A conversation between Konstanze Chruwell-Doertenbach and Leon Polk Smith
KCD: In an essay about you I read about your conception of oneness, of the togetherness of intellect and intuition you find important. In the author’s opinion that results in your Indian upbringing, in your childhood.
LPS: Well, to some extent. I’m sure that all children have a unification of their faculties, their emotions, their intellect, their unconscious, their intuition. But I think in our civilization we somehow kill this in children by the time they are six years old or certainly when they are eight or nine – and then their intellect goes one way, their emotions another way and then maybe they don’t recognize their intuition at all.
KCD: But this is different in the Indian philosophy and you grew up in Indian surroundings.
LPS: That is true and I think I got a great lot from the Indian culture which I was a part of. But it was a certain type of painting that really integrated my faculties. In the early 1940’s I had a position of a state supervisor of education in the state of Delaware which left me very little time for painting. But I decided to do at least one painting or watercolour each day. The way I did this was to take a sheet of watercolour paper, put into the kitchen sink and wet it all over. And then I would put the paper on top of the little table, pour maybe one to two or three colours on that, stirred it slightly with my hand and then gazed into this colour without thinking. The intellect turned off or turned into neutral. Then I started drawing with a brush and black paint or with a pencil, drawing what I saw in that, which was like a Rorschach test in a sense. After doing this for over a year I found that all my faculties were integrated and never again that I have to stop painting, sit down and intellectualize to see what I was doing and decide what to add, what to take out, how to change the composition. Previously I did that. I would sit down, check a painting that I was working on and intellectually decide what needed to be done, what should be taken out, what should be added or changed. Since this experience with those watercolours I never, never do that. All my faculties work in unison.
KCD: That was in the early 1940s you said. When did you start painting?
LPS: I started painting 1934. I had studied art in college in Oklahoma and then some years later at Columbia University (New York) I studied art also. I discovered art when I studied history of art in College. One day I came through a long, long corridor and saw an art class through an open door and I decided to go there.
At Columbia, in 1936, I was introduced to the work of Mondrian, Arp and Brancusi, which was a very important experience for me.
KCD: I think Mondrian was an influence on you but somehow I think it is the wrong word, because you took to Mondrian but you developed yourself on your own.
LPS: Well, I never had any intentions of continuing to paint like Mondrian. That was the starting point. It started with Mondrian. But then – one doesn’t know oneself immediately. It took several years to find my own style although all the time from the very beginning of the take off from Mondrian I think it was something quite strong with my own in my work. There was more than just Mondrian. But it looked quite similar to Mondrian.
KCD: But you never took to his very strict vertical-horizontal lines.
LPS: No. You are right. I always implied the diagonal.
KCD: So if was more like a dialogue with Mondrian.
LPS: I think you are right.
KCD: Mondrian at that time was an important figure in the United States.
LPS: He was, more so than in Europe. Because although he had lived in France a long time, France had not accepted Mondrian. He never had an exhibition in Paris.
KCD: And in America there was a whole group, the American Abstract Artists, that were circled intellectually around Mondrian.
LPS: I would say they tried to circle around Mondrian. I was fascinated by his work, but I never understood what they were doing. Anyhow it’s a big group and it is still in existence today.
KCD: But you never joined them?
LPS: No. I don’t know how to create within a group. I’m an individualist, not a group person.
KCD: One of your early works which is well known, is the picture “Get Along Little Dogies.”
LPS: The painting “Get Along Little Dogies” was made before I started painting completely abstract. It was more or less an abstraction from nature. Forms were still organic. And I would say when I did that painting the influence there was more van Does-burg than Mondrian.
KCD: After a couple of years you began to make these purely abstract paintings in dialogue with Mondrian. Then you stopped this dialogue and became your own self as an artist.
