Lisson Gallery

‘Leon Polk Smith: 1945-1962’ Review: The Shape of Abstraction - WSJ

25 May 2022

At the Palm Springs Art Museum, the formative work of the painter reveals his deft attenuation to form and color.

Smith’s paintings—from the exhibition’s period and after—elegantly perform what might be called the modernist two-step: a back-and-forth between positive and negative space. In Smith’s work, one flat, bright color (or, oddly, black) seems to be in front of another—for a second or two—and then the other color pops out. Circles were at first Smith’s preferred format, as were two-color combinations; he later expanded to oval and, more traditionally, square and rectangular formats, and also increased the number of colors in his paintings.

“Untitled” (1953) is a superb little painting—a moving one, if you’re attuned to the beauties of geometric abstraction. The play of curved lines—both within the painting and in the format—the bang-bang but not overpowering use of red, and the way the gray above and below the painting’s midpoint prevents the work from becoming a mere emblem all display Smith’s appetite for nuance, a quality that sets him apart from a plethora of showier geometric abstractionists. “Red Blue Orange Ellipses” from eight years later shows Smith revisiting the tondo mode, working with three flat colors; but this time there’s no black and the abrupt chromatic shift is a little harder for a viewer to handle comfortably. Plus, there’s more than a bit of sexual allusion in the picture.

Read the full review by Peter Plagens in The Wall Street Journal here.

'Leon Polk Smith: 1945-1962' is on view at the Palm Springs Art Museum through August 28.

‘Leon Polk Smith: 1945-1962’ Review: The Shape of Abstraction - WSJ
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