Juli González – David Smith. A conversation in space

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The exhibition Juli González-David Smith, a Dialogue on Sculpture, is very much a declaration of intention on the part of its curator, José Francisco Yvars, one of the most competent and knowledgeable critics in the Peninsula in the field of modern art theory and communication. Yvars champions the difficult art of beauty, the appropriate arrangement, the pristine narrative. Moved by the ancien but ever valid conviction that “to demonstrate is to show”, il professore has created, in the temporary exhibition rooms at IVAM in Valencia, a great display of ingenious visual dialogues. These dialogues link major works by two of the artists most responsible for contemporary sculpture’s conquest of space. The show celebrates Picasso’s role as one of the fathers of that revolt that took place in the late-1920s when he required the skill of González, his experience as a welder at the Renault factory, to build his ambitious sculptural utopias, such as the Monument d’Apollinaire. That experience helped to give the Barcelonan sculptor the courage to begin working on his own idea of sculpture, using only a blowtorch, iron and space. A formal motif that broke with the five-thousand-year’ dictatorship of rhythm and volume in the vecchia artform. The opening up of space achieved by this first master of the torch, to quote Smith’s refined and original epithet, means that González’s threadlike lines and trajectories are traced freely in space, atomising the points of contemplation of the sculptural body. A first step, no doubt, towards the moment when art would conquer reality once more.

González’s investigations were reviewed, in the magazine Cahiers d’Art, by a young North American sculptor, who had also worked as a welder, in this case at the Studebaker car factory. David Smith (Illinois 1906 – 1965), the great – and only – sculptor produced by North American abstract expressionism, visited in Europe just months before fratricidal war broke out and where, although he did not meet Gonzàlez, he did discover the artist’s work. The exhibition, a dialogue between works from the IVAM Collection and pieces by David Smith, reveals the themes that both sculptors explored in form, time and space during the calamitous but fruitful 1930s. Elegantly arranged in the first room, we find the masks produced by both sculptors, a theme of González’s that was the first Smith discovered, thanks to a gift from the artist John Graham. Gestural freedom can be appreciated in the dialogue between dancers, or in the flight of the bird, in Picassian sculptures such as Tempus fugit. On the other hand, we see more solidity in Smith’s homages to farming, a response, perhaps, to González’s early approach to the theme in the agitated times of La Montserrat. The final rooms highlight the different directions that their respective artistic careers took. Until his death towards the end of World War Two, Gonzàlez explored thornier, more existentialist ideas, embodied in the attraction and experience of metamorphosis, as we can see in his most emblematic sculpture in the IVAM Collection: Femme se couchant. For his part, David Smith chose to focus his research on colour in space, during a period in which modern art, crossing the ocean from Paris to New York, had opened up to new formats, tones and concerns.

The Iron Age, as Gonzàlez recalled in his final years, served to produce weapons and instruments of defence. So, too, did welding techniques, which were perfected during World War One. We are indebted to these two sculptors, then, for their work of pacifying – and liberating – the material at one of the most dehumanising periods in history. Material and technique, but also the communicative power of form in the difficult art of showing and demonstrating. An age-old clash, a superb lesson never comfortably resolved.

[Published in Bonart magazine, March 2011]