An American sculptor's departure into protest
By J. Nicole Long
During the rise of fascism in Europe and the first stirrings of World War II, American sculptor David Smith crafted a series of brass medals never intended to adorn soldiers' uniforms. He made medals of dishonor.
On display at the Boston University Art Gallery until February 28, David Smith: Medals for Dishonor includes pages from his sketch books, studies, paintings, and preliminary casts. Smith kept extensive files and based his images on photographs and texts from newspaper and magazine clippings. His explicit compositions evoke disgust for the human capacity for war, racism, power and exploitation, and demonstrate the artist's profound sympathy for their victims. He was not optimistic that the exploitation and violence he depicted would disappear, but he hoped his medals, created between 1936 and 1943, would raise consciousness and serve as agents of social change.
Smith, born in Decatur, Ind., in 1906, moved in 1926 to New York, where he befriended artists disenchanted with what seemed to them the static and provincial nature of American art. In a 1996 essay titled "David Smith in Protest," art critic Dore Ashton writes about the late 1930s, "Almost the entire public press was patriotically incensed by the paintings and sculptures occasionally exhibited in America by the pioneers of modernism, among them Matisse, Picasso, and Brancusi. In the face of such opposition, young experimental artists such as Smith saw modernism as a cause."
Three years after Smith arrived in New York, the Great Depression devastated the world. After Franklin Delano Roosevelt's election as president in 1932, he quickly took relief measures, such as establishing the federally financed Works Progress Administration, one of whose branches was an artists' project. The project favored social realism and faced artists with many conflicting demands. Smith was a minority among WPA artists when he chose to defend modernism, "fighting both against political conservatism (as leftists, which many of their antagonists among the realists were also) and against aesthetic conservatism (as radical experimentalists in the abstract mode)," writes Ashton.
While continuing to create abstract welded sculpture, Smith's undertaking of the medals project marked an aesthetic shift from the formative work of the 1930s to deeply personal work in the 1940s.
The medals, sometimes referred to as plaques, vary in shape and size, ranging between 7 1/2 and 14 1/8 inches. To illustrate the 15 societal ills that he saw confronting humankind in the late 1930s -- with titles such as Elements Which Cause Prostitution, Scientific Body Disposal, and Diplomats: Fascist and Fascist Tending -- Smith departed from the abstract for which he was known and used literal images for the medals, among them the human figure, cannons, and industrial cranes. Smith's medals, refined after casting with jeweler's tools and a dentist's drill, convey his outrage for the suffering inflicted by war and indict those who seek to gain power by waging it.
The exhibition is a rare opportunity to see work from Smith's brief departure from abstraction. The images are raw and disturbing. The female figure is often portrayed coupled with a cannon that is clearly a phallus. Sometimes the figure is a rape victim, sometimes a prostitute. The composition of the medals suggests the surreal, hectic nature of a circus while illustrating the dehumanization of war. Diplomats: Fascist and Fascist Tending has a two-faced politician, and a muscular male figure that seems to impale a female on a phallic pole. The female appears simultaneously to be a corpse and an acrobat, and just beneath her is a seal balancing a ball on its nose. Smith wrote poemlike texts to accompany the medals and further refine his intentions. For Diplomats: Fascist and Fascist Tending he wrote, "There is danger that the muscleman may have his achillean heel nipped by the gila. The deadliest guns are not in the field but in the chancelleries!"
By the time Smith's medals were ready to be shown, however, the political climate had radically changed, and his protest and commentary appeared naive. Consequently, his medals were not as acclaimed as his other work. Fundamentally a socialist, Smith had ruthlessly criticized capitalism, but then felt the American government should intercede against Hitler. "He, and many of his colleagues," Ashton writes, "had become convinced that America's intervention was necessary by then." Although his perception of the war changed, the medals are a testament to the penetrating conflict Smith experienced as its witness.
The exhibition and all gallery events are free and open to the public. For more information, call 617-353-3329.