Finding Contemporary Insights in the Art of Leon Polk Smith
Nov 20, 2019
In the 1940s, the American artist Leon Polk Smith pioneered a unique abstract visual language that added curvilinear properties to the flattened planes and simplified geometry of Neoplasticism. An early inspiration for Smith was the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, whose masterful rectangular explorations of color and space were regarded by many as the end of a line of thinking, but who got Smith wondering what comes next. Unexpectedly, Smith found a way forward in the pages of an athletic catalogue that arrived by chance in his mailbox. He found himself entranced by pictures of footballs, baseballs and basketballs, admiring both their curved forms and the curved stitching on their surfaces. “I certainly would not have gone to an athletic catalog to find it, but that is where I found it,” Smith told artist and critic Addison Parks in 1982. “Of course the shapes and lines were very limited...but then that created a space that I had never seen in painting before. It was flat and at the same time it was curved. The planes seemed to move in every direction, as space does.” That simple, yet profound realization was recently on full view in the exhibition Leon Polk Smith: Endless Space, at Richard Gray Warehouse in Chicago. Featuring a dozen and a half paintings and drawings from the 1960s and 70s, the exhibition read like a visual manifesto of that moment of discovery. Pieces like “Untitled No. 7613” (1976) spoke more directly to it than others; while others, such as the yin-yang-esque, green and black complementary forms of “Untitled” (1967), expanded the insight into mystical territory. The diligence and elegance with which Smith fleshed out his revelation is admirable, and considering how early he was working with these ideas it is easy to see how he helped lay the groundwork for everything from Op Art to Minimalism to Hard Edge Abstraction. Yet, I cannot help feeling there is also something more to his work than colors and shapes.
A Viewer’s Search For Meaning
What captures my imagination most about Smith is the way he conjoins multiple paintings to create larger compositions. Smith called his arrays of shaped canvases “Constellations.” Some, such as “Constellation Straight Out” (1974), consist of neatly stacked forms with a repeating horizon line, implying continuation of the elements into space. Others, like “Constellation - Lost Horizon” (1968), connect unevenly, looking less like something methodical and more like cropped views of a larger picture, like pieces of a visual puzzle. I love the term Constellations for these paintings because it perfectly evokes my own human tendency towards speculative mysticism. Like a star gazer seeking my destiny in the zodiac, I cannot help but scan these painted Constellations for hidden meaning.
Leon Polk Smith - Constellation Milky Way, 1970. Acrylic on canvas. 80 x 120 in. (203 x 305 cm) overall. The National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. © 2019 Leon Polk Smith Foundation
In “Reflections-Red-Black” (1968) I perceive competing mythologies, from the legend of Narcissus—the implied egoism of reflected forms—to the conjoined, empathic sensuality of the Kama Sutra. The proliferating hard edged, concrete forms of “Constellation-Red-Blue” (1970), meanwhile, evoke broad, humanistic notions like togetherness, expansion, connectivity and desire. At the same time as I want so badly to open myself up to the potential existence of deeper meanings in this work, however, I also wonder if imbuing the formal choices reflected in this art with metaphysical import is inherently pretentious; a form of critical colonization. Usually, art critics and historians encourage contemporary viewers not to assign meanings and narratives to historic artworks that might be inconsistent with the intent of the artist, but rather to look at the work of dead artists through the lens of the circumstances in which it was created.
Leon Polk Smith - untitled, 1979. Gouache on paper. 41½ x 27 in. (105.4 x 68.6 cm). © 2019 Leon Polk Smith Foundation
The Right to Re-Evaluate
According to Patterson Sims, President of The Leon Polk Smith Foundation, we have the right, and perhaps the responsibility, to look at art history from a contemporary perspective, and to endow legacy art with whatever content we earnestly perceive. “I think you are completely entitled to what you are doing,” Sims told me. “Art history is the product of succeeding generations being able to find things in work that a previous generation was unable to see.” Although some artists and foundations might disagree. For example, Donald Judd famously pre-empted critics by making his own declarative statements describing what his work was, and was not, and the Judd Foundation continues to zealously protect that narrative. However, Sims assured me that not everyone believes authoritarian control is the best way to contextualize the roll out of human culture. “One person might be completely committed to one point of view, but that ends up crippling the kind of engagement that people might have with that work,” said Sims. “I think art history and the process of curation is about a constant re-evaluation and re-thinking of things, and it at times becomes very personal.”
Leon Polk Smith - Blue, Red, Yellow with Black Crescents, 1968. Acrylic on canvas. 3 elements, each 31 x 56 in (79 x 142 cm). © 2019 Leon Polk Smith Foundation
Becky Daniel, Exhibitions and Communications Coordinator for Richard Gray Gallery, offers another reason we should feel free to re-evaluate Smith from a contemporary perspective. According to Daniel, Smith provided alternative installation instructions for many of his Constellations, allowing curators to assemble the puzzle pieces in novel ways. This tidbit implies Smith hoped people would be unafraid to take liberties with his work—like Sol LeWitt leaving room in his wall drawing instructions for the artists who execute them to make some aesthetic decisions on their own. Consider that when Smith moved to New York in the 1930s his homosexuality made him an outlaw, yet he confounded those who would marginalize him, eventually achieving wide recognition in such landmark exhibitions as The Responsive Eye. Yet, he simultaneously humbled himself, avoiding hyperbolic promotion, saying, “I realized very quickly that I had always been an artist...That I would always keep it for myself, that I would never prostitute it, or do anything with it just for money.” Whether he intended it or not, I perceive that Smith infused his work with something like a symbolic key code for contemporary malcontents like me—a legacy rich with optimism and humanity, expressed through playful relationships between color and form.
Featured image: Leon Polk Smith - Correspondence Black - White, 1968. Oil on canvas. 86 x 120 in. (218.4 x 304.8 cm). © 2019 Leon Polk Smith Foundation
All images used for illustrative purposes only
By Phillip Barcio