David Smith / his estate
(While curator Clement Greenberg was a long-time champion of sculptor David Smith’s work, he never approved of Smith’s experimentation with colored paint. Painted sculpture challenged Greenberg’s dictum of medium purity: “It seems to be a law of modernism that the conventions not essential to the viability of a medium be discarded as soon as they are recognized,“ he said, and Smith’s paint was decidedly non-essential to the sculptures, merely interrupting "the raw, discolored surfaces” of the welded steel. In a letter he sent Smith in 1951, Greenberg went so far as to request permission to paint over the multicolored surface of a sculpture given to him by the artist. “It should be black,” Greenberg insisted, adding, “We can always scrape it off again.”
When Smith died in 1965, Greenberg became an executor of his estate. In that capacity, he stripped the paint from five of Smith’s outdoor sculptures, all of which had been painted white. Greenberg had some of the works rusted and sealed, while others he let deteriorate or fade as a result of weather.
It was a controversial move, particularly because Smith’s own wishes were not entirely clear. He’d never explicitly given (or denied) his executors the power to alter his works. For his part, Greenberg insisted that Smith’s intention was never to leave the works white: the white paint was simply a primer, a mid-way point in a process that had been halted by the sculptor’s death. Better to alter the works, he argued, so that they resembled other finished works. Doing so, it was also noted, would improve their resale value considerably.
The question, as writer Beverly Pepper framed it, boiled down to this: “Should we not value phases of the artist’s research as much as the conclusions he came to?” In this case, the answer from the estate seemed to be no.)