In Agricola XIII, David Smith reincarnates steel farming implements into a sculpture as impossibly elegant as the Grande Odalisque’s endless spine. The sculpture’s poetic economy of form serves as an homage to the farmers who used industrial tools to work the land of Bolton Landing, New York, where Smith had a home and studio. The artist drew inspiration from the local landscape where he located the disused farming tools that became his sculptural material. Agricola XIII, and others from the highly acclaimed series (named after the Latin word for “farmer”), crucially subverted notions of “appropriate” sculptural material; visually, the works’ intermittent flatness challenged widely held distinctions between two- and three-dimensional forms. In Smith’s hands, an aesthetically and ontologically fertile abstraction—gracefully linear, open and light—emerges from the supposed inelegance of working the land with basic steel tools; the materials give way to a “new unity, one that is strictly visual” (D. Smith in R. Krauss, The Sculpture of David Smith: a Catalogue Raisonné, New York and London, 1977, p. 55). Smith elevated the notion of “drawing in space” pioneered by Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez to new heights, imbuing it with a distinctly American spirit. Agricola XIII is a veritable masterpiece in a series that boldly changed the history—and presciently, the direction—of sculpture.
In Agricola XIII, the industrial steel material of farming implements seems to be emptied of itself, rendered graceful and light in a masterfully constructed form. Horizontal and vertical planes meet in alternating cross sections. On the horizontal plane, three elongated strokes of steel converge on a circle that, tensile and compressed, is fitted with a clamp. At the opposite “end”—the extent to which the term is befitting certainly reiterates the sculpture’s status as a “drawing in space”— a steel rod encircles a beautifully curving form reminiscent of a harp. The tentacular appendages peppering the sculpture’s vertical backbone call to mind Surrealist Yves Tanguy’s dystopian landscapes. Despite the industrial materials that compose it, Agricola XIII boasts beautiful irregularities of form. Lumps, bulges, incisions, and welded jointures invite touch or imbue opticality with a level of tactility. Saturated with optical surprises, the sculpture playfully flits between two and three dimensions. Disparate perspectives reveal varying patinas, a range that draws attention to the nuances of the work’s surface. In steel Smith found a beauty and economy that other materials couldn’t access. In fact, the artist noted, “The material called iron and steel I hold in high respect. What it can do in arriving at a form economically, no other material can do. The material itself possesses little art history. What associations it possesses are those of this century: power, structure, movement, progress, suspension, brutality” (D. Smith quoted in K. Wilkin, David Smith, New York, 1984, p. 20).
Like the other works of the Agricola series, which Smith began in 1951 as the first of several overlapping series that were to characterize his oeuvre, Agricola XIII is made from farming implements, the industrial tools that were used to make the land in the artist’s beloved Bolton Landing productive. Smith found these tools abandoned around the 86 acres he owned in the Adirondack Mountains, fields that he notably dotted with sculptures. By welding implements into art, the artist nodded to agriculture and industry as conditions essential to American life. Agricola XIII is both representative of its time and place and suggestive of the elegant lyricism and groundbreaking conceptual rejection of the volumetric that characterized the work of Smith’s European counterparts. An avid consumer of art and art history, Smith brought his strong formal vocabulary—steeped in Constructivism, Cubism (particularly Cubist collage), and Surrealism—to steel implements, elevating their form and content to the highest art. The sculptor’s use of empty space as a material developed concepts pioneered by Picasso and laid essential groundwork for the Minimalist sculpture that was to come.
Born in Decatur, Indiana in 1906, David Smith learned how to rivet and solder as an employee at an automobile factory. After studying illustration in his youth, he pursued painting classes while working at Morris Plan Bank in New York. After a visit to Bolton Landing in 1927, Smith and wife Dorothy Dehner purchased property in the area, visiting every summer until settling on the estate full-time in 1940. The starkly beautiful landscape of Bolton Landing played an important role in honing Smith’s elegant sculptural aesthetic. A prestigious Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in 1950 allowed Smith to fully focus on his work; shortly thereafter in 1951, the artist began the Agricola series at the height of his artistic career. A brilliant innovator and a masterful craftsman across media, Smith is widely recognized as one of the most important sculptors of his time, heralded by Clement Greenberg as “the best sculptor of his generation” (C. Greenberg, “David Smith,” Clement Greenberg: The Collected Essays and Criticisms Vol. 3, Chicago, 1993, p. 277). Graceful yet industrial, complex yet sincere, Agricola XIII is a gleaming highlight of this master sculptor’s oeuvre.
