This week’s edition of Retrospective is an unusual one, jumping back to a letter to the editor published in the April 1956 issue of ARTnews, from sculptor David Smith, who explained that he was on the hunt for a piece of his that had recently gone missing. The note from Smith, who had turned 50 earlier that year, is reprinted in full below. More intriguing details, courtesy of the artist’s estate, follow after it.
This sculpture by me was stolen from Willard Gallery, 23 W. 56th St., New York, in January or February. It is a hanging piece 39” high, of steel, copper and bronze with a signature nameplate carrying the date 1-1-54, ARK. 53. Dimensions through and across are 26” and 34” respectively; the weight is 40 lbs. It was not insured and the theft of several months’ work is not a compliment. I will pay a reward for any information. Communicate with me, or with Detective Noonan, N.Y. Police, 18th Squad, 306 W. 54th St., CI. 6-0166.
Bolton Landing, N.Y.
Did the letter work? No, the estate’s associate director, Susan Cooke, said, when I reached out to her about this letter. The whereabouts of Ark 53 (1954) remain unknown. However, Cooke was kind enough to provide fascinating additional information about the affair.
“After the Willard exhibition closed, Ark 53 was stored in the gallery’s basement,” Cooke said in an email. “When Smith finally went to retrieve it in September, the sculpture was gone. Smith blamed the ‘theft’ of the work on lax security. Marian Willard later told Smith’s first biographer, Stanley E. Marcus (David Smith: The Sculptor and His Work, 1983), that she suspected that the work was accidentally discarded by workmen hired to install a new oil burner and remove the gallery’s old one. For Smith, already unhappy about a lack of recent sales, the loss of his sculpture precipitated a final break with his longtime dealer and reinforced his determination to act as his own agent in the future.”
As it happens, the Smith estate is currently at work on a freshly updated catalogue raisonné of the artist’s sculptures (it’s due out in 2020 through the Yale University Press), and it is soliciting information from people who own or have owned Smiths. The estate even has a page devoted to “lost” Smith works.
Cooke noted that Smith “was not shy about turning to the press when he felt he had a cause to defend,” and pointed to a letter he wrote to Arts magazine and another that was published in the Summer 1960 issue of ARTnews in which he decried the repainting of his 1950 sculpture 17 h’s and declared, “I renounce it as my original work and brand it a ruin.” (This was, of course, 30 years before the U.S. passed the Visual Artists Rights Act, which forbids the alteration of artists’ works without their permission, but readers may recall other artists who have used similar language recently.) The situation was subsequently remedied—the artist repainted 17 h’s, and it appeared in his 1961 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. It has been widely shown since then.
To return to Ark 53, Cooke shared that the title is a nod to Arkansas, where Smith first worked on the piece. “It is one of five hanging sculptures composed of moveable elements that he made that year,” she added, before sharing this anecdote:
In a slide lecture he gave at Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture, in August of that year, he commented that the large bronze form that hangs down “has a very particular beauty to me, and may be Egyptian, may be the neck of a swan—but it actually is a 1914 Dodge brake pedal.”
Which makes the impressive-looking piece even more beautiful in my book.
Please check your basements, your attics, and anywhere else you or a relative may have accidentally placed the piece.
Update, September 5: This post has been updated to clarify that Smith resolved the situation with 17 h’s (1950), and that it has since been exhibited on numerous occasions.