LPS: That’s true. Mondrian was a powerful figure and it wasn’t easy to get out. But finally I had to say “Now to hell with Mondrian. I must be my own authority”, not meaning it negatively against Mondrian of course. What I was seeking through the 1940’s was to find my outlet from this vertical horizontal and to express the same thing that Mondrian had worked with, that is the form-space equilibrium, the interchangeability of form and space. I wanted to find a way of using that in a curvilinear manner, in curved lines, free forms. It looks so very simple. I always thought it looked as if an idiot could have done it overnight. But I was seven or eight years finding that.
KCD: You discovered that in the early 1950’s when you read a sporting goods catalogue. Is that true or is if a legend?
LPS: No it isn’t a legend. But it was not by reading, it was by looking. The illustrations were drawn with a pencil, rather than photographic illustrations. And the seams on a – let us say football or basketball – intrigued me. That showed me how to use the curvilinear form with an inner circle. And then I did twelve or fifteen paintings on the circle before I was able to carry that over into the rectangle or square. It was a whole new language; nobody had done it before. But once it has been done it is very easy.
After doing a number that were quite similar I had to start creating my own shapes. Three shapes, three forms, but I reduced it to two. I would paint this one colour and that one colour. And these were the first paintings ever done by dividing a canvas into two areas and painting them two colours. I don’t know if anyone had done that ever before.
KCD: And with this kind of paintings you became an important artist for the Hard Edge.
LPS: Yes that’s the first Hard Edge paintings.
KCD: There are several painters like Ellsworth Kelly, Ad Reinhardt, Robert Indiana connected with your name. Were they pupils of yours?
LPS: No. They had seen my work, but they didn’t study with me formally. They had come to my studio and seen my work and we had talked about this equilibrium of form and space, foreground, background, interchanging.
Kelly had studied in Paris. When he went back to New York and heard formspace interchangeability he became interested in American art.
KCD: I see. So he became re-americanized in a way.
LPS: Yes. And then the shaped canvases came in the late 1950s. And I don’t know anyone who had done shaped canvases before this either. So that helped to prepare the way for the 1960’s, not only Hard Edge but shaped canvases.
KCD: And after the “Correspondences” which established your reputation as one of the most important representatives of abstract painting, came the “Constellations”: several paintings put together.
LPS: Yes, here, one, two, three, four, five, six, even twelve canvases bolted together, and interchanging.
And here is another example: the wall is becoming involved with the action and the energy. The energy is not all on the inside of the painting, some other energy is on the wall.
KCD: What I like personally very much in your art is that it is an aesthetic that has a logical foundation. As a person who looks at your work, one can follow the intellectual part and the emotional part too.
LPS: It goes together. I think if the intellect is separated from the emotion, it becomes dead art, it’s just designing. It comes out a stillbirth, without life.
KCD: These “Long Journeys” are one of your relatively new works. You have done this as a painting and as a collage.
LPS: The painting “Long Journey” is something like twelve feet long. It is on exhibition now in Los Angeles.
KCD: You always painted abstractly?
LPS: No. From 1934 until 1940 I was painting from nature. Animals on the ranch, some oil field scenes. I was living and working then in a great lot of petroleum production. Animals, people, landscapes, some still lifes. I had to prove to myself that I could draw. When I was able to draw a cow or a horse or a person and a tree I was no longer interested in that. And then I was able to paint abstractly.
KCD: You once spoke of an experience in an art class that impressed me very much: that the teacher just took a piece of paper…
LPS: Yes, yes. That was my first art class. And it was a drawing class. The teacher took a large piece of white paper, crushed it together in just a big wad. She put it on the table and asked us to draw that and to use the shading, to use the dark areas, the light areas. And that was the most important lesson I had in drawing. If you can draw that you can draw anything.
KCD: And you once said that you neither painted religion nor politics nor philosophy.
LPS: Well, that doesn’t interest me in painting. Mondrian, in his essays, he talked a great lot about philosophy, maybe bordered on religion and so forth. I didn’t see that in his work. I saw something else. What I took on from Mondrian, what I saw, not what he wrote, what I saw in his paintings, was the interchangeability of form and space, the equilibrium of form and space. And through Mondrian’s work I was convinced that abstract art had a language of its own, to communicate wholly on a non-verbal level. And it’s not about myth nor stories nor philosophy nor religion nor politics. Although I also said that one might find one’s philosophy or politics or religion in my paintings.
