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David Smith in Two Dimensions Photography and the Matter of Sculpture

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Toward Mass Reproduction as a Public Display

Yet the frantic abolition of all distances brings no nearness; for nearness does not consist in shortness of distance. What is least remote from us in point of distance, by virtue of its picture on film or its sound on the radio, can remain far from us.

Martin Heidegger, "The Thing," 1950

The year is 1946. David Smith has received two of his largest exhibitions to date, a pair of shows that earned him wide praise and helped to secure his reputation as "the best young sculptor in the country," as Clement Greenberg then lionized him in The Nation. Each exhibition included what the New Yorker critic Robert Coates called in a review Smith's "frenzied" postwar production, and each assumed a different audience using two distinct modes of display. The exhibitions reflected back to Smith two models of what sculpture's public address could be: one was spatial and material, inciting an experience of steel sculpture in the round, while the other was photographic, in which his works' pictorial qualities were amplified and dramatized in two dimensions.

In New York, the exhibition encompassed two Fifty-Seventh Street galleries-Smith's own, the Willard, and the neighboring Buchholz-to present fifty-four sculptures, along with drawings, in a way that invited critics to track Smith's career. Coates noted a "slump" during the war and a frenetic pace afterward, as the artist produced twenty sculptures in a frenzy he attributed to a "wartime obsession . . . still working its way to the surface." Greenberg observed a similar explosion of subject matter in Smith's postwar productions, although he was less impressed, noting that Smith's "phase of extravagance, disorder, and agitation is something he seems compelled to work his way through" linking the artist's "baroque vein" to "late history."

In an essay he wrote for the exhibition catalog, W. R. Valentiner hoped to couch those "wartime obsession[s]" in formal analysis. He explained how Smith manipulated two-dimensional images to achieve a three-dimensional encounter: "By walking around these sculptures, which are intended to be seen from all sides, the masses appear to be constantly shifting, revealing new views of exploding energy, of which parts seem to break through the frame unexpectedly, as if darting into space." Valentiner presented Smith's imagery of violence and war by evoking spatial instability and broken, bursting frames-a language aimed at a pub