David Smith. Australia. 1951

David Smith Australia 1951

  • Not on view

"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.
Painted steel on cinder-block base
6' 7 1/2" x 8' 11 7/8" x 16 1/8" (202 x 274 x 41 cm), on cinder block base 17 1/2 x 16 3/4 x 15 1/4" (44.5 x 42.5 x 38.7 cm)
Gift of William Rubin
Object number
Painting and Sculpture

Installation views

MoMA collaborated with Google Arts & Culture Lab on a project using machine learning to identify artworks in installation photos.

If you notice an error, please contact us at digital@moma.org.

If you would like to reproduce an image of a work of art in MoMA’s collection, or an image of a MoMA publication or archival material (including installation views, checklists, and press releases), please contact Art Resource (publication in North America) or Scala Archives (publication in all other geographic locations).

All requests to license audio or video footage produced by MoMA should be addressed to Scala Archives at firenze@scalarchives.com. Motion picture film stills or motion picture footage from films in MoMA's Film Collection cannot be licensed by MoMA/Scala. For licensing motion picture film footage it is advised to apply directly to the copyright holders. For access to motion picture film stills please contact the Film Study Center. More information is also available about the film collection and the Circulating Film and Video Library.

If you would like to reproduce text from a MoMA publication or moma.org, please email text_permissions@moma.org. If you would like to publish text from MoMA’s archival materials, please fill out this permission form and send to archives@moma.org.

This record is a work in progress. If you have additional information or spotted an error, please send feedback to digital@moma.org.