David Smith

David Smith

What can we learn from a famous American artist and the development of his sculpture?

As a young man David Smith wanted to study art but found there was shortage of art classes. Eventually he ended up taking a summer job working on the assembly line of a car factory where he learnt the skills that eventually made him, and his sculpture, famous. A few years later he saw pictures of welded metal sculptures by two Spanish artists Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzales and realised that the techniques used to make cars could also be used to make sculpture. Welding metal was a much more immediate and direct way of working than the traditional ways of making sculpture.

Why was he so influential and what can we learn today from his way of working?

Key Stage:

KS3&4 Art and Design


A brief introduction to the work of American sculptor David Smith and the key characteristics of his approach to making sculpture. The lesson plan asks students to discuss what is abstract art and to have a go at making a sculpture using assemblage processes. This lesson can be used: -to start a sculpture project, -to develop drawing skills and use of sketchbooks to develop ideas -to gain an understanding of the routes of abstraction -to gain an understanding of the influence of other cultures on European artists

<b>About the artist. David Smith</b>

About the artist. David Smith

Traditionally metal sculpture is made by casting from an original sculpture in clay or wax into bronze. It is a complicated, slow and expensive process. David Smith made his sculptures by welding together metal in a much quicker way, almost like drawing with metal. His sculptures are assembled as they go and he compared adding metal to a sculpture to a painter adding a brushstroke to a painting.
<b>Welded metal sculpture</b>

Welded metal sculpture

In 1933 David Smith saw pictures of welded metal sculptures by two Spanish artists Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzales. He realised at that point that the techniques used in industry to make cars could also be used to make sculpture. Shortly afterwards he produced a series of small heads from industrial objects including Chain Head and Saw Head. They were made from cut metal and old tools and are probably the first metal welded sculptures made in the USA but more importantly represented a big step in the development of his work.
<b>Assembled sculptures</b>

Assembled sculptures

In an interview in 1952 Smith said “ Sculpture is no longer limited to the slow carving of marble and long process of bronze. It has found new form and new method. Here I’m talking about direct metal construction”. He ran his studio like a factory and assembled sculptures using techniques used in industry rather than traditional sculpting techniques derived from ancient times. In 1962 he was given the chance to work in an abandoned steel mill in Italy and with assistants he made 27 new works in 30 days.
<b> Abstract sculpture?  </b>

Abstract sculpture?

David Smith is often described as an abstract sculptor. One of his early works is Hudson River Landscape which is based on sketches made of the Hudson Valley in New York. This was an area Smith travelled through regularly by train. The definition of abstract art is - art that does not attempt to represent external reality, but rather seeks to achieve its effect using shapes, colours, and textures.
Discuss what abstract means and decide if you think Hudson River Landscape is an abstract sculpture.
<b>Suggested Classroom Activity</b>

Suggested Classroom Activity

Hudson River Landscape can be seen as a journey through a landscape. The original sketches for the work were made in black ink. Make a series of sketches for a similar free standing sculpture inspired by a place you know well. Work from memory and don't worry about making a realistic landscape. The sketches can be about the journey through the place as well as things you might see in the view. Like David Smith we used black ink but you could use pencil, watercolour, crayon, whatever you have.

<b>Suggested Classroom Activity cont </b>

Suggested Classroom Activity cont

Now choose one of your sketches to develop. Make a simple cut out collage with black sugar paper on a white background. Just cut freely with the scissors into the sheet and do not worry if your collage is slightly different to your drawing. All that is happening is that your ideas are developing. When it looks right stick the shapes down. You now have a design that could be made into a metal sculpture.
Now self assess your work. Look again at Hudson River Landscape and see if your opinion of the work has changed.

David Smith influence on contemporary artists

Brian Fell is a sculptor and metal worker who, in partnership with his son George, makes large scale public commissions at his workshop in Yorkshire. He is one of many artists who mention David Smith as a big influence on their work.

Development Activity:

Elsewhere on CultureStreet we have a film about another contemporary artist who was influenced by David Smith the wood worker and sculptor David Nash.

Henri Gaudier Brzeska was a sculptor whose work developed over just a few years after he came to London in 1911. The development of his work was a big influence on other artists. Find out more about this sculptor and have a go yourself here.

Learning Objectives:

Through using this lesson plan students should:
-Develop ideas through investigations, demonstrating critical understanding of sources.
-learn about the history of art, craft, design and architecture, including periods, styles and major movements from ancient times up to the present day.
-use a range of techniques to record their observations in sketchbooks, journals and other media as a basis for exploring their ideas
-analyse and evaluate their own work, and that of others, in order to strengthen the visual impact or applications of their work. In addition know and understand how sources inspire the development of ideas. For example, drawing on: the work and approaches of artists, craftspeople or designers from contemporary and/or historical contexts, periods, societies and cultures

Research, Notes and Links:

Download this lesson plan