David Smith was born on March 9, 1906, in Decatur, Indiana. In 1921 he moved with his family to Paulding, Ohio. Smith studied art for one year at Ohio University, Athens, and then enrolled at the University of Notre Dame. In 1929 he moved to Washington, D.C., then to New York, where he enrolled in the Art Students League. Through the Czech modernist painter Jan Matulka, Smith was introduced to the works of Vassily Kandinsky, Piet Mondrian, Pablo Picasso, and the Russian Constructivists.

Throughout the 1930s, Smith worked in the public sculpture departments of various U.S. government sponsored art programs, and in 1937 he joined the American Abstract Artists and exhibited with them in 1938 and 1939. In January 1939, Smith had his first solo show of welded-iron sculptures and drawings at Marian Willard’s East River Gallery in New York. During World War II Smith worked for the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, assembling tanks and locomotives. Since steel and iron were in short supply during the war period, he also worked with other materials including marble, cast aluminum, and wood. In 1950 and 1951 he received the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, which temporarily freed him from other job obligations.

In September 1957, a retrospective survey of his sculptures, drawings, and paintings opened at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. During the same year Smith began his Sentinel series, tall, vertical structures, and also began to use a new stencil technique to make spray enamel works on paper and canvas. In the following years his sculptures were included at the 29th Venice Biennale (1958), and at the São Paulo Bienal (1959). In 1961 he began his most famous series, the Cubis (1961–65). From May through July 1962 Smith was invited by the Italian government to work in Voltri, creating twenty-seven sculptures for the Fourth Festival of the Two Worlds in Spoleto. Smith died following an automobile accident near Bennington, Vermont, on May 23, 1965.