Sculptor, painter, draftsman, and photographer. Among the most significant American sculptors of the twentieth century, he ranked as the first to grasp the potential of welded metal as a sculptural medium. Nonrepresentational despite lingering attachments to figure and landscape, often indebted to surrealism as well as cubism and constructivism, sophisticated but not arty, bold, grandly scaled, and attentive to materials, his varied and unprecedented works embody the spirit of abstract expressionism. He began using the welded metal technique only a few years after Picasso and fellow Spaniard Julio González introduced the method. Only Alexander Calder rivaled Smith's radical disregard for the structural logic of traditional sculpture and his demonstration that sculpture could be conceived as a kind of drawing in space. Moreover, Smith's additive method fostered the flowering of assemblage, his most radically simplified pieces afforded exemplars to minimalist artists, and his casual incorporation of detritus provided an important precedent for the development of junk sculpture. Trained as a painter, Smith continued to paint after he turned to sculpture. Throughout his life, he also drew more or less every day, working out ideas for sculpture but also exploring unrelated territory. With almost no professional instruction in sculpture, he improvised techniques from those learned on the job as a metalworker. At the same time, his background in painting facilitated innovative use of color in some sculpture, particularly after 1960.
David Roland Smith was born in Decatur, Indiana, about forty miles from Indianapolis. He moved with his family in 1921 to the western Ohio town of Paulding, where he finished high school in 1924. After a year at Ohio University in Athens, he worked at the Studebaker automobile plant in South Bend, Indiana. In the fall of 1925 he enrolled at Notre Dame University there but soon left to accept a white-collar job at Studebaker. In 1926 he was transferred to Washington, D.C., and then to New York that autumn. At the end of 1926 he enrolled part-time at the Art Students League. The following fall he left his job to study painting and drawing full time but later interrupted his training at intervals to take other employment, including several months as a seaman on an oil tanker. During the next four years, his teachers at the league included John Sloan, the celebrated drawing instructor Kimon Nicolaides (1892–1938), and most importantly, Jan Matulka, who inspired enthusiasm for European modernism, including the nonobjective work of Kandinsky and Mondrian. By around 1930 Smith had also become acquainted with John Graham, an essential conduit for the latest in European art, including welded sculpture. Soon Smith also befriended Stuart Davis, Willem de Kooning, and Arshile Gorky, who reinforced his interests in modern developments.
During an eight-month visit to the Virgin Islands, he began to experiment with constructions of found materials. Not long after his return in June 1932, he acquired the equipment for soldering and then welding metals. In 1933 he produced his first metal objects and rented a space at a Brooklyn machine shop, the Terminal Iron Works, to facilitate this direction in his work. In October 1935 he left on his first trip to Europe, where he visited Paris, Athens, and London, among other cities, and then traveled on to Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Moscow before returning to New York the following summer. In 1937 he found employment for two years with a federal art project. The following year he joined the American Abstract Artists. While exhibiting nonrepresentational work with that group, he embarked on his best-known early works, fifteen Medals of Dishonor (1938–40). Crowded with expressionistic imagery, these cast bronze reliefs contributed to the left-wing social consciousness prominent among New York artists. Recording Smith's dismay over the Spanish Civil War and Nazi Germany's increasing aggression, they disparage violence and brutality while also making pointed reference to recent political events.