Born in 1906 to a telephone engineer and a schoolteacher, David Smith was raised in the Midwest and moved to New York City in 1926 at the age of twenty, intending to pursue a career as a painter. Studying at the Art Students League, he become acquainted with the works of Picasso, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and the Russian Constructivists, before turning to sculpture in the early 1930s. Profoundly influenced by the welded metal sculptures of Julio González and of Picasso—whose work he saw reproduced in the French art magazine Cahiers d'Art—Smith created works of great originality in the 1930s and 1940s, constructing compositions from steel and "found" scrap material.
In 1940 Smith moved permanently to a former fox farm near Bolton Landing, New York, a small resort community north of Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains. He named his studio there Terminal Iron Works, after a machine shop on the Brooklyn waterfront where he had worked previously, and installed welding equipment.
In the early 1950s, Smith began to enlarge the size of many of his welded sculptures, making constructions slightly taller than human beings. He also began to work more programmatically in series, first with the Agricolas, welded-steel constructions that incorporated parts of farm tools, and then with the Tanktotems, which incorporated circular elements—industrial tank tops—he ordered from a factory. From the late 1950s until his death at age fifty-nine, Smith produced the larger constructed works for which he is best known, including the Sentinel, Zig, and Cubi series, the period from which this exhibition is drawn.
In 1961, at first working with cardboard maquettes he constructed in three dimensions from old liquor cartons, Smith began to compose his stainless-steel works not from flat planes but from a stock of volumetric forms he ordered to his specifications from a steel fabricator. These were hollow rectangular boxes, cubes, cylinders, and round, pillow-like shapes. After these welded volumes were in turn welded together into upright sculpture, Smith (or, sometimes, his studio assistant) used an electrically powered carborundum disk to clean the welds into neat edges and inscribe the surfaces of the stainless parts with random marks that Smith likened to paint strokes. The burnished surfaces both absorb and reflect light, so that the appearance of the sculptures change according to the weather and time of day.