US welder who became the father of steel sculpture wins Tate's acclaim

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When the American artist David Smith began welding his vast works from steel, no one even considered them sculpture. But 100 years after he was born in the artistically unpromising environment of the Midwest, he is being honoured with an exhibition of his work at Tate Modern in London.

The show includes more than 70 works, starting with early experiments in the 1930s through to sculpture made not long before he was fatally injured in a car crash in 1965.

Frances Morris, its curator, said Smith was an enormously innovative sculptor, notably in his use of industrial materials, his liberation of sculpture from the plinth and his humanist subject matter. But his work has been less well known in Britain up to now than the Abstract Expressionist painters Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning who were his contemporaries.

"I hope he will be the subject of a great retrieval. Before David Smith started making welded steel sculpture, there were no more than 50 welded sculptures in the world. He was in at the beginning of a tradition," Morris said. "But like a number of really distinctive individuals in the 20th century, he's not a member of a club."

One of his clear legatees was the great British sculptor in metal, Sir Anthony Caro, 82, who said yesterday that Smith, whom he knew well, had meant a great deal to him. "His work is a revelation. He advanced the tradition of steel sculpture and open sculpture by an enormous amount."

Pablo Picasso and Julio Gonzalez were early pioneers of modern sculpture, he said. "But David took it a giant step forward in the ambition and directness of his pieces. He was revolutionary. People didn't think he was a sculptor but because he was an American and able to be free of that heavy tradition of Europe, he could just make these things willy-nilly without worrying about tradition."

There was an exhibition of his work at the Whitechapel Gallery in London in 1987. "But look how long it has taken for him to be accepted for a major show at the Tate - a very long time."

David Smith was born in Indiana in 1906, the son of a telephone engineer, and decided at the age of four he wanted to be an artist. Jean Freas, his widow, who is in Britain for the exhibition with their daughters, Rebecca and Candida, said: "He knew that's what he wanted to do and that was very strange in his background." He learnt welding not as a practical job skill but because he wanted to use it in his work. "But he never dreamt that he would pioneer a huge movement in American art. There was no such thing as American art then," she said.

His work very much reflected him. "When you look at his work, you know he's a real he-man, he was no limp-wrist. He was a giant - about 6ft 2in - with big hands. When he came into a room, he really filled the room."

Candida Smith, who handles her father's estate, said that what was important about the exhibition was it showed work from his entire career. "David Smith is known for certain works in England like the Wagon and the great Tate Cubis but what I hope this shows is the breadth of his career," she said.

She remembers him as "a tremendous life force. He loved music and dancing and food. He really embraced life. He loved play and laughter."

David Smith, supported by the Horace W Goldsmith Foundation, the Henry Moore Foundation and the American Patrons of Tate, opens today and runs until 21 January. Admission £7