David Smith

Wagon II


Not on display

David Smith 1906–1965
Object: 2140 × 1175 × 2875 mm, 1300 kg
Purchased with assistance from the American Fund for the Tate Gallery, the Art Fund and the Friends of the Tate Gallery 1999


Purchased with assistance from the American Fund for the Tate Gallery and the National Art Collections Fund 1999

David Smith made three sculptures in the 'Wagon' series in 1964 at his studio at Bolton Landing, in New York State. Wagon II is made of forged steel and is among the heaviest sculptures that he made. The elements are so large that they had to be cast at a commercial foundry, the American Forge in McKees Rock, Pennsylvania. Stanley E. Marcus explained the process, writing of Wagon II:

Smith obtained its wheels (and those of Wagon I) from Bethlehem Steel … asking for wheels of unusual size and weight. Three of Wagon II's wheels, each weighing 275 pounds, had been originally intended to bear the weight of a hundred-ton trolley car. It is the gigantic fourth wheel, however, that draws the viewer's attention: it was made from five separate steel plates welded together and bored at the axle. Sketches for the tongues and yokes of the wagons were sent to American Forge. By April 1964 some 3,800 pounds of forged mild steel had been shipped to Bolton Landing. (Marcus 1983, p.151.)

Despite the use of the commercial foundry, Smith specified a blacksmithed finish. 'Wagon II's spine', Marcus continues, 'was to be roughly fashioned. (Smith had instructed American Forge to give all the forgings a "rough and raw" finish … He wanted the tongue assembly of Wagon II to have an "old-style blacksmith look.")' This extended to the reuse of available elements which, beside the wheels, included the central vertical form which was 'a rejected railroad coupling from Bethlehem Steel' (Marcus 1983, p.151).

The sculpture was then allowed to rust for a season, before being scraped with a wire brush and coated with Masury oil to protect it. Smith wrote notes in his sketchbook about this dark reddish colour: 'The red of rust has a higher value for me than antiquity relationship … It is the red of the east's mythical west - It is the blood of man, it was one culture symbol of life' (quoted in Marcus, p.158). The wheels incorporated into the sculpture serve both functional and symbolic purposes. According to Smith: 'Circles have long been a preoccupation … Wheels are circles with mobility, from the first wheel of man, to wheels on Indian stone temples … to all the suns and poetic imagery of movement to the practical fact that my sculpture is getting too big to move without built-in rolling' (quoted in Marcus 1983, p.148). The wheels ensure that Wagon II also evokes other ideas of movement ranging from a giant child's pull-toy or go-cart to a farmer or a pioneer on a wagon train.

The vertical element in Wagon II reads as a human figure and may relate to the similarly structured sculptures made by the ancient Etruscans. It embodies an identity with the landscape within which Smith worked and placed his sculptures at Bolton Landing. Certainly agricultural themes and the use of discarded agricultural implements, exemplified by Agricola VIII and Agricola IX, both of 1952 (Tate L01609, L01023), run through Smith's sculptures. Writing of Wagon II Jeremy Lewison has seen both a bucolic and melancholic aspect to Smith's response to the rural: 'Bowed by the labours of the day, the figure testifies to the harshness of country life as well as to the idyll' (Lewison 1999, p.iii).

Wagon II, like the polished steel Cubi XIX (Tate T00891), dates from 1964. They represent a divergence in Smith's career that was cut short by his death following a road accident in the following year.

Further reading:
Cleve Gray (ed.), David Smith by David Smith: Sculptures and Writings, London 1968, reproduced p.157
Stanley E. Marcus, David Smith: The Sculptor and His Work, London 1983, reproduced p.154
Jeremy Lewison, 'Wheels in Motion', tate: The Art Magazine, no.19, Winter 1999, p.ii-iii, reproduced p.ii

Amy Dempsey
March 2000
Revised Matthew Gale March 2001

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Display caption

Smith made a series of three Wagon sculptures while living in a farmhouse in upstate New York. Surrounded by fields and forests, he began to create forms that reflected his rural surroundings. Discussing the incorporation of wheels into some of his large-scale sculptures, he wryly commented: 'my sculpture is getting too big to move without built-in rolling'. He was also interested in the symbolism of the wheel, which for him evoked the sun, Indian temple architecture, and man's first technological achievements.

Gallery label, August 2004

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