With its spindly legs supporting what could be a huge, weirdly shaped head, the metal sculpture seems about to walk off in search of a mate. Or maybe a world to invade — the object looks a little bit like the creatures in those old Martian invasion flicks.
But " Head with Cogs for Eyes," a witty work from 1933 by pathbreaking American sculptor David Smith, isn't going anywhere. It's securely nestled in the Baltimore Museum of Art's vibrant new exhibit, "Advancing Abstraction in Modern Sculpture."
Drawn primarily from the museum's own enviable collections, the show provides an engrossing history lesson, covering the 1920s to the 1970s and artists from several countries. The Smith pieces on display constitute a lively portion of the exhibit, and that cog-eyed head provides an extra twist.
It arrived at the BMA in 2009, along with seven other notable sculptures and nearly two dozen illustrated artists' books, part of a bequest from the estate of Ryda Hecht Levi, a longtime trustee of the museum who died two years ago. She and her husband, Robert, who died in 1995, were major art collectors for decades.
The 1933 Smith head, one of his earliest works of welded sculpture, has not been seen by the public for more than 35 years; it had been labeled as "lost" by the David Smith Estate.
"My brother was looking online and saw that 'lost' label," says the Levis' daughter, Sandra Levi Gerstung, vice president of the BMA's board of trustees. "And here it had been nestled at home for all these years. There was a big splash about it when he told them we had it. Mother and Dad probably purchased it in the late '50s or early '60s. David Smith was an up-and-coming, being-recognized artist then. I appreciate it more now; it was just another thing in the house when I was young."
That Levi home in Green Spring Valley was filled, inside and out, with great art, much of it now at the BMA, including outdoors in the Levi Sculpture Garden, which opened in 1988.
"I knew we had enough stuff in the vaults to do a show on abstraction in sculpture," says Oliver Shell, the museum's associate curator of European painting and sculpture. "The  Levi gift really galvanized us."
Those newest items from the Levi estate include "Four Piece Reclining Figure," a gleaming, supremely elegant bronze from 1972 by English sculptor Henry Moore; and Russian-born Naum Gabo's "Vertical Construction No. 1" from the mid-1960s, a tall piece in copper alloy and steel spring-wire that achieves a telling balance between tension and repose.
The "lost" Smith work has been surrounded by other examples from about three decades of his creative output, pieces from the BMA's collection and on loan from the Smith Estate. They add up to a mini-exhibit within the exhibit, providing a welcome opportunity to savor an original spirit.
"During his life, which ended in his 59th year  when his pickup skidded off a country road in Vermont," critic Robert Hughes wrote, "David Smith … was the most inventive sculptor America had. … He still is."
"Head with Cogs for Eyes" would be enough on its own to illustrate that point, revealing as it does Smith's ability to weld found metal objects into forms that are somehow at once abstract and familiar, objects that exude some strange, inner force. "Chain Head," also from 1933 and on loan from the sculptor's estate, makes a compelling companion piece; this iron figure suggests a horse-head-shaped machine caught in mid-chomp.
In a clever addition that helps personalize the exhibit, black-and-white photographs from the 1950s taken of Smith at his home in Bolton Landing, N.Y., with "Head with Cogs for Eyes," "Chain Head" and others are included in the BMA exhibit. One of these historic photos hanging on the wall shows three sculptures grouped together; below, those actual pieces are on display — "probably the first time they've been together since the 1950s," Shell says.
Two-thirds of the material in "Advancing Abstraction" from the BMA collection has never been shown at the museum before. And items previously on view have been given a new placement and context for this exhibit that allows them to be seen in a fresh perspective.
The cumulative effect is to shed light on both the move away from and the lingering resonance of the human form as subject matter for sculpture during the 20th century.
There's "Woman at the Mirror" (c. 1934) by Spaniard Julio Gonzalez, for example; a few small spikes at the top of this spiky bronze might be strands of eyelashes (Gonzalez's works in welded metals were a primary influence on Smith). A painted terra-cotta work from 1945 by Louise Nevelson playfully hints at living beings with little dots outlining faces on otherwise abstract forms.
But Nevelson's painted wood pieces, such as "Landscape" (1955) and, located just beyond the main display rooms of the exhibit, "Moon Reflections" (1958), bring found objects together into pure, shadowy abstractions.
A 1954 work by the late Egyptian-born American sculptor Ibram Lassaw provides an especially refreshing jolt of abstractness. Titled "The Planets," this creation of copper alloy on a wire armature "has never been out of the vault," Shell says. Its moment in the sun is likely to prove popular with museum-goers, for Lassaw's welding of strands into a fanciful solar system of abstract shapes generates a remarkable vitality.
For that matter, the whole exhibit exerts an energetic pull.
If you go
"Advancing Abstraction" runs through Feb. 20 at the Baltimore Museum of Art, 10 Art Museum Drive. Free. Call 443-573-1700 or go to artbma.org.
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