“I don't make boy sculptures,” said artist David Smith, interviewed in 1964. All the willowy, boxy or shiny metal beings he built were girls, some explicitly modeled after his own adorable daughters, others more vaguely female. However chauvinistic or cliché it may have been, the girl-boy distinction got at something key to Smith's oeuvre: Always, his forms' organic, anthropomorphic charm swallowed up their brute, industrial qualities.
Ten years before Smith's 1965 death, by car accident in rural Vermont, he began arranging his welded girls around his farm in Bolton Landing, N.Y. In photographs, the sculptures stand against big expanses of sky like devout members of a slightly dysfunctional family.
For “Cubes and Anarchy,” its Smith survey running through July 24, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has reunited the family and tried to re-create some semblance of open sky. The newly built, single-story Resnick Pavilion holds an army of Smith's work, from early Cubist-inspired, alien look-alikes to the late Cubi series of angular steel behemoths.
Carol Eliel, the exhibition's curator, asked architect Brenda Levin to be its designer even before the Resnick was complete. Known for sensitively restoring landmarks like the Griffith Observatory and downtown's Bradbury Building, Levin punctuated the pavilion with white scrims, see-through weaves suspended at various angles.
LACMA doesn't use portable walls in the Resnick, and walls don't make sense for an open-air enthusiast such as Smith anyway. So, in theory, scrims seem inspired. Like Smith's sculptures, they have a whimsical, ladylike elegance that butts up against their industrial function. Their legacy was at first functional, as the same material initially reinforced upholstery or smoothed walls beneath plaster. It later became creative — in the 1940s, designer Joe Mielziner repurposed scrims to mark the transition between reality and memory in early Tennessee Williams plays. Scrims also allow natural light to course through the show uninterrupted — “like a May morning in Santa Monica,” according to columnist William Poundstone.
They instantly expose the exhibition's scope, since from the front of the Resnick you can make out the ghostly silhouettes of sculptures all the way at the back. But the scrims only half-evoke openness. They tease you with glimpses of what's ahead, but guide you through as firmly and sensibly as any typical museum walls would. You encounter late-career Cubis first, then, to the right, smaller early work and, to the left, later painted pieces.
At Bolton Landing, Smith's unisex sculptures were sometimes tangled, sometimes stoic, always tribal and peculiar. The scrims tamp this peculiarity more gently than other solutions would, but they still tamp it. And while it's a lot to want LACMA to break from the conventional, edifying museum role, it would be satisfying to see Smith's work less segregated, more anarchic.