KCD: I would like now to hear more about your upbringing, how the Indian culture influenced your thinking, your complex way of looking at things and painting things.
LPS: When I was a small child I saw my Indian neighbours and friends not only doing these things, but I heard about them: for instance arising early to see the sunrise, associating oneself with the new day, a new life. In our own family we liked to see the sunrise, the sunset.
Often we would have dinner early in the summertime, so we could sit on the front porch or in the backyard and see the sunset and watch the clouds and hear the birds singing and see the spiders. So I grew up close to nature.
KCD: And you grew up with eight brothers and sisters.
LPS: We were five boys and four girls; there were nine of us.
KCD: Both your parents had Indian ancestors.
LPS: Yes. But I think the Indian forces were much stronger in my mother’s nature than in my father’s. Her sensitivity to nature, her love of nature were very strong.
KCD: You grew up in the time of the Depression, so you had to work hard in several jobs before you were able to go to college.
LPS: I grew up on a farm and ranch and always worked there, with cattle and horses. Yes, and after school I had different jobs.
KCD: It was an Indian territory where you grew up?
LPS: It became a state the year after I was born, in 1907 What does it mean, an Indian territory? The government had given that area to the Indians and as usual they would often take it back. So it became mixed with the Indians and the pale-faces.
KCD: Your next stations…
LPS: …were Oklahoma State College, several years as a teacher at Teacher’s College at Columbia University in New York.
KCD: When did you stop working in the educational field and start to become an artist?
LPS: Well, I was an artist all the time. I stopped teaching in 1958. My painting started selling enough to support me at that time. But when I had a full job teaching I was a very prolific painter. I painted as much or more than most artists who did nothing except paint.
KCD: I would like now to hear what do you say of your contemporaries, for instance the Pop Artists. Does Pop Art interest you or is it very far from your thinking?
LPS: Well, it did interest me, because it too has a language of its own. And there are many people who are not able to appreciate anything beyond that. That is the reason why it is called Pop, Pop comes from popular. I had to understand it, because the simplicity in some of the Pop Art came out of my compositions, some of it was Hard Edge. It wasn’t called Hard Edge, it was called Pop Art. But a lot of the compositions and the way of painting were quite similar to the way I had been painting for ten years. Also I felt that there is a slight affinity with Pop Art. I didn’t always try to make colours jump at each other, but sometimes it was in my work.
KCD: I want to go back to your definition of abstract art a way of communicating on a non-verbal level.
LPS: Psychologists used to say that we can think without words. I don’t know if they changed their mind or not. But I have been able for many years (and observed many people doing the same) to think without words, to think on a non-verbal level. When I am creating these purely abstract paintings I am not thinking with words.
KCD: So you see a future for abstract art.
LPS: I can only see a future. I cannot see »no-future« for abstract painting, because I think more and more people are learning how to understand it and to communicate with it, more and more all the time. And I don’t believe that once a person who has been really able to communicate with purely abstract art, can turn back. Picasso and Braque, they never did paint purely abstractly, they were still abstracting from organic forms. But they got so far along with it and then they turned back. Their greatest contribution was Cubism. And from that they deteriorated to some extent, not Braque so much, but Picasso. What he was doing then was interesting in a cartoonish sort of way. I’m tired of looking at Picasso today.
He turned back instead of going on. The critics, historians and many artists said, when Mondrian died that he had hit a stone wall or a dead end. I say there was no such thing. He was still changing as long as he lived. I think that there is no such thing as a dead end except in your mind. We keep going, there is no end. We don’t know, I can’t imagine that there is an end to space. Neither can I imagine no end for that matter. But it is easier to imagine no end to the universe than to imagine an end. If you say there is an end then it means there must be a wall, there must be something then on the other side.
KCD: So you believe in a no-end quality of things.
LPS: Yes. It means to keep going, to be optimistic.
(Nike, no 19, July/August/September, Munch, 1987)