PhD Research: “From Dreams and Visions and Things Not Known”: Technique and Process in David Smith’s Drawings. (Richard Mulholland)

Posted on Tue, 12/13/2016 - 18:38

Name: Richard Mulholland          


Title of research project / research interests: “From Dreams and Visions and Things Not Known”: Technique and Process in David Smith’s Drawings.


Type of research e.g. PhD or Postdoc: PhD


Affiliation(s): Royal College of Art/Victoria and Albert Museum, London


Supervisor(s): Dr. Narayan Khandekar, Dr. Harriet Standeven


Date of completion: April 2010

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Previous education and/or work experience: BA History of Art (University of Leicester, UK), MA (Conservation of Fine Art (Northumbria University, UK). Senior Research Assistant (Northumbria University UK); Kress Conservation Fellow, Harvard Art Museums;  Mellon Conservation Fellow (Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York); Paper Conservator, Artist Rooms (Tate Modern, UK), Paper Conservator (Victoria & Albert Museum, UK), Leverhulme Research Fellow (Bodleian Library, University of Oxford UK)




For the American sculptor, David Smith (1906–1965), drawing was a language to replace words. It was the subconscious immediacy of drawing that allowed formal concepts to take shape during the laborious process of welding steel. In the 1950s, Smith’s sculptural output increased dramatically in both scale and quantity. At the same time, his drawings acquired a separate identity, largely independent of his sculpture, yet these drawings, and indeed much of Smith graphic process, have to date not been studied in depth from a technical perspective.  


Utilising the technical study as its mode of inquiry, this thesis investigates the complex tacit knowledge present in Smith’s work, particularly as it exists in the relationship between the practice of drawing and the practice of sculpture, and applies it to the understanding of his oeuvre. Unravelling this tacit or hidden knowledge reveals that Smith attached much significance to materials. More pertinently, this approach prompts a hypothesis that argues for a simultaneous and synergistic material relationship between sculptural and drawing in Smith’s practice. The elucidation of the tacit within Smith’s work, for example, when framed within recent understanding of the importance of tactile perception in experiencing works of art reveals that Smith may have used materials that both perceptually and physically extended drawing into three dimensions and, further, that these materials had resonance with materials used in his sculpture.


Studying the technical aspects of Smith’s process inevitably provides a framework for discussion on durability, damage and authenticity in his work. Smith’s extensive investigation into quality materials - both industrial and artistic – is discussed as a function of his self-identity not as Artist, but rather as Industrial Worker, with a pragmatic interest in the use of durable materials in his work, both graphic and sculptural. The fact that a significant number of Smith’s painted sculptures and drawings have aged poorly is therefore difficult to reconcile. It raises questions about the true durability of his media, why they have deteriorated and, more importantly, how an understanding of the tacit, technique and process might be crucial for decisions made for their conservation.


In this context the deterioration of a substantial number of Smith’s iconic drawings from the 1950s is discussed in juxtaposition with the now notorious decision in the early 1970s to completely  remove badly deteriorated paint from a number of his unfinished sculptures by the then Executors of Smith’s estate, ostensibly to preserve the integrity of his work. That alteration has occurred in both drawing and sculpture in Smith’s work is highly significant, given Smith’s lack of demarcation between the disciplines. It provides a base for discussion on the meaning of intent, damage and restoration in Smith’s work and suggests that even small changes in surface texture, gloss or colour might irrevocably alter our perception of them.


The results of the investigation provide several important observations: Firstly, that there is a considerable tacit dimension to Smith’s graphic work not previously considered in studies of his practice and that in understanding this, it becomes clear that Smith used drawing in a more complex and vital manner than previously considered. Secondly, that Smith’s drawings were informed to a great extent by both three-dimensionality and by the materials he chose and further, that tactility and notions concerning the haptic perception of objects might provide insight into Smith’s work, and indeed might be applied equally to his drawing as it can to his sculpture. Thirdly, that Smith’s ideological stance as an industrial worker profoundly affected his process and the materials choices he made, and finally, that change in Smith’s works whether the result of deterioration or deliberate intervention might profoundly alter perception and understanding of such nuanced work.


Keywords: David Smith; welded steel sculpture; modern drawings; modern media; modern paints; automobile paint; painted sculpture; Clement Greenberg; tacit knowledge; haptics.                                                                      


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