Go ahead, take a long look
IN mature works such as this sculpture from the''Sentinel Series,'' David Smith treated conventions traditional to his art as if they were materials from which sculpture could be made. He was able to do this for two reasons.
One is that so much modern art that came before his had already placed received conventions in quotes, as it were, treating them as if they could no longer be obeyed unselfconsciously.
The other reason is that Smith's approach to making sculpture involved assembling things, rather than originating forms by carving or casting them. Rather than invent each form, Smith took to composing structures of elements whose form had already been determined by the routine workings of the steel milling industry.
As a result, the majority of Smith's late works proclaim themselves products of an industrial society, even though they are also recognizably the work of an individual artist. Smith saw to it that we could never be sure of the extent of invention in his works, as if this doubt were part of the price of fine art's uneasy coexistence with mass-production industry. We can readily recognize the I-beams in this sculpture as industrially precast elements, yet we cannot be sure whether their exact proportions are those of steel scraps found by the artist or whether he may have torch-cut them to the size he wanted. The ambiguous play of invention vs. ready-made components also occurs in Smith's handling of sculptural conventions.
Two key conventions come into play in this sculpture. One is the ''framing'' device of setting sculpture apart from other physical objects by placing it on a base or pedestal. The other is the use of the human figure as a format for composing a sculpture. Smith almost makes a joke of the problem of sculpture's whereabouts by putting small wheels on the three ''legs'' at the bottom of his piece. The wheels imply that the sculpture can travel, that its proper place in the contemporary world is shifting, or indeterminate or negotiable. Yet the wheels are positioned so as to make them useless as a means of moving the sculpture across the floor.
The base of this ''Sentinel'' seems a pretty clear-cut element at first glance, apart from those tricky wheels. Yet it seems to have two, possibly three , more base elements right on top of it, each rising to a different level. Only the eccentric topmost parts of the work seem to be definitively above base level. Perhaps the only way of dispelling the ambiguity is to accept the sculpture as ''baseless'' and accept the doubt that the word implies, resolving to view every part of the work as equally sculptural, or equally inert, depending on the depth of your skepticism.
As to whether this is an abstract sculpture or a violently abstracted human figure, Smith was likewise ingeniously and playfully evasive. Up to the topmost foot of the work's height, it looks wholly abstract, although the tall vertical strut at the left can be seen as a reference to the brace elements incorporated uneasily into many classical figure sculptures for structural reasons. Yet with defiant wit, Smith placed at the very top of the piece a thick disk that we cannot but see as referring to the human head or face. The question how far down into the sculpture the figure extends is the converse of the question how far up into it its base may rise.
Building such uncertainties into his sculpture was one of the ways Smith tried to ensure that we would not be able to take in his work at a glance but would have to go on and on looking. The ambition of every artist is to have us look long and hard at what he or she makes.