A Few Thoughts on this Series

These pieces were all done in the years between l965 and l970. I have a strong feeling, especially in sculpture which uses metal, against the then common practice of the artist laying out a piece on paper and taking it to a metal fabricator to be constructed. I did all of the work in fabricating this series myself, from shearing, folding and rolling the shapes, welding the joints and finishing the surfaces down with much sanding and many coats of industrial lacquer. These are in no sense pencil and paper "design exercises".

At that time polychromed sculpture was hardly known, and several experts assured me that the only acceptable finishes on steel were natural oxide (they meant rust of course), or dull black paint. One critic even stated for some idiosyncratic reason, that the only proper finish for steel was glazed enamel. It was in those years that David Smith was painting many of his pieces bright colors, and they would have been still standing unnoticed in his meadow at Bolton's Landing in upper New York, had his death not suddenly made him famous.

I went over from Middlebury to Bolton's Landing one summer day in the mid '60's, found him busy at a large piece. W talked a little and he said to walk around the meadow which was studded with dozens of large piece in polished stainess, or painted a variety of colors fading in the hot summer sun. I spent most of the afternoon walking in the deep grass, getting the feeling of his work, and since he was still busy I finally wandered off. I spent another afternoon when he was not there, should have been more open and come back to socialize, since we were both drinking men, he divorced and I about to be. But in the back of my mind I wanted to find my own way without influences and put visiting off until it was too late.

In those short afternoons I got David Smith's message about working with industrial materials, something I was already into since I had set up a small machinshop and welding business to supplement my meager college teacher's salary. I had already started painting pieces, was glad to see another doing the same thing, a rarity at that time when metal sculpture meant "rusty". But above all I saw that Smith's pieces had immediate "presence", you simply HAD to see them, and there was no intellectual bullshit about there being a clever notion, a catch phrase to title them. David Smith never sold a single piece in those days, when he died the galleries and collectors swarmed in, and his name became central to American sculpture. But very few achieved his artistic stature, his stubborn insistence on following his own ideas, his solidity and intellectual guts. I had no intention of following, kept my distance, but I did learn a lot for the future.

Number 1

Steel red laq. 4.5 ft./029.

This was the first of this series or large metal pieces, fabricated from 16 ga. steel sheet welded at the seams. This piece stands four feet tall, and shows a great deal of variation and complexity in the front and back sides. I was probably thinking of something like an aluminum extrusion which is hot-formed in molten metal as it passes through a set of dies, then is cut to length for individual industrial parts. These pieces all have that "pushed through" character of extrusions. All the sculptures in this series were finished in highly polished lacquer, with a highly reflective and virtually a new-car surface.

Number 2

Steel red laq. 5 ft /027

Standing taller than the previous piece at five feet, this one shows considerable simplification of the edge-treatment. It retains some of the in-out detailing on the faces, but there is only one concave shape at the top and one angle facing outward below.

Number 3

Steel red laq. 4 ft/030

If the previous piece is massive and ponderous, this triangular sculpture is quite the opposite, light and airy with a quasi-punched-out circular section of negative space in the core. Actually the upper and lower front faces are offset by two inches, a nice detail which gives a feeling of "overbite" if you examine it carefully.

Number 4

Steel red laq. 4 ft/031

Here we have a much more cubic and volumetric shape, but gently softened at the back by an even surve, while the front edge is incised by a deep wedge- shaped cut. I have found that small children are unwilling to put a hand into the front opening. There is so much mass in the form, especially with the straining back-curve, that it looks as if it could actually snap shut.

Number 5

steel red laq. 4 ft/026

This piece goes even further in removing mass from the overall form, it has a "negative right-angle" excised from the leaning block, and is the lightest and most airy of the series. Here I was reaching even more for simplification.

Number 6

Steel red laq. 4 ft/028

Opposing curved planes at the front and back as against the flat sides of the chopped-out center rift, give this sculpture a rising feeling, a spreading and almost tulip-ish sense about it. It is the most motion-driven piece of this static series, clearly.

Number 7

Steel red laq. H 4 ft W 7 ft//025

In this piece I decided to use straight and curved motifs in a two-piece arrangement, which I felt could still retain a curvaceous character in the interface between two massive volume-driven blocks. The six inch gap in the placement is exact and essential.

Number 8

Steel red laq. H 4 ft W 8 ft/032

As the closing piece in this series, I wanted to see if two volumes of large capacity with straight faces could be faced right against each other, with only an eight-inch negative notch at the upper facing corners of each piece serving to key them together. The parts are intended to be separate, but glancing at each other in a sense, from the top corners.


Several of these pieces were shown a few times in the Boston area, but I found the handling in trucking there and back damaged the impeccable surfaces, which were an essential aspect of these large forms. It was partly for reasons of difficulty of refinishing them, and partly in a personal reaction against the speed with which metal-sculpture was being automatically taught in graduate programs as something which was new and "in", that I stopped working for the time with this large and difficult medium.

In a sense I was protesting with these pieces against Junk Art, the Objet Trouve', and the effluvium from the scrap-yard which had become such a visible part of the American scene. These pieces were made from new design concepts, fabicated with new sheet steel and with great care. Soon enough, in the mid l970's, the value of scrap steel went up, and the flow from the scrap pile to the gallery was slowed, or actually diverted down to the craft- shops.

But as the saying goes, there are many ways to skin a possum, and I felt it was time to go on to other designs in sculpture, which you can survey in these other collections. The worst trap of course, for anyone involved in working with words, sounds or shapes, is to get stuck in a style.

William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College