20TH CENTURY ART
David Smith was an Abstract Expressionist artist. He’s best known for creating large steel sculptures. After World War II, his art helped open up new possibilities for sculpture in America. His sculptures combined the techniques of American industry with the aesthetics of European modernism.One of his most famous sculptures is called Hudson River Landscape, and here’s how it came to be.
“ALL ABOARD” AND TRAIN LEAVING STATION
In 1950, Smith had to take a series of ten train rides between Albany and Poughkeepsie New York. The trip was 75 miles each way and the train tracks ran right alongside the Hudson River for much of the trip.
INTERIOR PASSENGER TRAIN. REPETITIVE CLICK OF TRACKS...
While he rode these trips, Smith made a series of sketches as he looked out the train window at the Hudson River and the riverbanks, working on ideas for a new sculpture. On one trip, he was shaking up a bottle of India ink when it spilled out all over his hand.
BOTTLE SPILL SFX (“OH”)
He looked at his ink stained hand, placed it on his sketch paper, and the image left on the paper gave him the idea for the sculpture that became Hudson River Landscape. Because of the title, you might think it’s easy look at the sculpture and see realistic, literal images of water, riverbanks, and trees. But, remember, the sculpture is abstract. So it’s impossible to identify its shapes exactly. The shapes in the sculpture represent Smith’s impressions, gathered on his train trips along the Hudson, and then expressed in his favorite medium, steel.
TRAIN SOUNDS OUT
And now here’s a verbal description of David Smith’s sculpture Hudson River Landscape.
The sculpture is made of pieces of steel, welded together and painted a rusty brown. The shape of the sculpture is roughly a large, open-sided rectangular box. It’s approximately 6 feet long horizontally, 4 feet tall vertically, and 16 inches deep. But there are no walls to this box. There’s a lot of open space in the sculpture between the steel pieces, so you can easily see through much of the sculpture to the background wall. All this empty space makes the sculpture feel light, even though we know it’s made of steel and very heavy. Another reason the sculpture feels light is that it rests on a single pedestal about a foot tall under its center. So most of the sculpture has nothing under it, making it feel a bit like it’s floating.
From the front, one of its long sides, the sculpture looks like a drawing hanging in space, even though it’s more than sixteen inches deep.
At the time he did Hudson River Landscape, Smith said he thought of sculpture more as “drawing in space” than in the traditional terms of volume and mass. In 1952 he wrote, “If a sculpture could be a line drawing, then speculate that a line drawing removed from its paper bond and viewed from the side would be a beautiful thing.”
You can see this idea of a line drawing in that all the shaped pieces in the sculpture are connected and your eye can move freely from one to another easily, like following a line, and maybe suggesting how you look out the window of a moving train.
Smith always said that words cannot in any way represent what is expressed in a work of art. With that in mind, here’s an attempt to describe his sculpture.“The total is a unity of symbolized reality, which to my mind is far greater reality than the river scene… Is my work Hudson River Landscape, the Hudson River, or is it the travel, the vision, the ink spot? Or does it matter? The sculpture exists on its own. It is the entity. The name is an affectionate designation of the point prior to travel. My objective was not these words or the Hudson River, but to create the existence of a sculpture. Your response may not travel down the Hudson River, but it may travel on any river, or on a higher level.”
There are long thin bands of steel across the sculpture near the bottom, in the middle, and near the top. Some lines are straight, some curve gently, some have dramatic bends in them. The bands of steel might suggest train tracks. Just above the bottom a long, irregular band of steel swoops and curves across the entire sculpture, perhaps suggesting a riverbank. And the lowest piece of steel, on the lower right, looks like a series of 4 little steps of a stairway, possibly suggesting steps up onto a train car.
At the right side, about half way up the sculpture is a tall triangular shape, that may suggest the sail of boat. Opposite this shape on the left side of the sculpture is a roughly circular shape, possibly a cloud. A smaller circular shape is higher up in the center of the sculpture, maybe another cloud. Near the very top of the sculpture at the right and left are two roughly rectangular shapes, each with vertical lines inside. These suggest windows of a train.
Anyone experiencing Smith’s Hudson River Landscape is of course free to interpret the meanings of the shapes in any way. Maybe the sculpture represents a static representation of what it looked like out the train window. Or maybe it represents Smith’s feelings and emotions as he rode.
Here’s how Smith wrote about the work: