BMA Voices: Rediscovering a rare David Smith sculpture

David Smith. Head with Cogs for Eyes. 1933. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Ryda and Robert H. Levi Collection, Gift under the Will of Ryda H. Levi, BMA 2009.194. Art © Estate of David Smith/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

David Smith. Head with Cogs for Eyes. 1933. The Baltimore Museum of Art: Ryda and Robert H. Levi Collection, Gift under the Will of Ryda H. Levi, BMA 2009.194. Art © The Estate of David Smith/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY

Oliver Shell, Associate Curator of European Painting & Sculpture

Late in 2009, the BMA received a remarkable gift from the Estate of Ryda and Robert Levi, the same family whose generosity in the 1980s led to the creation of one of the Museum’s great treasures, the Levi Sculpture Garden. It included eight modern sculptures of the highest quality by artists including Alexander Archipenko, Naum Gabo, Henry Moore, Louise Nevelson, and David Smith.

I started researching these works, in order to present them to the Accessions Committee, beginning with a whimsical sculpture by Smith named, Head with Cogs for Eyes. One of the Levi heirs had alerted me to the fact that the Estate of David Smith listed the work as “Lost” on its website. The Estate tracks the current whereabouts of over 675 sculptures by the artist. I had not yet fully understood the importance of the work when I shot off a quick email to the address listed on the website informing them that the work was no longer lost and that we had just received it as a gift.

Thinking that I would hear back from them in a week or so I was surprised when ten minutes after hitting the send button my phone rang. It was the Susan Cooke from the Smith Estate calling and obviously excited that the work had been located. As I soon discovered, Head with Cogs for Eyes is not just any David Smith. It is one of only four heads that make up the first of Smith’s completely metal sculptures–combinations of forged and found parts that he first produced in 1933. The catalogue of Smith’s earliest retrospective exhibition, held at Harvard University’s Fogg Art Museum a year after the artist’s death in 1965, lists Head with Cogs for Eyes prominently as plate number one. I started to understand Cooke’s excitement.

Head with Cogs for Eyes had special significance for Smith; he created a series of photographs of the head, carefully shot from multiple angles, and set against the open sky of the Bolton Landing, New York landscape where he spent most of his later life.

BMA Voices is an insider’s exploration of The Baltimore Museum of Art collection through the eyes of its curators, conservators, and registrars. Featuring a new object every day during the BMA’s 100 Day Celebration, the project will highlight some favorite, amusing, unusual, and obscure objects.

See also Melanie Harwood’s post on installing Ellsworth Kelly’s Untitled 1986 in the Levi Sculpture Garden.

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About Oliver Shell

Dr. Oliver Shell received a Ph.D. in Art History at the University of Pennsylvania, in 1998. He came to The Baltimore Museum of Art in 2003, as the Samuel H. Kress Curatorial Fellow, and conducted research on the sculpture of Henri Matisse. This work led to the 2007 BMA exhibition Matisse Painter as Sculpture, with venues at the Dallas Museum of Art and the Nasher Sculpture Center. Since 2007, as Associate Curator of European Painting and Sculpture, Shell has organized exhibitions including: The Persistent Figure in Modern Sculpture, 2006/2007; Rodin Expression and Influence, 2007; A Circus Family: Picasso to Léger, 2009; and Advancing Abstraction in Modern Sculpture, 2010/2011, and German Expressionism: A Revolutionary Spirit, January to September 2014.

One thought on “BMA Voices: Rediscovering a rare David Smith sculpture

  1. Drager Meurtant

    Seems like David Smith had a dadaistic mindset when creating this artwork (he must have known work from DADA, as a was familiar with Max Ernst). Technically: possible elements were all from vehicles, perhaps from sites he had worked. Indeed work that can be seen as important in the course of the discovery path of his art making.

    Nice to have met this art-peace and this blog. regards, Drager

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