, completely engulfed by students. It is acutely accurate. Andrea Dworkin met him during her first year at Bennington. "One night I went to a lecture by art critic Clement Greenberg....At some point during the lecture, Greenberg said that great sculptors never drew. A huge man stood up, overshadowing the audience, and in a deep bass said, 'I do.'...After the lecture a friend who was a painting student asked if I wanted to go with her to meet David Smith. 'I wouldn't want to bother him,' I said, not having a clue that the big guy was David Smith and he was staying that night in Robert Frost's old house, owned by Painter Kenneth Noland, rented by the English Sculptor Anthony Caro, who was teaching at Bennington." Dworkin and her friend went to the party and she talked to Smith. Their discussion that night stayed with her, made poignant by his untimely death shortly thereafter and because she felt the truth in his advice.

The audience fills in, shedding their now too-warm sweaters and coats. He is talking about drawing because for a "sculptor who, of necessity, works in media slow to take realization, and, where the original creative impetus must be sustained during labor, drawing is the fast moving search which keeps physical labor in balance." He is talking about drawing, putting words to the action. Drawing is vital to his art. It is the "life force." Drawing "by its very simple act comes closer to the actual bareness of the soul and the nature of free expression." As precise and intense as a point of pure blue flame he cuts through assumed conventions, shifts his ideas into shapes, welds the seams together. His informality belies the difficulty of what he is doing—the impossible task of articulating the abstract, the exhausting generosity of the act. He concludes by dismissing what he has said, "You can experience it by doing—hundred times faster than you have listened to me inadequately talk about the act of drawing." He flicks his hand, sweeping away his words, indicating to the students there is nothing more he can give them. The students know he is speaking but they can't hear these final words; their eyes follow the sweep of his enormous hand. They are seeing the intangible take form before their eyes.

From the Archive

Biographies

Revolutionary sculptor David Smith fabricated with steel and iron and used polychrome as a key component of his work. His first show at Bennington College was in 1951 and among the sculptures exhibited were Portrait of the Eagle's Keeper, Stainless Steel, Seaman and Siren, and Cello Player. He lectured at the college in the early '60s and the use of color was the subject of discussions held by color field artists and sculptors such as Kenneth Noland, Anthony Caro, Paul Feeley, and Jules Olitski. This burgeoning, avant-garde atmosphere influenced Smith's work, as he likewise influenced others. From Smith, Noland learned the value of working in series; his abstract and figurative drawings reflected Smith's influence. Smith's 1961 sculpture Noland's Blues paid homage to Kenneth Noland. Caro learned new welding techniques from Smith and considered him a father figure. David Smith was awarded the prestigious Guggenheim Fellowship in 1950. In 1965 Smith was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson to serve on the National Council on the Arts.

Andrea Dworkin '68 studied literature at Bennington College. A prolific writer, she fondly recounted Bennington experiences in her book, Heartbreak: the Political Memoir of a Militant Feminist. "I loved the theory classes. Mine was with the composer Vivian Fine. The first assignment, which was lovely, was to write a piece for salt and pepper shakers." Of Louis Calabro she wrote, "My adviser, the composer Louis Calabro, taught me a lot about music, but there was always a kind of cross-fertilization-I'd bring the poems, the short stories, every now and then a novel...I loved the old music building."

Sources:
Dworkin, Andrea. Heartbreak:The Political Memoir of a Feminist Militant. London: Continuum International Publishing, 2010. Print.
Hamill, Sarah. David Smith: Works/Writings/Interviews. Barcelona: Ediciones Polígrafa, 2011. Print.
Waldman, Diane. Kenneth Noland: A Retrospective. New York: Guggenheim, 1977. Print.
Smith, David. Informal Talk. March 26, 1959. Bennington College Archive: Bennington. Paper.
Seena, Israel. "Dynamic Sculpture Pieces Exhibited by David Smith." The Bennington Weekly. 30 November 1951. Print.