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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.”
OH WHY OH,
DID I EVER LEAVE
O HI OH?”
“YOUR SON, DAVID SMITH”
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.