August 20, 2015

Leon Polk Smith: Perfect Pitch

A selection of paintings from the 1960s; image courtesy Leon Polk Smith Foundation website.

 Sometimes I say to myself in wonder, "how is it I didn't know this artist?!". It is a thrill to learn of the work of a painter, Leon Polk Smith (1906 - 1996), whose use of shape and color and space is so varied, so simple and bold, and so perfectly balanced. And on top of that, I feel such an affinity for what he's doing; it feels close to my textile work. I look at the selection of works above and feel exhilarated. In 1962 Smith wrote (he was part Cherokee, from Oklahoma):   
As to color, - The traditional use of somber color was never a part of my environment. I grew up in the Southwest where the colors in nature were pure and rampant and where my Indian neighbors and relatives used color to vibrate and shock in all its intensity with equal rampancy. 

My recent introduction to Smith's work was at Washburn Gallery, where the two paintings above (sorry for the poor photos) were hanging in a group show. They are 5 or 6 feet high. In these paintings, black and white take on the vibrancy Smith speaks of. The shapes move and energize the space of the canvases, oval and rectangular, as the colors switch their places forward and back. I imagine that these paintings are from the 60s or 70s (sorry not to have the info). 

Accent Black, 1949, oil on canvas, 42 x 31 in.

During that same visit to NYC I came across an earlier Smith painting at the Met, a wonderful gridded composition with a jazzy feeling. The Met's description of the work cites its influences as Pueblo design and Mondrian.

Accent Black detail

The color relationships in this painting are subtle and beautiful and rich.

A selection of drawings; image courtesy Leon Polk Smith Foundation website.

There is a Matisse quality to some of Smith's drawings, pointing to Matisse's organically shaped cut-outs. Another artist that comes to mind is Ellsworth Kelly, and I imagine that Smith's large paintings have a similar presence to those of Kelly.

Black-White Repeat, 1952; oil on canvas, 51 1/2 x 38 1/2 in.
This and the following images all courtesy of Leon Polk Smith Foundation website, except for the installation shot.

I am sharing one painting from each decade of Smith's career. In the black and white painting above, the positive and negative spaces do a flip-flop, with first the white shapes taking precedence, then the black, with the whole having a totem-like energy.

Correspondence Green, 1966; oil on canvas 68 1/4 x 50 1/4 in. 

A similar play of figure/ground happens in this painting. At first the big green shape commands attention; its rounded forms bounce across the plane, but then that dagger-like point of black pushes back. I can see how this kind of movement in space led to....

Constellation # 5 Blue - Red, 1972; acrylic on canvas, two elements 94 x 47 in. 

....a series of shaped paintings, many composed of numerous elements, with color flowing across them.

New Moon for August, 1983; acrylic on canvas, 120 x 60 in.

The diagonal blue shape is so powerful that it hides, at first, the perfectly vertical, perfectly symmetrical, white pointed oval.

Event in Red, 1994; acrylic on canvas, 72 x 24 in. 

During the 1990s, Smith explored the dynamism of lines moving across the picture plane. A simple black slightly curved line animates the elongated rectangle.

untitled, 1990; paper on paper, 20 x 14 in.

Lastly, a work on paper, here a collage which, when I first saw it, made me exhale: aaahh!....such beautiful balance in its color and shape.

Installation view of exhibition "Leon Polk Smith: 50 Years of Separation" at Washburn Gallery; image courtesy Washburn Gallery.

This installation view gives an idea of the sizes of the work: the large paintings are from the 1990s, the smaller ones from the 40s. The Brooklyn Museum mounted a large exhibition in 1995-96, Leon Polk Smith: American Painter; at the link you can see 25 images of the installation which give a sense of the scale of the works on a wall; if this work interests you, it's worth taking a look. 
The only thing good about being an ignoramus, as I sometimes am, is this thrill of discovery.


  1. HOW do they manage to sneak this stuff by us!!???
    Just last year, the Goodyear/Noguchi table, 1939, sold for $4½million, but never mind that, it is the coolest atomic piece of furniture ever, yet I'd been an ignoramus.
    That's ok. It's worth-it! If the discoveries will continue to be this cool.
    Lovely post. Thanks!

    1. Thanks, JBS. Discoveries are fun, and I hope they keep coming, even if it proves my continuing ignoramus-hood.