David Smith In Focus: Tanktotem VII

May 2, 2011
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Having selected all the works that are on view in David Smith: Cubes and Anarchy, it’s hard for me to talk about “a favorite”…and yet there are definitely individual pieces in the show that I have completely fallen in love with. One in particular is Tanktotem VII of 1960.

David Smith, Tanktotem VII, 1960, Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, New York, gift of the Ralph E. Ogden Foundation, Inc., © The Estate of David Smith, VAGA, NY; photo © Storm King Art Center, Mountainville, NY, by Jerry L. Thompson

Each sculpture in Smith’s Tanktotem series (begun in 1952 and completed in the early 1960s) includes the round lid (in whole or part) of a commercially manufactured boiler tank. To a greater or lesser degree all of these sculptures are anthropomorphic; Tanktotem VII is a particularly elegant and refined work in the series.

It is this graceful beauty combined with its rigor that makes Tanktotem VII so appealing to me. Cubes and Anarchy looks at Smith’s self-constructed blue-collar identity and his interest in the artistic vocabulary and the beliefs of early modernists who saw basic geometric form as a way to express their utopian optimism. Smith was fascinated by found industrial geometries and incorporated not only boiler tank lids but also circular saw blades and other such geometric forms into his work. At the same time, he often referenced the pure geometries of Russian avant-garde artists including Kazimir Malevich, who felt they could make the world a better place through the purity (and hence geometric abstraction) of their art. The white rectangle on the circular black tank lid of Tanktotem VII undoubtedly was informed by Malevich’s painted abstractions such as Black Square of 1915.

Kazimir Malevich, Black Square, 1915, location unknown

The surface of Tanktotem VII is itself a sumptuous painting. Although from afar Smith’s sculpture appears to be a simple combination of black and white, closer inspection in fact reveals deep midnight blues beneath both the black and the white areas, giving the sculpture a wonderful velvety richness.

Nuanced, tough, elegant…David Smith’s Tanktotem VII satisfies on all levels and needs to be seen “up close and personal.” I am already sad that the sculpture will be on view here at LACMA only through July 24!

Carol S. Eliel, Curator, Modern Art