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Last hours with David Smith


David Smith
Anthony Caro Artist
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[Q] What kind of a man was Smith?

Big. No, he was physically big but he was a big man; he was a big character, big personality. And, in fact, when three years later I got the job at... at Bennington, it was the time of my Whitechapel Show, and I was late, and he stood in for me. And the first night, when I got up to Bennington, because we'd lost our bags, and Ken met us, and we stayed at a motel, and I left the children with Sheila, and... because Ken said, ‘David Smith is at the Rain Barrel’, which was a little... little place we had dinner. And he said, ‘So he's at the Rain Barrel, you know, and I'm sure he'd like to meet you’. And I went to the Rain Barrel; I had met David. I met David in '59 but in '63 I always remember him getting up when I... when I came in and I suppose I felt pretty shrunken after a long trip and, you know, fourteen hours to get to America in those days. And we'd lost baggage and so on, and then we'd taken a train up to... to... up to Rhinebeck and then we did... I was feeling fairly shattered, and there was this man who got up, and he was so big – he was so physically big – and I thought to myself, fee, fi, fo, fum, I smell the blood of an Englishman. And David was always like that; he was always like that. And I got quite friendly with him, but he was always the big chap – not with women, not with children, but with other artists, with other men, he was. He was always competition and always a sense of... of sort of... he wanted... he was dominating, he was dominating. But he was sweet with the children. My little son of five, Paul... and he would hide sweets for him and that sort of thing; he was very sweet in that way. And then he would... he'd say, ‘Come on’...  he'd say, ‘Come on’ to Sheila; take her into the kitchen. He said, ‘Look now, there's some champagne for you; now you watch me, I'll show you how to make an omelette and... I mean, you know, or cook some... some mushrooms or some odd mushrooms’, or something, you know. He was very nice in that way but he wasn't like that with... with another artist. With another artist he was very competitive.

[Q] Did you feel competitive with him?

No, he was... I mean, he would say to me, ‘Look, spend money on your art; buy the best paper. I buy this paper.’ Because I had been drawing at that time on lining paper, you know, real cheap, cheap, cheap paper. He said, ‘Look, these sheets are two dollars a sheet, these... these paper... paper I use...’ Was a lot of money, you know, in those days.

[Q] A night at the Biltmore.

Yeah, absolutely. And... and so he would tell me things like that, and then he would say, ‘You know, I...’ Mind you he'd lost two wives but there's... probably the reason... he said, ‘I wouldn't buy my wife a washing machine, I wanted to buy the steel instead’, you know? He was... he lived very... he lived in a very raw way, very raw... very lonely too. You realised it when you went up there, how lonely he was. You know, there was David, and his... his friends were these sculptures – eighty sculptures in a field, just amazing... amazing. And, you know, I used to say, ‘Henry puts his sculpture out to show everybody he's the best sculptor in the world; David puts it out to show himself he is’. You know, David was trying to... David was... was I think trying to... to confirm his... his primacy in his own mind because he'd not been thought well of. He was not thought that well of by Pollock and people; they thought he was a hick sculptor. They did not think he was... he was up in their level and he thought he was... and he was too. I mean the pity... David, who couldn't sell much... you know this sculpture of David just sold for twenty-three million? How he would have loved to have known that. How he would love to have known that, David. It's a wonderful sculpture. But I could cope with him by then anyway. I didn't want to make things like David Smith. But I went up there and he gave me a lot of bits of steel, and Ken said, ‘That was an insult, the way he gave you those bits of steel’. But it wasn't – it was nice; he was trying to be kind, he was trying to be kind. He was... I don't think he related well to other artists in a way, not really. He related well to Ken Noland because he was a painter.

British sculptor Sir Anthony Caro (1924-2013) came to prominence in 1963 after a show at the Whitechapel Gallery. Keen to create a more direct interaction with the viewer he placed pieces directly on the ground, rather than on plinths, a technique now widely used. He held many honorary degrees and was knighted in 1987.

Listeners: Tim Marlow

Tim Marlow is a writer, broadcaster and art historian. He founded "Tate: The Art Magazine" in 1993 and was presenter of Radio 4 arts programme "Kaleidoscope" from 1991 to 1998, for which he won a Sony Award. He has presented art programme's on BBC 1, Channel 4 and Channel 5, including a documentary about JMW Turner, and written about art and culture for various British newspapers and magazines including "The Guardian", "The Times" and "Blueprint" He is Director of Exhibitions at the White Cube gallery in London as well as a visiting lecturer at Winchester School of Art, an examiner on the Sculpture MA there and former creative director of Sculpture at Goodwood

Tags: Bennington, America, David Smith, Ken Noland, Sheila Girling

Duration: 5 minutes, 45 seconds

Date story recorded: November 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008