Art: Waldemar Januszczak on the welder who shaped the future of sculpture

    Americans have known this for some time. They think of him as the Jackson Pollock of the welding torch. The other day, in New York, someone spent $21.5m on a Smith sculpture from 1965, the highest price ever paid for a contemporary work. Here in Britain, however, he’s a big name with a tiny image attached: a thumbnail. We’re reasonably familiar with the large late works (Smith died in 1965, in another of those all-American car accidents that only take out the real cultural heroes) because the Tate owns a decent selection of them. But we know almost nothing about what came before.

    Now, one of those rare shows that starts brilliantly, then improves, has turned up at the Tate to right this wrong. As with all the best Americans of the modern era, Smith survived a chunk of real life before becoming an artist. Born in Indiana in 1906, he worked in a car plant as a teenager, riveting and welding. Then in a bank. Then a sports store. Then an oil tanker. For a man with this type of restless employment history — for a typical early American modernist — art was a dream, a yearning, an alternative. Which is why he went on to make great art, while the slackers and fashionistas gathered by Saatchi in his USA Today show make feeble art. Nothing has shaped them, so they have no shape.

    In 1929, a copy of Cahiers d’Art, featuring Picasso’s fantastical welded metal sculptures, fell into Smith’s hands, and the Tate show duly opens with a set of distinctly Picasso-ish heads made in 1933. They’re totemic but comic, primitivism with a Brooklyn accent. Saw Head was made from a circular saw blade and some broken shears; Agricola Head from the twisted struts of a plough. Welding gives you this adaptability. It’s sculpture’s version of collage: different things from different sources can be brought together into a new whole. Saw Head seems to be accompanied by an off-stage voice shouting “Hey presto” while the pieces of factory junk are turned, as if by magic, into a cheeky human mask. The circular blade becomes the face. The shears are the nose.

    All this is a turn-up. Smith’s late work is not noted for its cheek. The $21.5m sculpture was a huge, floaty, geometric piece — imagine a cluster of square balloons made of stainless steel — that seemed to predict minimalism. And the usual image we have of Smith is of a heroic welder of train-sized whoppers that take on the landscape or city or whatever else you got. But no. He could do small, playful, lyrical. Even — would you believe? — psychologically intense.

    The most surprising room features table-top sculptures produced in the 1940s, when he was working as a welder during the day, in a busy factory producing trains and tanks; and on his own at night, at home, thinking things. This is usually described as his surrealist phase, because the little sculptures he produced at night feature such strange and unlikely snippets of shape and image. Reliquary House is like a pint-sized tomb that’s been opened up to reveal a reclining body and a woman growing out of a column. Big Rooster shows a large chicken looming over an archway, a staircase, some sheep and a plough. They are crazy little dreams welded into weird metal cartoons that owe as much to Walt Disney’s sense of scale as they do to Dr Freud’s insights into the subconscious.

    It’s engrossing art, constantly surprising, bottomlessly inventive. And it sets itself such impossible tasks. Home of the Welder is said to be an attempt to evoke some of the frustration Smith felt at working in the tank factory during the day and only concentrating on his art at night. Things were not going well with his wife, either, and he’d begun to imagine leaving home. What kind of subject is that for a sculpture? But Smith pulls it off with a sad little interior, a tiny welded living room in which an outsized millstone represents the burden of his day job, while a mad scattering of bits of nude evoke his frustrated libido. It’s brilliant: an actorless Chekhovian drama set in a welded doll’s house.

    As the work grows bigger, it seems to take on more absurd challenges. The Letter (1950), attempts to look like a letter to a loved one written on a giant sheet of paper in a private alphabet of pictograms. Next to it, another letter-shaped piece is devoted to the constant repetition of the Greek letter Y, as if a naughty schoolboy has been set lines by an angry classics teacher, with the extra-tough requirement that they be welded, not written. It’s all crazy, all brilliant.

    And it radically challenges the view that Smith only found himself in his late work. The truth is that he was always unusually good. A beautiful piece from 1951, Hudson River Landscape, shows him drawing a landscape in the air with steel contours where a lesser artist might have drawn it on paper with a pencil.

    This madcap inventiveness gives way to more monumental concerns midway through the 1950s, when Smith started earning enough from his work to attempt bigger ideas with bigger materials. His work shifts from the lower to the upper case, and the second half of the show is devoted to a parade of big metal totems that prefigure pretty much everything that was to come in American sculpture, from the hard-core minimalism of Carl Andre to the rusty steel behemoths of Richard Serra. Our own Anthony Caro, who met Smith in the 1960s, borrowed another fine idea from him: painting metal sculptures in striking colours.

    Thus, the show keeps proving that Smith kept inventing. The final room has in it some of the polished square balloons that set the record price for contemporary art. It’s amazing to see cubes of stainless steel floating like helium.