"I do not recognize the limits where painting ends and sculpture begins." So said Smith, who, in making Australia, used thin rods and plates of steel—simultaneously delicate and strong—to paint in space. Like a painting, Australia must be seen frontally if its form is to be grasped. It has been identified as an abstraction of a kangaroo, and its lines have that animal's leaping vitality. Though he began his career as a painter, Smith was inspired to make welded metal sculptures in 1930 when he saw those made by Pablo Picasso and Julio González.
Gallery label from 2007.
At the time of its completion, Australia was Smith’s largest sculpture. By welding together thin rods and plates of steel he created a work that is simultaneously delicate and strong, a masterpiece of tension, balance, and form that he described as a “drawing in space.” Sculpture has traditionally been defined by volume and mass; Australia is, in contrast, built of lines. In what might be described as an allover sculpture, the linear activity is greatest at the perimeters, while the center is nearly empty. Because of its title, the work is sometimes read as an abstracted kangaroo, its lines capturing the spring of the animal’s leap.
Gallery label from Abstract Expressionist New York, October 3, 2010-April 25, 2011.
In Australia Smith uses thin rods and plates of steel, simultaneously delicate and strong, to draw in space. Sculpture has traditionally gained power from solidity and mass, but Australia is linear, a skeleton. The Constructivists were the first to explore this kind of penetration of sculpture by empty space. Smith learned about it from photographs of the welded sculpture of Pablo Picasso: he had begun his career as a painter, but he knew how to weld (he had worked as a riveter in the automobile industry) and Picasso's works liberated him to start working in steel. Like a painting or drawing, Australia must be seen frontally if its form is to be grasped. It has been identified as an abstraction of a kangaroo, and its lines have that animal's leaping vitality; but it is an essay in tension, balance, and shape more than it is any kind of representation. In calling the work Australia, Smith may have had in mind the passages on that country in James Joyce's novel Finnegans Wake. He may also have been thinking of the magazine illustration of aboriginal Australian cave drawings that the critic Clement Greenberg sent him in September of 1950, with the note, "The one of the warrior reminds me particularly of some of your sculpture."
Publication excerpt from The Museum of Modern Art, MoMA Highlights, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, revised 2004, originally published 1999, p. 198.