Leon Polk Smith is best known for his inventive geometric abstractions. Smith left behind his earlier Cubist style and began working in the geometric mode in the mid-1940s after becoming acquainted with the De Stijl paintings of Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg. His respect for the work of the Dutch minimalists formed the foundation of his methods, upon which he built a highly original painting practice that questioned ideas of space, perspective, and color. Smith highly valued his own individuality, and refused an invitation to join the American Abstract Artists, a prominent New York collective of abstract artists who met regularly to discuss art and theory. Instead, he built a body of work contrary to the gestural, mythological, and surrealist styles that were prominent in the work of his contemporaries. By refusing to adhere to the popular styles of his day—Abstract Expressionism in particular—Smith proved the enduring vitality of Modernism and served as a precursor to the later work of Minimalist, Color Field, and Hard Edge artists.
Leon Polk Smith was born in 1906, the eighth of nine children, to a farming family living in Indian Territory that would later become the state of Oklahoma. Although the Depression initially delayed his higher education, Smith entered college near his hometown with the goal of becoming an English teacher and he earned his teaching certificate in 1934. An art class taken during his senior year inspired him to pursue art education, and upon graduation Smith instituted art programs that brought art classes to the children of the ranchers, farmers, and oil field workers of his home state. Smith moved to New York in 1936 to pursue a graduate degree in art education from Columbia University, earning MFA in Fine Arts Education from that institution in 1938.
Life in New York City provided ample opportunities for the young Smith to experience European Modernism first-hand. He frequented museums and galleries throughout the city, and would have seen such seminal exhibitions as Cubism and Abstract Art and Fantastic Art, Dada, and Surrealism, both arranged by Alfred Barr at the Museum of Modern Art in 1936, as well as the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1935 survey of abstract art in America, and the 1939 opening of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting, which housed the collection of Solomon R. Guggenheim. All of these events added to the growing influence of European Modernism in New York art circles, an influence which Smith would incorporate into his own work beginning around this time.
Particularly among the group of Europeans showing in New York, Smith was drawn to the work of Dutch painter Piet Mondrian. He first encountered Mondrian’s work in 1936 at the
Albert E. Gallatin Gallery of Living Art at New York University. Smith was drawn to Mondrian’s use of the relationship between form and space to simultaneously suggest both flatness and depth. Smith began to adopt the straight lines and right angles of De Stijl in his own work around 1940, but did not adhere to the movement’s underlying utopian philosophy. White Woman (1940) incorporates this new geometric impulse while still not wholly abandoning the Cubist and Expressionist styles he had been previously exploring. This work retains aspects of Polk’s Cubist phase, while embracing the stricter geometry of parallel and perpendicular lines separating flat areas of color that is characteristic of De Stijl. This geometric abstraction would become the dominant influence in his work beginning in 1945, a year that coincided with Mondrian’s retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Smith had his first solo exhibition, featuring his Surrealist-Expressionist works, in 1941 at the Uptown Galleries in New York. The success and critical attention stemming from this show led to another at Pinacotheca Gallery the next year, which solidified his growing reputation. He was able to devote himself to painting full-time in 1943, thanks to Hilla Rebay, who hired him as one of her assistants at the groundbreaking Museum of Non-Objective Painting. In that position Smith utilized his education background to help introduce abstract art into public schools, and was also able to travel on two different occasions with the help of Guggenheim Fellowships.
Over the next decade, Smith’s work grew from the geometry of De Stijl into a more free-form abstraction. He hit his artistic stride in 1954 with a series of curved forms, painted in bold, flat color onto round canvases. Later series, such as the Correspondences and Constellations, furthered his innovative approach to abstraction and aesthetically allied him with such contemporary movements as Minimalism, Color Field, Op Art, and Hard Edge painting. His work was included in many seminal exhibitions, such as The Responsive Eye, curated by William Seitz at the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1965, and Systemic Painting, curated by Lawrence Alloway at the Guggenheim Museum in 1966, and he enjoyed several museum retrospectives across the United Stated and Europe in the 1970s and 1980s.
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