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Leon Polk Smith: Selected Works, 1943-1992

DATES February 19, 1993 through January 02, 1994
COLLECTIONS Contemporary Art
  • December 1, 1992 A group of 27 paintings and works on paper, spanning much of the more than 50-year career of American artist Leon Polk Smith, one of the pioneers of postwar abstract art, comprise a promised gift to The Brooklyn Museum. The works, which will inaugurate a portion of the fifth-floor galleries in the newly renovated West Wing of the Museum, will be on view February 19, 1993 through 1995 when a retrospective exhibition is planned. Also on February 19, the balance of the fifth floor will be unveiled with an installation of the Museum’s permanent collection of contemporary art.

    Director of The Brooklyn Museum Robert T. Buck commented, “This major and generous promised gift, for which we are indebted to the artist, will allow Museum visitors to view the continuum of his work. This impressive new gallery space will create an appropriate backdrop for a compelling presentation of these paintings and works on paper by one of the most important abstract artists of the century in America.”

    Included in the exhibition will be works created from the early 1940s through those recently completed, ranging from OK Territory (1943) to Jubilee (1992). The paintings, which vary in size from small- to large-scale, include works done in acrylic as well as in oil. Among the works on paper are watercolors and paper collage as well as ink and pencil.

    Leon Polk Smith, who has been described by art critic John Russell as “One of the best painters around,” was born of part Cherokee ancestry in 1906 in what was then the Indian territory, now Oklahoma. One of nine children and the son of a farmer, he grew up in close contact with other Native Americans. This heritage was later to influence his art, particularly his use of color. The recipient in 1938 of an M.A. degree in art and educational psychology from Teachers College at Columbia University, New York, Leon Polk Smith taught art until the late 1950s, when he was able to devote all of his time to painting. His work has been widely exhibited throughout North America and Europe and is represented in many public collections.

    In 1936 he saw for the first time the work of Mondrian in the Gallatin Collection, which was to have a profound influence on his work through the 1940s, evidenced in the use of small overall grids and right-angled geometric forms. In 1954 a drawing of a baseball in a sports catalogue provided another important source of inspiration. Leon Polk Smith began experimenting with the use of curved lines, which led to the creation of several circular paintings, among them Black-White with Yellow (1953) and Stonewall (1956), which are also a part of the promised gift to The Brooklyn Museum.

    The exhibition at The Brooklyn Museum has been organized by Robert T. Buck, Director, and Brooke Kamin Rapaport, Assistant Curator of Contemporary Art, in consultation with Charlotta Kotik, Chair, Department of Painting and Sculpture, and Curator of Contemporary Art. There will be a 16-page publication, which will include an essay by Mr. Buck, and will be fully illustrated in color and in black-and-white.


    Three elements that have interested me in art are line, color, and the concept of space and its use as a positive force.

    Mondrian’s discovery of the interchangeability of form and space greatly interested me, even though it was limited to rectilinear shapes. In the early forties I set out from Mondrian to find a way of freeing this concept of space so that it could be expressed with the use of curved line as well as straight. I soon found that this was not an easy thing to do. In 1954 after more than a decade of intense search and painting, while drawing with free line on a circular surface, I observed somewhat by accident a concomitant situation wherein the idea of space and form were complementary to each other as well as interchangeable.

    After many of these drawings I was able to carry this situation over into paintings on a circular format. And not until I had done more than a dozen of the circular paintings could I achieve this interchangeable use of space and form on a rectangular canvas. Then, more than ever, there was the curved space that moves in every direction, and when at a particular point a line changes its course you cannot tell whether it turns right or left, up or down, in or out. A curved space all across the canvas, with only two colors to go by. The extending points where these two colors meet seem only to indicate a means by which to maneuver through this evolved space that has absorbed the form, releasing it of its every need to behave any longer as form.

    As to color, the traditional use of somber color was never a part of my environment. I grew up in the Southwest, where the colors in nature were pure and rampant and where my Indian neighbors and relatives used color to vibrate and shock in all its intensity with equal rampancy.

    I have always felt that I was born for my time, the twentieth-century, and never resisting it, I have moved along with it as easily and as naturally as air and the breeze move together or even at times on the spire of a tornado.

    Leon Polk Smith

    Brooklyn Museum Archives. Records of the Department of Public Information. Press releases, 1989 - 1994. 07-12/1992, 202-205.
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