The whimsical nature of Smith’s work is very appealing. His mash-up of painting on metal sculpture has inspired many artists and some of the terrific work we now see in parks in front of building or in corporate lobbies draw a direct line back to his groundbreaking efforts.
David Roland Smith was born on March 9, 1906 in Decatur, Indiana and moved to Paulding, Ohio in 1921, where he attended high school. From 1924-25, he attended Ohio University in Athens (one year) and the University of Notre Dame, which he left after two weeks because there were no art courses. In between, Smith took a summer job working on the assembly line of an automobile factory.
Moving to New York in 1926, he met Dorothy Dehner (to whom he was married from 1927 to 1952) and joined her painting studies at the Art Students League of New York. Among his teachers were the American painter John Sloan and the Czech modernist painter Jan Matulka, who had studied with Hans Hofmann. Matulka introduced Smith to the work of Picasso, Mondrian, Kandinsky, and the Russian Constructivists.
Through the Russian émigré artist John Graham, Smith met avant-garde artists such as Stuart Davis, Arshile Gorky and Willem de Kooning. He also discovered the welded sculptures of Julio González and Picasso, which led to an increasing interest in combining painting and construction. In 1932, he installed a forge and anvil in his studio at the farm in Bolton Landing that he and Dehner had bought a few years earlier. Smith started by making three-dimensional objects from wood, wire, coral, soldered metal and other found materials but soon graduated to using an oxyacetylene torch to weld metal heads, which are probably the first welded metal sculptures ever made in the United States.