Painter Leon Polk Smith Turned to Abstraction to Explore Notions of Identity and Race

Leon Polk Smith’s position in postwar art has always been ambiguous. One reason may be the myth that New York in the 1950s had no room for anything but Abstract Expressionism; as a contemporary of Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko, his work could seem an anomaly on the postwar American art scene. Smith, who died in 1996 and is currently the subject of a retrospective at Haus Konstruktiv in Zurich, seems ripe for reconsideration. While he has always been filed under the rubric of hard-edge abstraction, he blazed an independent path in pursuit of an abstract art responsive to the tensions and forces in and beyond form. His abstraction has a subject, based on his own life experience, and it has something to tell us about a theme that has become more topical in our time: identity.

As a man of mixed race, Smith must have felt something of an outsider in the New York art world. He was born in what was Indian Territory in 1906, the year before it was admitted to the union as Oklahoma, the 46th state. His parents, both partly of Cherokee extraction, had moved there from Tennessee; the people among whom he grew up were predominantly Choctaw and Chickasaw, members (like Smith’s Cherokee ancestors) of the “Five Civilized Tribes” that had been forcibly removed from the Southeast in the 1830s. After graduating from high school, he worked as a rancher, among other jobs, before heading to Oklahoma’s East Central State Normal School (now East Central University) in 1931 for a degree in English, and it was there, in his final year, that—having never set foot in a museum, met an artist, or seen a serious work of painting—he took an art class and experienced it as a revelation: “I felt very strongly … that I had always been an artist,” he said in a 1985 interview.

Listen beautiful relax classics on our Youtube channel.

Upon graduation, Smith commenced his career as a schoolteacher in his home state, but began attending summer sessions at Teachers College, Columbia University. In New York, at the Albert E. Gallatin Gallery of Living Art at New York University, Smith experienced a further revelation: the existence of abstract art. Henceforth, his heroes would be Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, and, above all, Piet Mondrian.

Not that Smith’s work turned completely nonobjective right away. The paintings in his first one-person exhibition, at New York’s Uptown Gallery in 1941—he had moved to the city two years earlier—retained referential imagery, albeit in a geometricizing, reductive key. An unsigned review in Art Digest describes “a highly personalized idiom” in works that “picture farm life, comment on our war-mad world, and depict the biological cycle of life” along with “semiabstractions executed in bright watercolor washed with accents of ink line, alternatively sharp and blotter fuzzy.”

Leon Polk Smith: OK Territory, 1943.

By 1943, though, when Smith painted works such as OK Territory (now in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum), he had clearly made a commitment to the heritage of Mondrian and De Stijl, employing only flat, rectilinear forms and a very limited palette. While, at least according to its title, that painting was a homage to the artist’s birthplace, many more of his paintings of the 1940s, not unlike Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie Woogie (1943), pay tribute to his adopted city through their brisk, jazzy abstract rhythms. Smith’s encapsulation of Mondrian’s lesson remains key to his own art: “the interchangeability of form and space.”

It was really only in the early 1950s that he declared his independence from Mondrian, adopting the circle rather than the rectangle as the basis for his compositions—sometimes in counterpoint to rectilinear forms, as in Chickasaw (1954), but often entrusting his art entirely to curvilinear ones, in works like Blue Red Spheres (1955). Smith retold the origin story behind this change often; like most such stories, its accuracy may be less to the point than its symbolic value. It has to do with the most ordinary thing, a catalogue of athletic equipment that caught the artist’s eye: balls! The illustrations, Smith explained to an interviewer in 1987, “were drawn with a pencil, rather than photographic illustrations. And the seams on a—let us say football or basketball—intrigued me. That showed me how to use the curvilinear form with an inner circle.” And to another interlocutor, in 1995: “I kept that catalogue on my desk and would go back to it every day or so. I thought, ‘What in the hell am I doing with this thing?’ When I put that question to myself, a little voice inside said, ‘Because that’s what you are looking for.’”

In the work Smith began doing after the fateful encounter with the catalogue, the division of the pictorial field became above all a sovereign act of drawing. The power of the line, as Smith discovered, is that it produces two shapes. One might call them positive and negative, as long as it’s clear that each one is positive to the other’s negative and vice versa: here is that “interchangeability of form and space” that so fascinated Smith. It would be tempting to say that from this point on, Arp and Brancusi become more relevant to Smith’s work than Mondrian, as his paintings begin to take on a strangely sculptural aspect, a sense of volume, even without giving up the flat plane of painting (except in a few reliefs made in the early 1960s). In the tondos that Smith was painting in the second half of the 1950s there is a distinct sense that one is seeing not a disc, but a single face of a sphere, and that the interchangeable forms encompass the unseen remainder.

