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Art review: 'David Smith: Drawing Space' at Margo Leavin Gallery

April 14, 2011 |  5:15 pm

Smith,D_linear In the grim wake of World War II, David Smith usually signed his drawings with the ancient Greek letters delta and sigma, meant to stand for his initials. Using Greek wasn't empty pretension. A widespread American cultural movement sought to figure out how the shining promises of modernity could have gone so horribly wrong, allowing the fascist cataclysm. Returning to ancient, sometimes even prehistoric origins, almost as if to start over and try again from scratch, became a common artistic practice.

A Smith line-drawing in black ink in a large and lovely exhibition at Margo Leavin Gallery is emblematic. Made when he was 27 and struggling to find his way, it features a vaguely Doric column standing in the lower right corner of the page. A line sprouts from the abacus, the flat square stone at the column's top, and goes for a wild ride around the sheet.

The line zigs, loops, zags, swings, arcs and squiggles. Sometimes where it crosses itself, it defines a shape. Smith occasionally filled in those shapes with solid ink, parallel lines or crosshatch marks. Overall, the meandering line is bounded by the edges of the sheet, framing the space within.

It's as if the classical column is redefining the rules of harmony for the modern age, holding up the drawing's unexpected spatial volumes. Smith made it in March 1933, years before the war. But the nation was deep in the darkness of the Great Depression, and it coincided with the month of FDR's inauguration, with the new president's famous warning that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.

Smith,D_figure No direct connection between the drawing and those events should be inferred, of course, but indirectly they resonate. Smith's effort at rejuvenation would not mature until the postwar years. The show, whose 41 drawings include a few from the early 1930s and the rest from the early 1950s, ranges through a variety of stylistic experiments. But it most abundantly represents the critically important years 1952 to 1955, a period kicked off by Guggenheim Foundation grants that, for the first time, gave Smith the freedom to work without financial constraints.

Perhaps the most surprising drawings are three highly abstracted profile views of a seated woman, made over the course of several days in 1952. Introducing colored washes in red and green, these wonderfully animated, even playful drawings record a cigarette-wielding figure who seems to be engaged in spirited conversation with the artist as he works (and, by extension, with a viewer as he looks).

A fourth drawing splits the figure apart into thick, jagged black lines of force that push through a sea of Pepto-Bismol pink. A concurrent survey of Smith's sculptures now at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art demonstrates how he transformed line into an operating principle for sculpture. These marvelous  drawings show how that line evolved -- often in wholly unpredictable ways.

Margo Leavin Gallery, 812 N. Robertson Blvd., West Hollywood, (310) 273-0603, through May 14. Closed Sun. and Mon. www.margoleavingallery.com

ALSO:

Smith Art review: 'David Smith: Cubes & Anarchy' at LACMA

Art review: 'Vija Celmins: Television and Disaster, 1964-1966' at LACMA

Art review: 'William Leavitt: Theater Objects' at MOCA

-- Christopher Knight

@twitter.com/KnightLAT

Photos: David Smith (1906-1965), "9/8/52," egg ink and tempera on paper; "1/14-52," egg ink on paper; Credit: Margo Leavin Gallery

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