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Leon Polk Smith Prints

Leon Polk Smith (1906-1996) remains best known for his paintings, which established the distinctively stark yet lyrical geometric abstraction that distinguishes his art. But from the start of his professional career in the late 1930s Smith prodigiously made drawings and works on paper. Overall Smith created around 2000 unique works on paper, collages, and torn paper compositions. His printmaking activity totals about 70 distinct photo-offset reproductions, silkscreens, serigraphs, and lithographs. What he has articulated about his paintings applies to all aspects of his art: “I paint neither politics religion nor philosophy, but you may find your own in my work. I am particularly interested in creating spaces that move in all directions and many dimensions.“

Smith’s printmaking commenced conceptually in 1962 with a series of seven experimental impressions of a single, tripartite biomorphic form imprinted on thin metal, aluminum and copper, sheets. His first prints made for the public were issued in 1965, during the first of the five years he exhibited with the Galerie Chalette in New York, in a compact, elegant set of nine photo-offset facsimiles of his torn paper drawings, the most non-geometric and accidental aspect of his mature work. Though very scarce now, the signed portfolios were produced in an overall edition of 500 copies, forty of which had each of the nine facsimile prints signed by the artist. The photo-reproductive print process the portfolio utilized was then being employed for print editions by Pop artists and in the coming years for prints by Photorealist painters.

In 1967 Smith was invited by Edition Domberger in Filderstadt, Germany, well known for their expertise in making silkscreens and serigraphs, to be part of a portfolio of fourteen abstract, geometric prints produced by ten different European and US artists. The portfolio was entitled Formen der Farbe/Forms in Color. Smith’s untitled two-color, single, cut columnar form on a solid background was among the portfolio’s prints by Josef Albers, Max Bill, Allan D’Arcangelo, and Robert Indiana.

Smith received a grant in 1968 to work at June Wayne’s Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles. Begun in 1959, this highly active printmaking center, which moved to Albuquerque, New Mexico in 1970, was at a peak of innovation and productivity. Smith created sixteen untitled prints at Tamarind. They span a wide variety of his motifs, many of which relate to his Correspondence series of 1960 to 1967 with their interplay of hard-edged organic forms on solid color backgrounds. Many of the works Smith produced in his two-month Tamarind residency were made with the famed French-American master printer Serge Lozingot. Also in 1968 Smith made a trio of two-colored circular forms with pointed inner shapes that were closely related to his work at Tamarind, yet where printed elsewhere, though the print workshop has not yet been identified.

Created in 1974, Smith’s eight Color Forms’ silkscreens are among his most seductive compositions. Larger in scale and filling the full sheet, recapping his Correspondence abstractions of the 1960s, they epitomize the 1960s’ series’ lush and fresh palette and buoyant biomorphic forms on single-tones backgrounds. Smith made in 1975 a trio of prints employing his Constellation motif of clustered, sometimes rectilinear, but usually round or oval, individual elements, his main way of painting and drawing from 1967 to 1975.

In 1983 Smith produced a group of five untitled differently two-toned, identically composed serigraphs. Combining an angled elliptical top and rectilinear base, the prints’ compositions echo the formal explorations of several of Smith’s paintings in the same year, the titles of which refer to sunrises and sunsets. From these five prints he choose to include Black Yellow with Diagonal Passage 120, 1947, also printed in 1983, as his representation in a special portfolio with an accompanying book highlighting the 20th century Constructivist geometric abstraction. The portfolio was entitled EXACTA and was issued in 1985 by Fausta Squatriti Editione in Milan. Twenty-seven artists were included and asked to create a print each in their early and recent styles of working. His image of an earlier example of his art was based upon his 1947-50 painting composition, Diagonal Passage 120, Large, with its strong reference to – and contradiction of, by using circular form – the Neo-Plasticism of his mentor Piet Mondrian.

In 1987 Smith made his final and most ambitiously- scaled and presented group of prints with Editions Hoffman in Friedberg, Germany. The two portfolios of prints made by Editions Hoffman also looked back to older work and compositions. Smith’s Werkubersich [Work] 1947-84, 1987, comprises ten prints that use the designs originating in Smith paintings of the 1940s, 1950s, 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The seven silkscreen prints in his Quadrat im Kreis [Square in Circle] portfolio interplay – with diagonal and triangular components – circles with squares and rectangles in configurations that revisit motifs which Smith had first explored in the later 1940s. They are structured in black and white with gray, orange, and yellow passages and taunt, pencil-thin linear demarcations. Smith’s final print edition was his large-scaled diptych silkscreens, Lange Raise [Long Journey]. This pair of prints’ identical zigzag motifs reverses their dark blue and green colors. They refrain the composition and colors of Smith’s major 1980 painting of the same title, and, once again, evince the artist’s life-long commitment to “creating spaces that move in all directions and many dimensions.”

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