Born in Decatur,
Indiana on March 9, 1906, Smith grew up in Paulding,
Ohio, where his father Harvey ran the Paulding
Telephone Company and mother Golda taught school.
He studied at Ohio University and the University
of Notre Dame, but dropped out to become a welder
on an automobile production line in South Bend,
Indiana. He joined the Art Students League of
New York in 1927. There, he discovered the works
of Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky, and the Russian
Constructivists, and became friends with Arshile
Gorky, Willem de Kooning, Jan Matulka, and Jackson
Profoundly influenced by the welded sculptures
of Julio González and of Picasso, Smith
started devoting himself entirely to metal sculptures,
constructing compositions from steel and "found"
scrap material. In the summer of 1929, Smith,
along with his then wife Dorothy Dehner, bought
a house in Bolton Landing, in upstate New York
and won the Logan Medal of the arts.
In 1940, Smith moved permanently to Bolton Landing
and created the Terminal Iron Works studio.
In the long term, this allowed him to enlarge
the size of many of his welded sculptures, moving
to installations that increased in size as time
passed by. In the short term, the Second World
War disrupted Smith's supply of metal and reduced
the demand for abstract art, leading Smith to
draw and paint more than he had done previously.
Smith painted prolifically throughout most of
his career. He created landscapes, cubist abstractions
and in the 1960s a series of sprayed pictographs
that resemble visual studies for his Cubi sculptures.
However, with the end of conflict came a flood
of new works, on a larger scale than ever before.
In 1950, the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation
awarded Smith a fellowship, removing the financial
constraints and allowing him to spend more time
sculpting. Furthermore, it allowed Smith to
continue to create larger works and longer and
more articulated series of works. The first
of these were the Agricola (1951-1957) and Tanktotem
In 1957, the Museum of Modern Art, New York
City, presented a Smith retrospective, complete
with work dating back to 1932. In 1961, MoMA
organized a major traveling exhibition of his
In 1962, the government of Italy invited Smith
to create two works for a festival, and gave
him free access to an abandoned welding studio
in the small town of Voltri, in Liguria. There,
finding massive stockpiles of material, Smith
decided to switch his plans from stainless steel
to steel. The result was his Voltri series:
27 sculptures created in just 30 days. Still
not satisfied with these, he shipped many tonnes
of steel from Voltri back to the Bolton Landing,
so that he could continue to work with the same
material. Throughout late 1962 and early 1963,
Smith produced a similarly-themed series, which
he called Voltron, which was more varied and
more prominently incorporated the trademark
verticality of Tanktotem.
He began his Cubi series of monumental, geometric
steel sculptures in 1961 (although he began
in earnest only in 1963). They are considered
some of the most important works of 20th century
American sculpture. In recognition of his influence
on abstract expressionism, Smith was appointed
to the National Council on the Arts by President
Lyndon B. Johnson in 1965. However, at the peak
of his influence and still working on Cubi,
he died in a car crash near Bennington, Vermont
in May 1965.