Leon Polk Smith: 1940 – 1961
New York, 11 January – 17 February 2024
Considered one of the founders of the hard-edge style of Minimal, abstract art, Leon Polk Smith began experimenting with the forms and motifs that would shape his practice in the early 1940s, around when he first moved to New York City to pursue his art. This exhibition highlights those pieces made in the 1940s to 1950s, including a selection of key paintings from the era, alongside a group of studies, drawings and maquettes. These works reference his vast array of influences, from his investigation of the likes of the De Stijl painters and Piet Mondrian, to his own experience of the flatness of the Midwestern plains and the bright colors of Native crafts from his home state of Oklahoma. The work Smith produced during these pivotal years shapes the key themes of what would become his legacy.
Born in Indian Territory just one year before it became the state of Oklahoma, Leon Polk Smith was one of nine children born to parents with Cherokee ancestry. From his youth Smith’s and his large family’s identity emerged within the complex history and interconnection of Chickasaw and Choctaw native people living in rural Oklahoma communities surrounded by the beauty of vast plains. Smith knew at a young age that a life on the farm was not for him, and after stints supporting his family in their agrarian pursuits and as a rancher, he chose to pursue his studies as an educator. He graduated from Teachers College at Columbia University in New York City in 1938, a period in which he also began to explore his artistic practice. Much has been made of this pivotal early time spent in New York, where he first visited Albert E. Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art at New York University in 1936 and encountered works by the likes of Piet Mondrian, Constantin Brancusi and Hans Arp.
While ruminating on this Modernist style over the forthcoming years, Smith spends the late 1930 and early 1940s creating paintings and drawings with characteristics of Cubism, Surrealism and Expressionism. Examples in the exhibition include such notable paintings as Repeated Forms (1949), a colorful canvas depicting exactly as its title suggests—a repetition of various shapes such as rectangles, squares and a dominant bowl-like shape, rendered in varying hues, sizes and picture planes. Also included is Black Fruit Bowl (1940), which extends the bowl motif and sees repetition of form in the shape of lemons, and the especially illustrative Western Landscape (1943), in which the bowl is set against a divided picture plane, reminiscent of a prairie horizon.
It is not until the 1940s that he begins to make works such Untitled (1946) or Diagonal Passage No. 2 (1946-47) that share a resemblance to a geometric approach. He recognized a universal visual language shared between the abstraction of the Europeans and the craft of early America. The critic Arthur Danto also noted that Smith’s time in the plains of Oklahoma and the deserts of New Mexico had a profound impact on his work, believing one’s sense of geometry comes from the landscape they know as home. Smith also referenced his background in more overt ways as well, and his painting titles were often names of Oklahoma towns—as seen in Ada (1958) or Okie (1957)—or references to early-life experiences such as Lariat (1938).
Geometric patterning can be seen throughout Smith’s career, from the early grid-like patterns and diagonal passages compared with Mondrian, and even his later shaped canvases are often comprised of a collection of repeated shapes with bold, pure color. This devotion to pattern is no doubt influenced by Smith’s exposure to Native American craft. Smith was familiar with a design device used in the ribbonwork and beadwork of Oklahoma’s artists. Ribbonwork, in particular, uses highly intricate combinations of layered strips, folded or cut to reveal patterns of varying color.
The enormous impact that early Tribal art had on Smith cannot be underestimated, but his own unique combination of his biographical proclivities alongside his careful and curious study of European Modernist tradition is what created an entirely individual and radical oeuvre. While his Constellations or Correspondences may have gone on to receive the widest acclaim, the formative years spent defining this approach to geometric abstraction created perhaps the most revolutionary artworks in his practice.
504 West 24th Street
Tuesday – Saturday: 10:00am – 6:00pm
Leon Polk Smith: Prairie Moon
Leon Polk Smith