The Letter

No, this is not about The Boxtops, nor Joe Cocker’s cover of their mournful rock ballad from 1967, although there is a reference to a Broadway musical from 1953. This concerns any number of artists who moved to New York City during the early and middle years of the 20th Century. They came especially from the Mid-West. David Smith was one of them, having been born and raised in Decatur, Indiana. Often feeling homesick, there is a certain letter, in the form of a sculpture, which he imagined writing home.

A. Eriss
“David Smith”
B&W Photograph
1936
(p. 11; David Smith by David Smith.)

Smith first worked in offices in Washington, DC and New York, and later as a welder in a steelworks. He was simultaneously energized by the life and pace of the east coast and demoralized by the loneliness and solitude that he found there. “Yet lonesomeness is a state in which the creative artist must dwell much of the time….”1

This instantly reminded me of Rainer Maria Rilke and the advice he had written in a letter from Rome on 14 May 1904 to his younger poet friend: “This very wish will help you, if you use it quietly, and deliberately and like a tool, to spread out your solitude over wide country. People have (with the help of conventions) oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of easy; but it is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything alive holds to it, everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition. We know little, but that we must hold to what is difficult is a certainty that will not forsake us; it is good to be solitary, for solitude is difficult; that something is difficult must be a reason the more for us to do it.”2

David Smith was doubly aware of this I think. While many of his contemporaries were easily falling into camps based solely on media or subject matter, his stated goal was that this work was an attempt to bridge the gap between painting and drawing and sculpture: a most difficult project.

There are several examples of this work: severely linear pieces that often contain, or are made up of, an arrangement of attenuated forms and glyphs. A great example of this is a beautiful piece in the collection of the Indianapolis Museum of Art titled “The Egyptian Barnyard” and often described as a drawing in steel, or in this case, welded silver.

David Smith
“Egyptian Barnyard”
1954
Wrought and soldered silver on wood base
14 1/2” x 24” x 5 1/2”
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. James W. Alsdorf
Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indianapolis, Indiana

Although his work has often been held up as great formalist abstraction, there are specific examples of content inherent in many of Smith’s pieces. For instance, these figurative gesture drawings of the dancer Martha Graham.

David Smith
“Studies of Martha Graham”
1938
12” x 19”
Drawing on paper after a series of photographs by
Barbara Morgan.
Collection of Candida and Rebecca Smith.

There are also photographic references to his daughters running and tumbling through their back yard, portraits of other artists and characters, and even several pieces inspired directly from Alberto Giacometti’s early masterpiece “The Palace at 4:00 AM.”

David Smith
“Interior for Exterior”
1939
Steel and bronze
18” x 22” x 23 1/4”
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Orin Raphael

Over the years, writers such as Cleve Gray3 and Edward F. Fry4 have provided hints as to the content of “The Letter.” In 1967 at the Yale-Norfolk Summer School of Music and Art it was Mr. Gray who lectured on David Smith, whose biography he had just finished editing. In one of the earliest exhibitions I had visited at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, it was the David Smith Retrospective of 1969 that made a lasting impression. Finally, during my freshman year in art school in Baltimore, an early winter 1965 visiting artist lecture by David Smith himself still rings true to me in all that he said.

David Smith
“Sketchbook Study for The Letter”
c. 1950
Pen and ink and pencil on paper
David Smith Archives, III — 1283
New York, New York

In order to decipher this letter, we can see in the drawing study a salutation in the top left corner and a signature at the lower right. In between we have the written body made up of a series of scrap railroad hardware “h’s” and “y’s” and “o’s” forming a message. The particular wording of this letter itself is borrowed from a 1953 song that was included in the Broadway musical “Wonderful Town.”

In short, two young girls, sisters Ruth and Eileen Sherwood from Columbus, Ohio, arrive in Greenwich Village determined to make it in the city, one as a writer, the other as an actress. From their basement apartment, they are shaken by blasts from the nearby construction of a new subway line, as well as late night knocks on their door by ‘customers’ of the former tenant known as Violet. They are stricken with homesickness, and musically ask: Why oh why oh, did we leave Ohio? This reference did indeed become the content of David Smith’s “Letter.”

“DEAR MOTHER”

“OH WHY,
OH WHY OH,
DID I EVER LEAVE
O HI OH?”

“YOUR SON, DAVID SMITH”

David Smith
“The Letter”
1950
Steel
37 3/4” x 22 7/8 x 11”
The Munson-Williams-Proctor Institute
Utica, New York

1 Clark, Trinkett; The Drawings of David Smith; International Exhibitions Foundation; Washington, DC; 1985; p. 20.

2 Rilke, Rainer Maria; Letters to a Young Poet; W. W. Norton & Company; New York, New York; 1934 & 1962; p. 53.

3 Gray, Cleve, ed.; David Smith by David Smith; Holt, Rinehart and Winston; New York, New York; 1968.

4 Fry, Edward F.; David Smith; The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum; New York, New York; 1969.

THE PALACE AT 4:00 AM

“In the Palace at 4 A.M. you walk from one room to the next by going through the walls. You don’t need to use the doorways. There is a door, but it is standing open, permanently. If you were to walk through it and didn’t like what was on the other side you could turn and come back to the place you started from. What is done can be undone.”[i]

palace1
Alberto Giacometti
“My Studio”
1932
Pencil on paper
12 9/16” x 18 7/16”
Kupferstichkabinett, Kunstmuseum, Basel

In a drawing of the interior of his studio in 1932, we can see an in progress state of this sculpture sitting squarely in the middle ground. Alberto Giacometti completed the “Palace at 4:00 AM” sometime in 1933 and by 1936 it had been purchased by the Museum of Modern Art in New York for its permanent collection.

