Born in 1905 in Decatur, Indiana, Smith lived in the Midwest until 1926, working in South Bend, Indiana, as a riveter on a frame assembly line in the Studebaker automobile plant. In 1926 Smith moved to New York, where he studied painting fulltime at the Art Student’s League with Jan Matulka. About the same time, he met and married the sculptor Dorothy Dehner. While in New York, Smith found himself in the midst of the artistic vanguard. He looked closely at work by European modernists Alberto Giacometti, Wassily Kandinsky, Pablo Picasso and Julio González, and he made friends with many of the leading artists of the time: Willem de Kooning, Arshile Gorky, Milton Avery, and Adolph Gottlieb. In 1933 Smith changed his artistic focus from painting to sculpture, though he continued to draw and paint in watercolor throughout his life. In developing his sculpture, Smith found inspiration in Giacometti’s surrealist bronze figures and Picasso’s and González’s cubist metal constructions of 1928–1929. He drew, too, on his experience as a welder. Rejecting traditional modes of artistic production, Smith turned to welding metal as a new artistic tactic that he believed was more relevant to the industrial and scientific age. He was able to create a studio within a Brooklyn welding shop, Terminal Iron Works, a name he used later for a his Bolton Landing studio in upstate New York. Smith’s early works are free-standing, abstract constructions combining organic and geometric forms, their surfaces painted with swirling brushstrokes.
In 1938, Smith had his first one-man show in New York. At that time he was working for the Federal Art Project of the Works Progress Administration, a New Deal program to create jobs for artists during the Great Depression. In 1940, he moved to Bolton Landing, near Lake George, N.Y. establishing a large studio there. As Smith’s career developed, his sculpture became larger, more abstract, and architectural. Smith used squares, rectangles, cylinders and circles made of polished and abraded stainless steel to create monumental structures. In 1950, Smith was awarded a Guggenheim grant that afforded him some financial stability and allowed him to experiment with differing media—steel and iron—and other methods of construction. In 1951 Smith developed a new group of sculpture, a series entitled Agricolas, which integrated parts of farm equipment and found machine objects. In some of his later work, he returned to using painted surfaces, often painted in rich enamel colors. Smith’s imaginative assemblages and strong, energetic designs are ranked among the most influential sculpture in American art.