Two Circle Sentinel
David Smith, American, 1906–1965
Stainless steel
86 × 37 1/4 × 15 3/4 in. (218.4 × 94.6 × 40 cm)

Habits of Mind

  • DEVELOP GRIT Develop endurance / grit / desire to rework ideas / open to a range of ideas and solutions/ possess self-discipline and self-confidence

GRADE LEVEL

1

SUBJECT AREA

Math

Working with Shapes

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Connecting to the Work of Art

Two Circle Sentinel is a composition of geometric shapes.  There are two ways to understand the subject of this sculpture.  One is to see it as an abstract arrangement of shapes and lines.  The other is to interpret the shapes as representing the parts of the human body: head, neck, arms, torso, legs, feet.  The word “sentinel” means guardian, and this sculpture by David Smith does recall an upright figure.  Like many artists, Smith worked in series, and this is one of four sentinel figures from 1961.

 

This sculpture is a careful balance of geometric shapes along a strong vertical axis.  The large central rectangle is enlivened with straight and curved bands set perpendicular to the surface.  The polished, reflective surface is treated with burnish marks that almost look like brushstrokes on a painting.  A striking feature of this sculpture is that it is broad and massive from the front and back, yet from the sides it appears incredibly thin and fragile.

 

To create this sculpture,  David Smith moved large, flat pieces of cut steel around on the floor of his studio as if they were pieces of a collage.  Once Smith was satisfied with the composition, he welded the pieces together and burnished the surface.  The artist said:

…the most practical thing for outdoor sculpture is stainless steel, and I make them and I polish them in such a way that on a dull day, they take on the dull blue, or the color of the sky in the late afternoon sun, the glow, golden like the rays, the colors of nature.1

 

David Smith was one of the most influential American sculptors of the twentieth century.  He liked to think that his lifelong fascination with metal and machines came from his great-great-great-grandfather, who was a blacksmith.  While in college, Smith worked on an assembly line in a Studebaker automobile factory and learned the welding techniques that would become central to his sculpture.  In 1926 he moved to New York, enrolled in the Art Students League, and studied Cubist sculpture and painting.   He dabbed in both until, in 1933, he decided to dedicate himself completely to sculpture and created his first steel work.  Smith worked first in New York in an abandoned factory called the Terminal Iron Works, and later in a studio, with the same name, at his farm in Bolton’s Landing, New York.  Many of his sculptures were created for an outdoor installation, and today Two Circle Sentinel is displayed in the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

  1. David Smith by David Smith, ed. Cleve Gray  (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1968), p. 123.

 

Observations

  • What words would you use to describe this sculpture? What material do you think it is made out of?

  • Describe the different geometric forms that you can distinguish.

  • This sculpture is a careful balance of geometric shapes along a strong vertical axis.  A striking feature of this sculpture is that it is broad and massive from the front and back, yet from the sides it appears incredibly thin and fragile. What do you notice about the base of the sculpture? And what about the height of the base?

  • To create this sculpture, artist David Smith moved large, flat pieces of cut steel around on the floor of his studio as if they were pieces of a collage. Once Smith was satisfied with the composition, he welded the pieces together and burnished the surface. The artist said:…the most practical thing for outdoor sculpture is stainless steel, and I make them and I polish them in such a way that on a dull day, they take on the dull blue, or the color of the sky in the late afternoon sun, the glow, golden like the rays, the colors of nature. Even though this is a reproduction, can you see different ways that light is reflected? Can you point out where there is depth in this sculpture? How can you tell?

  • This is a photograph of sculpture. Do you think photographs of sculptures are able to present us the work in an adequate manner? How is this different from a photograph of a painting?

  • This sculpture is outside. How might it be different from sculptures that are placed inside? Think about materials used, conservation and dialogue with the environment surrounding the work.

Interpretations

  • The work is called ‘Two Circle Sentinel’. Do you know what a sentinel is?

  • A sentinel is a guardian: a person or thing that watches, or stands as if watching. Do you think this sculpture represents an object (a thing) or a human form (a person) or both? Why?

  • Is the work abstract or figurative or both? Can you point out the abstract and the figurative elements?

  • The height of the work is 86 inches, somewhat larger than the average person. What effect does this have? Does its height support its function as ‘sentinel’? Is it a monumental work or an intimate work?

  • The artist studied Cubist sculpture and painting in New York in the 1920s, working in both until, in 1933, he decided to dedicate himself completely to sculpture. The polished, reflective surface of this sculpture is treated with burnish marks that almost look like brushstrokes on a painting. Can you see other traces in this work of the artist’s training in painting?

  • There are two ways to understand the subject of this sculpture.  One is to see it as an abstract arrangement of shapes and lines.  The other is to interpret the shapes as representing the parts of the human body: head, neck, arms, torso, legs, and feet. How would the work be different if it were entirely abstract or entirely figurative? Do you think ambiguity like this is good in an artwork?

Assessment

•  Using the work of art, play a simple game of “I Spy” focusing on geometric shapes.  Have each student frame an “I Spy” question to ask the class.  For example, “I Spy s rectangle that resembles the letter ‘T’. Find that in the work of art.

•  Create simple geometric paper sculpture using the slip-and-slot sculpture method. (see Art Lesson: Working with Shapes: Slip-and-slot sculpture).

 

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The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

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All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.