Among the greatest American sculptors of the 20th century, David Smith was the first to work with welded metal. He wove a rich mythology around this rugged work, often talking of the formative experiences he had in his youth while working in a car body workshop. Yet this only disguised a brilliant mind that fruitfully combined a range of influences from European modernism including Cubism, Surrealism, and Constructivism.
Smith was close to painters such as Robert Motherwell, and in many respects he translated the painterly concerns of the Abstract Expressionists into sculpture. His works in the 40s such as Helmholtzian Landscape (1946) shaped Smith’s idea of “drawing in space”, and they encouraged critics to liken his work to that of the abstract expressionist painters.
In 1951, Smith created his breakthrough work Hudson River Landscape (1951), which offers an abstract representation of the area around Smith's Bolton Landing home. Despite its materials, it achieves a surprising weightlessness, due to the sculpture's arching lines and open construction.
Tanktotem is a series of sculptures Smith worked on from 1952 to 1960, just a few years before he passed away. he combined found metal objects into an anthropomorphic, totemic form, a symbol of universal humanity. As the critic Rosalind Krauss has argued, the totem, and the idea of totemism, was an important symbol for Smith. He believed, following Freud, that totemism operated in primitive societies as a means to discourage incest. For Smith, the totem suggested an art object that might strike fear into humanity and prevent conflict.