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

Throughout the 1930s, Smith works in the mural and public sculpture departements of various U.S. government sponsored art programs, and in 1937 he joins the American Abstract Artists Group and exhibits with them in 1938 and 1939. In January 1939, Smith has his first one-man show of welded-iron sculptures and drawings at Marian Willard’s East River Gallery, in New York City. During World War II Smith works for the American Locomotive Company in Schenectady, assembling tanks and locomotives. Since steel and iron are scarce during the War years, he also works with other materials including marble, cast aluminum, and wood. In 1950 and 1951 he receives the Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, which temporarily frees him from other job obligations.

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