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.

BUT WHO ARE THEY?

Between 1902 and 1914 the poet Rainer Maria Rilke lived in Paris to work on a monograph and to act for a short time as the secretary for the sculptor August Rodin. It was Rodin who introduced him to other Parisian artists of the time, including Paul Cezanne. Influenced by the physicality of many of the paintings and sculptures he saw, Rilke developed a new style, which he called the “object poem.” This form of writing sought to capture the plastic presence of a physical object and resulted in imaginative interpretations of certain works of art.

Rilke began writing the “Duino Elegies” in 1912 while a guest of Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis at the Duino Castle near Trieste. For the next ten years however, the “Elegies” remained incomplete whilst Rilke fell frequently in and out of a depression partially caused by the events of World War I.

In 1915, while he was living in Munich and finding it difficult to secure suitable housing, Rilke asked Hertha Koenig if he might live for a while in her house while she and her family were in the country. His request was granted, and he lived there from June until October 1915. Sometime in 1914 Frau Koenig had purchased Picasso’s painting “The Family of Saltimbanques” and this is where Rilke was privileged to have lived with this painting for five months.

Later, in the summer of 1921 Rilke took up residence at the Château de Muzot, as the guest of another patron. Within the space of a few days in February 1922, he completed the Duino cycle, begun years earlier. The final section to be completed was the Fifth Elegy, which was dedicated to Frau Hertha von Koenig and based on this rose period masterpiece: “The Family of Saltimbanques.”

picasso-1
Pablo Picasso
“Family of Saltimbanques”
1905
Oil on canvas 
83 3/4″ x 90 3/8″
The Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

“But tell me, who are they, these acrobats, even a little
more fleeting than we ourselves,–so urgently, ever since childhood
wrung by an (oh, for the sake of whom?)
never-contented will? That keeps on wringing them,
bending them, slinging them, swinging them,
throwing them and catching them back; as though from an oily
smoother air, they come down on the threadbare
carpet, thinned by their everlasting
upspringing, this carpet forlornly
lost in the cosmos.
Laid on there like a plaster, as though the suburban
sky had injured the earth.”[i]

“There, the withered wrinkled lifter,
old now and only drumming,
shriveled up in his mighty skin as though it had once contained
two men, and one were already
lying in the churchyard, and he had outlasted the other,
deaf and sometimes a little strange.”[ii]

Who are they? They have become one and the same color as the sand and sawdust beneath their feet. Almost ghosts. It is a huge painting at the National Gallery with figures almost life size who know how to keep secrets. Even the painting itself has a secret: look for the water jug just behind the woman in the lower right, and the pointed stance of the young acrobat to her left, below that and just beneath the surface is a ghost of a leg, a pentimento of another earlier figure, now painted out of the picture. This lost figure, as well as the surviving ones are all ghosts now, inhabiting the rose desert of Rilke’s poem, but not always adding up to zero.

picasso-2
Pablo Picasso
“Family of Saltimbanques” (DETAIL)
1905
Oil on canvas
83 3/4″ x 90 3/8″
The Chester Dale Collection, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC

“And the yonger, the man, like the son of a neck
and a nun: so taughtly and smartly filled
with muscle and simpleness.”[iii]

“And then, in this wearisome nowhere, all of a sudden,
the ineffable spot where the pure too-little
incomprehensibly changes,–springs round
into that empty too-much?
Where the many-digited sum
solves into zero?”[iv]


 

[i] Rilke, Rainer Maria; The Duino Elegies, translated by J. B. Leishman and Stephen Spender; W. W. Norton & Company; New York, New York; 1963; p. 47.

[ii] Rilke, Rainer Maria; The Duino Elegies; p. 49.

[iii] Rilke, Rainer Maria; The Duino Elegies; p. 49.

[iv] Rilke, Rainer Maria; The Duino Elegies; p. 53.