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David Smith never came to Hampstead but his ideas did

PUBLISHED: 11:03 15 January 2007 | UPDATED: 10:30 07 September 2010

By Alison Oldham THE American sculptor David Smith never came to Hampstead – but his ideas did. In 1959, Anthony Caro made his first visit to New York where he got to know Smith and saw his constructed metal sculptures. Back in his studio, then a modest g

By Alison Oldham

THE American sculptor David Smith never came to Hampstead - but his ideas did. In 1959, Anthony Caro made his first visit to New York where he got to know Smith and saw his constructed metal sculptures. Back in his studio, then a modest garage at his home in Frognal, Caro changed direction from monumental plaster figures to welded abstract steel.

Just as he had learnt from Henry Moore through being his assistant in the 50s, "Caro wanted now to learn from Smith but avoid his shadow," says Primrose Hill author Ian Barker. In his 2004 book, Anthony Caro: Quest For The New Sculpture, he explores divergences in Caro's sculptures of the 60s - for instance, being largely on a horizontal axis as opposed to the vertical axis favoured by Smith.

However, north Londoners tend to be most familiar with Smith's work through its legacy in Caro's sculpture. So it was curiously appropriate that the first people I met at Smith's centennial exhibition at Tate Modern should be Sir Anthony Caro and his wife, the painter Sheila Girling. The couple still live in Frognal although Caro now has a studio complex in Camden Town. And they will have their first joint exhibition in 10 years at Roche Court in Wiltshire from May to September this year.

Familiarity with Smith's work had evidently not lessened its hold over Caro, who lingered among the drawings in the early rooms that are key to understanding Smith. Familiar as I am from illustrations with the large minimalist forms of later sculptures - he aspired to make one as big as a train - it was a surprise to discover that his sculptures were so delicate and small in size, if not scale, during his early years.

Influenced by Surrealism, they are also charged with meaning he preferred not to be interpreted verbally. Others have suggested that The Letter, a welded metal sculpture with a scribbled address and signature, represents a lament that he ever left Ohio, where he grew up, with the letters OY indicating Oh Why?

The pictograms were intended to be a form of symbolic expression that predated language. He described The Letter as "The return to origins - before purities were befouled by words. Before the ingrate word makers turned the artist's own symbols against him with a 'what does it mean'."

Smith wrote of The Cathedral that it's "a symbol of power - the state, the church, or any individual's private mansion built at the expense of others" and that a claw-like form pinning down a figure represents "a man subjugated - alive or dead, it doesn't matter."

The room it is in, with 11 other sculptures that are small by Smith's later standards, brought to mind photographs of the fields populated by dozens of sculptures at Bolton Landing, the property in rural upstate New York which he bought in 1929. Their dense alignment against the backdrop of mountains was an overwhelming and inspiring sight for all who visited.

Star Cage - like a metal drawing of a constellation - is a spectacular example of the sculptures infused by his feeling for raw nature. That all three of these diverse sculptures were made in 1950 demonstrates Smith's fertile imagination. He was to have 15 more highly-productive years, with works getting larger and what could be called emptier, more pared down. Smith later experimented with painted surfaces, then with ground, reflective surfaces on the geometric forms of the Cubis, perhaps his best-known works.

One May night in 1965, Smith's car went off the road in Vermont. The painter Robert Motherwell has described driving at 90mph to the hospital "where Tony Caro met us at the door and quietly told us David had died a few minutes before." In tribute Caro wrote: "For him no material was too intractable, no scheme too large, no dream too wild to be given life in sculpture."

Caro bought from Smith's estate a huge quantity - some 37 tons - of steel, including callipers, spanners and other scrap tools. When delivered to the courtyard in front of the garage studio in Frognal, to be cut up for his own sculptures, its impact on Caro was traumatic - "a kick up the backside." So David Smith eventually had a powerful presence in Hampstead beyond his ideas.

Until January 21 at Tate Modern, Bankside. Open Sunday -Thursday 10am-6pm, Friday and Saturday 10am-10pm. £7 and £5.50 concessions. Advance booking on 020-7887 8888.

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