Leon Polk Smith: <em.Blue Red Spheres, 1955.

In Smith’s more conventionally rectangular works from this period and on throughout the 1960s, this same principle of interchangeability applies. The artist himself explained it quite clearly in a 1964 interview:

“I will get up and draw this one line through the canvas which creates two forms, one on either side of the line, and while I am drawing this line, it seems that I am travelling many, many miles in space instead of just fifty inches or sixty inches whatever the canvas happens to be, but it is a great, great distance from one point to the next and around the curve, and I begin to feel the tensions develop and the forces working on either side of this line; there is a color often suggested, usually the color that I am going to use, that comes to me before the line reaches the other side of the canvas.”

Often the two color areas engaged by the complex curvilinear line of their boundary are approximately equal in extent. But the visual force of two different colors is never entirely equivalent; to balance the tensions between them is never easy. Still more of a challenge is to do so when there is an evident disproportion in area between the two forms. Yet in a work such as Over Easy (1958), the smaller black zone does not become a merely passive ground against which the larger magenta one appears as a figure; instead, both register as equally active, forming and being formed by its companion.

The apparent “formalism” of Smith’s lifelong fascination with the reciprocal relations of forms and spaces in painting is not something to be boxed away in a purely aesthetic realm sealed off from the rest of life. Consider Smith’s experience as a person who grew up between cultures—settler and Indigenous—and considered himself to belong to both, or perhaps to neither. “What place would an interracial artist have,” cultural historian Randolph Lewis asks in a 2001 essay on the artist, “in the dichotomous identity politics of the New York art world of the 1940s? An artist could be Euroamerican or could be something else, but being two things at once was difficult to sustain in the (white) public sphere.” Yet Lewis finds connections that others have overlooked in Smith’s art, both to Native arts and to the landscape of the American Southwest. These are all plausible. And as for the Southwestern landscape, Smith himself once ruminated, “that’s influenced my paintings more than any other experience that I’ve ever had.” From OK Territory on, the titles of many of his ostensibly abstract works attest to this. But more important, I think, is the way Smith’s art proposes that we experience what Lewis calls “being two things at once.” This double being is implicit in Smith’s very conception of line as entailing the simultaneous coming-into-being of distinct forms. One might almost feel that Smith was always addressing, in his own way, the famous words of W.E.B. Du Bois: “The problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line.”

A more precise description than “identity” of the subject of Smith’s abstraction may be, how to live together, but also how to live with oneself. Whether we are thinking of a single person, or of a whole society, identity is paradoxical: It depends on the coexistent nonidentity of its sources or members. What Smith’s art suggests is that equality is not measurable. In this regard, I think in particular of the painting Black-White Duet with Red (1953), a tondo in the collection of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C. Keeping Smith’s mixed racial heritage in mind, the painting becomes an almost comically blatant allegory about race in the United States, which has too often been imagined as, quite literally, a matter of black and white; whereas the Indigenous people who are coded as “red” are displaced to a small wedge of the picture. Yet that little patch of red occupying a very small area of the canvas is not mere background; on the contrary, it is key to the form of the whole, unbalancing the apparently stable contrariety of the black and white spaces in order to construct a new, more complex and dynamic equilibrium.

That complexity and dynamism would multiply in Smith’s subsequent work, particularly the polyptychs he began to make in the latter part of the 1960s, many of which he called “Constellations.” They ask viewers to see forms that strictly speaking are not there, forms that leap from canvas to canvas, so that the meaning of a shape as it literally asserts itself on any one panel has to coexist with its meaning as a fragment of a larger and partly unseen shape that exists only in the viewer’s imagination. In these paintings, as John Yau observed, “instead of coming together into a harmonic balance, the forms no longer fit comfortably inside each other” as, in the end, they had usually done in Smith’s single-canvas paintings. That’s to say that, just as Smith’s art kept opening itself up to greater degrees of difficulty and unsettledness without losing its cool, it asks viewers to do the same.


No votes yet.
Please wait...