Smith trained as a painter, coming to sculpture through collage and relief works. In 1927 he enrolled at the Art Students League in New York. Encouraged by his tutor Jan Matulka to explore the sculptural and textural qualities of paint, Smith increasingly ‘built up’ the surfaces of his paintings to the point where he began to incorporate three-dimensional elements in them. Gradually the canvas became a base, and his paintings became sculptures.
In 1929, Smith saw reproductions of Picasso’s iron sculptures in the magazine Cahiers d’art. Saw Head 1933 and Agricola Head 1933 both show the influence of Picasso’s inventive use of found objects to create sculptural personages. In Saw Head the serrated circular blade of an industrial saw creates a rather menacing base for a face. These two works belong to a group of four ‘Heads’ that were Smith’s first iron sculptures and probably the first welded sculptures ever made in the United States.
Smith admired the open structure of Picasso and Georges Braque’s Cubist constructions. In works such as Aerial Construction 1936, he abandoned the traditional notion that a sculpture should be modelled or carved around a central mass. Instead, he created a network of intersecting lines and planes, which define a hollow space at the heart of the piece. Throughout his career Smith experimented with many different ways of painting sculpture. In Aerial Construction paint is applied carefully but thickly, with visible brushstrokes, in a manner resembling his canvases of the period.
In October 1935 Smith and his first wife Dorothy Dehner made their first trip to Europe and the USSR. In Paris, he visited Jacques Lipchitz’s studio and saw Picasso’s latest works. However, on his return to New York the following year, he wrote: ‘the one thing when I came back was I realised that I belonged here; my materials were here, my thoughts were here, my birth was here, and whatever I could do had to be done here.’