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This project is a collaboration between the Dedalus Foundation and the Estate of David Smith, with contributions from the Helen Frankenthaler Foundation.


. . . .

The friendship between David Smith and Robert Motherwell began in 1947, several years after Smith had moved permanently to Bolton Landing, over two hundred miles north of New York City, where Motherwell was based. Despite the physical distance between them, the two men remained close until Smith’s death in 1965. In addition to mutual feelings of affection, they shared a number of aesthetic preferences. Both tended to compose their works with ensembles of disparate forms and had what might be called a collage mentality. In fact, both were unique among their colleagues at the time, in that they often composed their works with fragments of things from the real world – Smith with the found metal objects that he combined in his sculptures, Motherwell with the various papers that he used for his compositions in collage, which he called “the greatest invention of modernism.”

Robert Motherwell in the studio, Greenwich, CT, 1976
Robert Motherwell in the studio, Greenwich, CT, 1976
DS Working
David Smith in the studio, Bolton Landing, NY, 1962

Robert Motherwell

The sensation of physically operating on the world is very strong in the medium of the papier collé or collage, in which various kinds of paper are pasted to the canvas. One cuts and chooses and shifts and pastes, and sometimes tears off and begins again. In any case, shaping and arranging such a relational structure obliterates the need, and often the awareness of representation. Without reference to likenesses, it possesses feeling because all the decisions in regard to it are ultimately made on the grounds of feeling.

“Beyond the Aesthetic,” 1946

David Smith

Sculpture is no longer limited to the slow carving of marble and long process of bronze. It has found new form and new method. Here I am talking about direct metal construction. Contrary to the carving away technique of classical sculpture, the new method is to assemble the whole by adding its unit parts. The building up of sculpture from unit parts, the quantity-to-quality concept is also an industrial concept, the basis of automobile and machine assembly in the steel process. Direct metal work has broadened the concept of sculpture and increased the speed of execution, added new tensile strengths to make sculpture as free as drawing.

Statement, WNYC Radio, 1952

Both artists had an aesthetic preference for compositions that were graphically clear and legible, which set them apart from most of their colleagues.

Elegy to the Spanish Republic No. 55, 1961, oil on canvas, 70 ✕ 76 1/8 in. (177.8 ✕ 193.4 cm)
David Smith, American, 1906-1965 
Painted steel
Motherwell SC15.1957   , 4/3/06, 10:30 AM,  8C, 5183x7618 (545+210), 100%, Default Setting,   1/8 s, R39.9, G15.4, B26.4  HMI  ISO-285   
PHOTO>Thomas Griesel
A metal sculpture
Left to right: Robert Motherwell, "Elegy No. 55," 1955-62; David Smith, "Gondola," 1961; Robert Motherwell, "Personage," 1947; David Smith, "Oculus," 1947


In 1947, Motherwell invited Smith to contribute to a new journal he and Harold Rosenberg were working on called Possibilities, the declared purpose of which was “to combat the indifference to, and reaction against, modern art in the United States.”

As their friendship grew, both men showed regularly in New York, where they would meet for cocktails, or to take in some jazz or visit exhibitions together. When they were apart, they wrote to each other about various subjects, including their impressions of each other’s work.

RMDS Cor 0405 01

Davd Smith writes Robert motherwell with apologies for a missed appointment, undated

I’m very sorry I fouled you up – got caught at the Tribune where I couldn’t even call out – I missed you at Willard and at Schrafts both – this is inexcusable, will try to see you Tues night – when do you want to visit me at Bolton

A postcard with a brown Robert Motherwell painting on its front
Cor FromRM Edit
RMDS Cor 0405 03
Selected correspondence between Robert Motherwell and David Smith

Motherwell wrote the introduction to the catalogue for Smith’s 1950 exhibition at Willard Gallery, in which he recognized the importance of setting and nature to Smith’s work:

When I saw that David places his work against the mountains and sky, the impulse was plain, an ineffable desire to see his humanness related to an exterior reality.”
Robert Motherwell
David Smith at Willard Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1050
David Smith at Willard Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1050
Smith Willard 1950 4 Copy
Smith Willard 1950 3 Copy
Smith Willard 1950 2 Copy
Smith Willard 1950 1 Copy
Exhibition catalogue, "David Smith," Willard Gallery, 1950

. . . .