“This object took shape little by little in the late summer of 1932; it revealed itself to me slowly, the various parts taking their exact form and their precise place within the whole. By autumn it had attained such reality that its actual execution in space took no more than one day.

It is related without any doubt to a period in my life that had come to an end a year before, when for six whole months hour after hour was passed in the company of a woman who, concentrating all life in herself, magically transformed my every moment. We used to construct a fantastic palace at night—days and nights had the same color, as if everything happened just before daybreak; throughout the whole time I never saw the sun—a very fragile palace of matchsticks.

At the slightest false move a whole section of this tiny construction would collapse.

We would always begin it over again.

palace2
Alberto Giacometti
“The Palace at 4:00 AM”
1932-1933
Wood, glass, wire and string
25” high
Museum of Modern Art, New York

I don’t know why it came to be inhabited by a spinal column in a cage—the spinal column this woman sold me one of the very first nights I met her on the street—and by one of the skeleton birds that she saw the very night before the morning in which our life together collapsed—the skeleton birds that flutter with cries of joy at four o’clock in the morning very high above the pool of clear, green water where the extremely fine, white skeletons of fish float in the great unroofed hall.

In the middle there rises the scaffolding of a tower, perhaps unfinished or, since its top has collapsed, perhaps also broken.

On the other side there appeared the statue of a woman, in which I recognize my mother, just as she appears in my earliest memories. The mystery of her long black dress touching the floor troubled me;

it seemed to me like a part of her body, and aroused in me a feeling of fear and confusion. All the rest has vanished, and escaped my attention. This figure stands out against the curtain that is repeated three times, the very curtain I saw when I opened my eyes for the first time . . . .

I can’t say anything about the red object in front of the board;

I identify it with myself.”[ii]

Although Giacometti’s statement is a piece of surrealist writing in and of itself, it is a very lyrical story. As is the original sculpture. Its effect on the art world was almost immediate. At least three pieces by David Smith can trace their roots to this piece: “Home of the Welder” from 1945, “Interior for Exterior” from 1939, and “Interior” from 1937.

palace3
David Smith
“Interior”
1937
Painted steel and bronze
15 1/2” x 26” x 6”
Weatherspoon Art Gallery, University of North Carolina at Greensboro

Between 1935 and 1966 the sculptor Isamu Noguchi designed a total of twenty stage sets for the Martha Graham Dance Company. Sometime in the early 1940’s the choreographer approached the sculptor, proposing that he design the stage set for a new ballet. She insisted that he accompany her, right then and there, to the Museum of Modern Art to view Alberto Giacometti’s sculpture “The Palace at 4:00 AM.” Noguchi knew in an instant what Ms. Graham was asking of him and the quality of space that she was looking for. He agreed immediately to a stage design based on this piece and working with the composer Aaron Copeland the three of them produced one of the most important ballets of the 20th Century: “Appalachian Spring.”[iii]

palace4
Isamu Noguchi
“Stage set for the Martha Graham ballet Appalachian Spring”
Wood and paint on canvas
1944
The Isamu Noguchi Garden Museum, Long Island City, New York

The influence of this piece has continued to this day and has crossed over many boundaries and disciplines. In his novel of 1996, So Long, See You Tomorrow, William Maxwell uses this sculpture as both a reference and a structure for his writing. He weaves it in and out of the story in the same way that his characters, two young boyhood friends, weave their own way through growing up in the small town in Lincoln, Illinois.

“When, wandering through the Museum of Modern Art, I come upon the piece of sculpture by Alberto Giacometti with the title ‘Palace at 4 a.m.,’ I always stand and look at it—partly because it reminds me of my father’s new house in its unfinished state and partly because it is so beautiful”

“I seem to remember that I went to the new house one winter day and saw snow descending through the attic to the upstairs bedrooms. It could also be that I never did any such thing, for I am fairly certain that in a snapshot album I have lost track of there was a picture of the house taken in the circumstances I have just described, and it is possible that I am remembering that rather than the actual experience. What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory—meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion—is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end.”[iv]

 


[i] Maxwell, William; So Long, See You Tomorrow; Vintage International; New York, New York; 1996; pp. 131-132.

[ii] Selz, Peter; Alberto Giacometti; The Museum of Modern Art and Doubleday & Company; New York, New York; 1965; p. 44.

[iii] Graham, Martha; Blood Memory: An Autobiography; Doubleday; New York, New York; 1991; p. 223.

[iv] Maxwell, William; So Long, See You Tomorrow; pp. 25-27.