'Leon Polk Smith: 1940–1961' review - The Brooklyn Rail
31 January 2024
What is it like to be “of one’s time” and not? Leon Polk Smith was a prime progenitor of American hard-edged abstraction whose non-objective pedigree as a protégé of the painter and philanthropist Hilla Rebay, and subsequent track record of showing in the Betty Parsons and Egan Gallery early on, puts him squarely in the pocket of post-war American art ascendancy yet his legacy has subsequently remained a relatively independent part of that particular epic.
This unique position was undoubtedly the result of Smith overcoming his disadvantaged social circumstance with an indomitable will to shape an independent destiny in art. Born in 1906 into a hardscrabble farm family of nine siblings, in what was then called the Oklahoma Territory, Smith knew the realities of carving a living out of one’s bodily capacities. He grew up amongst remnants of the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes that had been dislocated to the territory a century before by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Smith’s parents were of Cherokee heritage, and he identified with his neighbors closely, in experiences that would later resurface, in related formal permutations, in his mature artworks. He ultimately found a bridge to a further range for his life’s ambition in pursuing a degree in teaching, first in Oklahoma and eventually at Teacher’s College, Columbia University. After earning his master’s degree at Columbia, he met Hilla Rebay while working at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting who mentored him and supported his award of a Guggenheim fellowship in 1943. When he finally settled in New York in 1952, (after a series of travels for both blue- collar work and teaching positions), The New York School was already in its dynamic ascendancy. Smith would befriend much younger artists such as Ellsworth Kelly, whose work took on a pseudomorphic relation to Smith’s which was cause for an abiding friction between the two, especially when the “anxiety of influence” was ascribed primarily to one or the other. But while Smith’s biographical progress might be chronologically similar to another contemporary western expat, Jackson Pollock, he never achieved the kind of cultural prominence, an embeddedness in the “Triumph of American Painting” that his painter compatriots Pollock, and eventually even the younger Kelly would. But what if one were to look at such oversight as a benefit to the artist’s continuing relevance in today’s environment where such canonical discourse is shot through with a panoply of alternative narratives?
The legacy of hard-edged and formal abstract painting, particularly that championed by Clement Greenberg, has too long been burdened with an attendant perception of cultural confinement and repression. It’s refreshing, therefore, to take in this show that presents fragments of Smith’s developmental periods as a way to recalibrate one’s own interpretation of an American heritage of the non-objective. Freed of the feints of Formalist stalking horses, one can more openly perceive the starts, stops and resolutions of Smith’s experimentation which would comprise his ultimate formal authority.
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