Helen Frankenthaler met David Smith in 1951, when she joined Clement Greenberg on visits to Bolton Landing. She and Robert Motherwell met in 1957, soon became very close, and were married in April 1958. During their marriage, their friendship with David Smith became even stronger, as Smith frequently stayed with them at their home on East 94th Street when he was in New York. Eventually, they even gave him his own key to their home so he could come and go as needed during his visits to the city.

RMDS HF BoltonLanding

Helen Frankenthaler with David Smith’s The Hero, 1951-1952; in progress, on his property in Bolton Landing, NY, fall 1951.

an exhibition list with notes made throughout

Helen Frankenthaler’s handwritten notes in David Smith’s Willard and Kleeman exhibition catalogue, 1950

Frankenthaler had long been an admirer of Smith’s work. In 1950 she had written an unpublished review of Smith’s exhibition at Willard and Kleeman Galleries, in which she praised Smith’s work as being “tremendous in every sense of the word … direct, forceful, original, emotional.”

In 1951, she had purchased Portrait of an Eagle’s Keeper (1948-49) from Smith, and that sculpture was prominently placed in her and Motherwell’s home, along with several of their own works and artworks by others.

A black and white image of a home interior
A black and white image of a home interior
A black and white image of a home interior
A black and white image of a home interior
Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler's East 94th Street home, NY, 1967

The works of the three artists, different as they were from each other, had strong affinities during the years they spent together. In particular, all three employed contrapuntal interactions of forms and gestures in their work.

Walking Dida Copy
Publication file: Abstract Climates, Provincetown Art Association and Museum, 2018
Origin: Blanton Museum of Art
MW P0171
Left to right: David Smith, "Walking Dida," 1959; Helen Frankenthaler, "Over the Circle," 1961; Robert Motherwell, "Afternoon in Barcelona," 1958

The friendship between the three artists remained very strong. Photographs and correspondence between the three artists over the years reflect the depth of their friendship and their respect for each other’s work.

A handwritten letter on Terminal Iron Works letterhead

David Smith writes Helen Frankenthaler after seeing her work at a Whitney group exhibition, april 1957

I wanted to tell you how great your work looked at the Whitney Museum. It was so far ahead of all others. You have a concept and the bravery to not succumb to any of the art ingratiations.

A handwritten letter

David Smith writes Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler on the occasion of their marriage, May 1958

I hope the greatest happiness and good work for both of you. It will be a wonderful for you, and I hope very productive. Two fine painters, its never been done before – one of you better take up sculpture.


In addition to Smith’s visits to New York, Motherwell and Frankenthaler frequently visited Smith in Bolton Landing. The two men’s daughters were around the same age, and enjoyed family occasions together.

Robert Motherwell and David Smith with their daughters in Bolton Landing, NY, early 1960s
Robert Motherwell, Helen Frankenthaler, and David Smith in Bolton Landing, NY, early 1960s


Shortly after Motherwell and Frankenthaler were married, they began spending summers in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, where David Smith frequently visited.

RMDS Ch4 5
RMDS CapeCod
Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler in Falmouth, MA, with David Smith visiting, summer 1959
RMDS Provincetown RMDS
RMDS Ch4 8
HF 1964 Provincetown Original RM, David Smith, Francine & Cleve Gray, Bryan Robertson, Paul Huxley
Photographs of Robert Motherwell, David Smith and Helen Frankenthaler in Provincetown, MA, early 1960s

The three artists remained close friends until Smith’s untimely death in an automobile accident on May 23, 1965. Their friendship provided a sense of mutual support, a reinforcement of their ethical and aesthetic values, and something crucial to all artists: a feeling of not being alone in the world. 

Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler reflected on their friendship with David Smith nearly twenty years after his death for the film “David Smith, American Sculptor.”

"David Smith, American Sculptor," 1982

Courtesy The National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC, Gallery Archives.

. . . .

all ARTWORK images licensed by Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY.

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