One of my favorite sculptures of the 20th century is David Smith's The Forest. If you look for information about this piece you'll find commentary waxing on about the piece as lyrical and whimsical as though the work reveals playful qualities in Smith's imagination of form. These qualities certainly are represented in the piece but in my opinion they miss the mark somewhat. I think that Smith's playful side in constructing and presenting The Forest to the art world was really in suggesting that people frequently don't see the forest for the trees. Few seem to have appreciated what I see as his viewpoint and what I see as a specific reference and I think that they continue to see trees instead of his forest because of this. I may of course be off the mark myself but what I see is a clear reference to the nature of sight and perception.
This work was created at a time when sculptures with a similar overall feel were very much a part of the art world. I see a reference to the epithelium of the retina, the cell layers in our eyes that help make sight possible. This is something that wouldn't be familiar to many of us unless we have insider knowledge. When Smith created this sculpture, form in art was less clearly associated with the real things all of us might see and recognize in the world around us. Form in art was more cerebral and more personal but often still retained some connection to the real world. The art world had become an insider's game.
I think that Smith's choice of subject and his representation of it involves both cognition and whimsy. I think that he was aware of scientific illustration and the deeper structures of living forms. Scientific drawings of the cells in the retina are deliberately schematic and abstracted to make the cell forms more clear to us. So even an apparently clear drawing of the retina requires a separation of the forest from the trees or we are overwhelmed by the details. The retinal epithelium is so complex that it can be difficult to clearly represent the parts within the context of the whole. By creating this "retina" and titling it The Forest, Smith adds conceptual content and creates a piece that easily hides within the world of abstract art as a whimsical piece rather than as a reference to something real. Smith brilliantly walks the borderline between what we see and what we know and he references our visual receptors in doing this.
I created a [Tee shirt ] design that sells in Museum gift shops borrowing from what I saw as David Smith's clever appropriation of imagery./div>