Technical and ethical dilemmas in restoring David Smith’s Cubi XIII

John Scott


David Smith is still considered a father of contemporary sculpture, the man who took steel to freestanding scale. He created language for late 20th century and his ultimate stainless steel surface is everywhere.

The late, bright Cubi forms of 1961-65 were built. by Smith and a few helpers, joining mostly rectilinear forms, many of them hollow, closed and made to order industrially for delivery to the studio. After assembly, power grinding rounded corner welds and enlivened flat surfaces with brightly reflective swirling patterns. Lit by direct sun or another single source, these swirl patterns encompass a holographic, radiant- scripted virtual space where the gravure moves with sculpture and viewer.

1963’s Cubi XIII traveled widely 1964-69 with few ill effects before taking place in Princeton University’s on-campus Putnam Collection of Modern Sculpture. At Princeton it was twice resited, with damage in the conservator-free second move unrepaired. Restoration increased in priority when a Smith family member and Storm King Art Center asked to borrow Cubi XIII for the 1999 final spring-fall year of their three-year “Fields of David Smith” program of exhibitions and symposia. After visiting the campus, a Smith child decried the unrepaired damage. Putnam Collection conservator John Scott soon undertook the restoration. During deinstallation, an emphatic technical and aesthetic objection arrived from Smith. Respecting both the sincere warnings and implied “moral right;’ Princeton directed Scott only to clean and courier Cubi XIII.

During 1999, Princeton’s Putnam Collection caretakers grasped thorny questions and the horns of a compound dilemma. How important were condition and original form for the work of art, and for Princeton’s interests? What was Smith family standing with respect to the work of art, or with respect to Princeton’s complex interests? The dilemma: first, were the recommended procedures appropriate or was treatment indeed too risky, and second, even if restoration were otherwise feasible, should Cubi XIII be restored given the Smiths’ continued objection? Princeton officials asked Scott asked to update his treatment proposal for expert review. They also considered pertinent moral, aesthetic and legal principles and pragmatics.

A nearby senior sculpture conservator agreed to review the treatment proposal and the warning, as did an expert from Princeton’s school of engineering. The reviewers met to consult and to examine the sculpture. Later in separate opinions, both approved restoration by Scott’s first choice, minimal intervention approach. Princeton decided the other issues in favor of restoration if feasible.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art asked to borrow Cubi XIII for its planned installation, “David Smith on the Roof,” spring-fall 2000. John Scott carried out the restoration in New York, with oversight from Princeton’s Norman Muller and with valuable design and mechanical assistance from Jeremy Lebensohn and his staff at Studio della ‘arte. In April 2000 Cubi XIII joined several siblings observing Central Park and the museum’s rooftop bar. In November it returned to Princeton, with no further objection its condition or care.

2001 | Dallas | Volume 8