This exhibition examines a major – though little-known – body of work by one of America’s most distinguished sculptors, bringing together, from the David Smith Estate, the entire series of fifteen Medals for Dishonor along with more than 91 related works ranging in date from 1936 to 1943, including drawings, sketchbooks, paintings, collages, and several preliminary casts.
Smith created the Medals in the years immediately preceding World War II, and they relate to a long tradition of cast bronze bas-relief commemorative medallions used to honor those who participated nobly in war. Smith approached this tradition ironically, denouncing those who willingly contributed to the horrors of war, and creating, as his title suggests, medals for their dishonor. In general, their subject matter is directed at specific instances of political and corporate support for fascism in the United States, and each medal depicts a particular wartime evil. Bombing Civilian Populations refers to the devastation of the Spanish town of Guernica; The Fourth Estate, to the establishment’s attack on artistic and intellectual freedoms; Munitions Makers, to rampant war profiteering and the complicity of big business. Other medals refer to the Ku Klux Klan, anti-Semitism, and biological warfare. The bleakness of Smith’s message is transcended by his honesty, his richly inventive imagery, his ambiguous, dreamlike compositions, and the intricacy with which the works are executed.
Smith was liberated by his use of the unconscious to meld the social and political in the Medals, and by the unique language and personal symbolism he developed. The Medals marked a turning point in his art, signaling a general aesthetic shift from the formative work of the 1930s to the deeply personal and formally articulated work of the late 1940s, which was part of the movement that became known as Abstract Expressionism.