David Smith (1906-1965)
The Arthur and Anita Kahn Collection: A New York Story
David Smith , 1950s, Sculptures, Statues & Figures, United States of America, Post War
New York, Fine Arts Associates, Sculpture by David Smith, September-October 1957, pp. 6 and 8, no. 3 (illustrated).
New York, French and Company, Inc, David Smith Sculpture, February–March 1960, pp. 1 and 4, no. 26 (illustrated).
Troy, Emma Willard School, The Ideal Small School-Community Museum, October 1960.
London, Tate Gallery; Otterlo, Rijksmuseum Kröller-Müller; Kunsthalle Basel; Duisburg, Wilhelm Lehmbruck Museum and Nuremberg, Städtische Kunstsammlung, David Smith 1906-1965, August 1966-May 1967, pp. 6 and 25, no. 13 (illustrated).
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts and Washington, D.C., Corcoran Gallery, David Smith, March-November 1969, p. 85, no. 47 (illustrated).
Mountainville, Storm King Art Center, David Smith Exhibition, May-June 1976, p. 5.
Washington, D.C., National Gallery of Art, David Smith: Seven Major Themes, November 1982-April 1983, pp. 68 and 81-82, no. 5, fig. 13 (illustrated).
Dusseldorf, Kunstsammlung Nordrhein-Westfalen; Frankfurt, Städelsches Kunstinstitut and London, Whitechapel Gallery, David Smith: Sculpture and Drawings, March 1986-January 1987, pp. 76 and 173, no. 25 (illustrated).
Valencia, Instituto Valenciano de Arte Moderno and Madrid, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, David Smith 1906-1965, January-July 1996, pp. 204-205 and 264 (illustrated).
Roslyn Harbor, Nassau County Museum of Art, Twentieth Century Sculpture, March-May 1999, pp. 17, 44 and 93 (illustrated in color).
Tel Aviv Museum of Art, David Smith: Paintings, Sculptures and Medals, November 1999-February 2000, pp. 53, 158, 196 and 199, no. 36 (illustrated in color).
Indianapolis Museum of Art and New Orleans Museum of Art, Crossroads of American Sculpture: David Smith, George Rickey, John Chamberlain, Robert Indiana, William T. Wiley, Bruce Nauman, October 2000-September 2001, p. 89 (illustrated in color).
New York, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; Paris, Centre Pompidou, Musée national d'art moderne and London, Tate Modern, David Smith: a Centennial, February 2006-January 2007, pp. 317-318, no. 64 (illustrated in color).
35 1/2 x 43 x 12 in. (90.2 x 109.2 x 30.5 cm.)
H. Kramer, "Month in Review," Arts, v. 32, no. 1, October 1957, pp. 50-51 (illustrated).
"David Smith 1906-1965," Art and Artists, v. 1, September 1966, p. 47 (illustrated).
David Smith 1906-1965: A Retrospective Exhibition, exh. cat., Cambridge, Fogg Art Museum, Harvard University, 1966, pp. 8-9, 46 and 74, fig. 28 (illustrated).
R. Krauss, The Sculpture of David Smith: A Catalogue Raisonné, New York and London, 1977, p. 58, no. 285 (illustrated).
K. Wilkin, David Smith, New York, 1984, pp. 52-53, fig. 58 (illustrated).
"Kunst: Hugel im Saal," Der Spiegel, no. 12, 1986, p. 240 (illustrated).
M. Fried, "David Smith," Artforum, v. 44, no. 10, Summer 2006, pp. 341-342 (illustrated in color).
S. C. Munson, "David Smith's Vision," Commentary, v. 121, no. 5, May 2006, p. 64.
D. Jowitt, "Dances with Sculpture," Tate Etc., no. 8, Autumn 2006, p. 99.
A. Potts, "Exhibition Review: Robert Rauschenberg and David Smith--Compelling Contiguities," Art Bulletin v. LXXXIX, no. 1, March 2007, p. 153, fig. 6 (illustrated).
Collection of the artist
Fine Arts Associates, New York
Lee A. Ault, New York, 1957
His sale; Parke-Bernet Galleries, New York, 11 December 1963, lot 33
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner