A conversation between Leon Polk Smith and d’Arcy Hayman
AH: I am going to try to have you put into words some of the things you put into paint.
LPS: That’s not an easy thing for me to do.
AH: Maybe if I ask some questions we can talk and see what happens.
AH: I am looking at some large square canvases to our left, one I am looking now at in blue and black. First, I want to ask you when you begin to paint, how do you decide dimension, scale, size, shape – or does it come just kind of automatically. What is your approach to this?
LPS: I think that the proportion of the canvas comes first. I have a feeling that I want to do a canvas about a certain size and I don’t know just what I am going to paint so I stretch it to size and hang it on the wall, and sit down and look at it. Sometimes I figure: Oh, should I do anything to it? A well stretched canvas is very beautiful, just to sit and contemplate. And then the proportion, the size of the canvas often suggest a form. I will get up and draw this one line through the canvas which creates two forms, one on either side of the line, and while I am drawing this line, it seems that I am travelling many, many miles in space instead of just fifty inches or sixty inches whatever the canvas happens to be, but it is a great, great distance from one point to the next and around the curve, and I begin to feel the tensions develop and the forces working on either side of this line; there is a color often suggested, usually the color that I am going to use, that comes to me before the line reaches the other side of the canvas.
AH: I am interested when you discuss the division of your canvas into two parts with the line, because I think that in nearly all of your paintings. And it is a powerful division into two parts, I have a feeling that when I look at some of these canvases that there are two worlds, two levels of consciousness, or two whole universes working together. Is this true, or is it less than that or more than that?
LPS: I feel that that is true and it is very, very strange because I am not just drawing one form, I am drawing two forms with one line, and I am having to think of both sides of the line, feel both sides, know both sides, and one side is no more important to me than the other. I figure that this way of drawing is important in all drawing, that it should be important and considered. If one is drawing naturalistically and thinks that one is drawing only what would be enclosed in the line, there is much less power than if he is aware of the fact that he is really drawing on both sides of the line. This does create two worlds, in direct opposition to each other and yet so well related that they fit into each other as a jigsaw puzzle must.
AH: Also the relationship of any two parts which we can see as the structure of the universe, the positive – negative, the man and the woman, the opposite as described in Buddhism, I think especially as being necessary to each other. I feel very often when I look at your work, the Eastern, the earliest of eastern traditions, not only the Buddhism that we find in Zen in Japan which more immediately speaks to me from your canvases, but even an earlier, Vedic tradition of the ancient Indian concept of opposites that must fit together in harmony and relate into balanced parts.
LPS: This is very interesting to me, what you are saying. I know really very little about eastern philosophy but what I do know seems that I always knew it before learning of it.
AH: I would think so, yes. I find it very meaningful that you are of American Indian descent. Is that true, in part?
LPS: I am part Cherokee Indian which is one of the tribes of the American Indian and in Eastern philosophy, the negative and the positive are interchangeable. Now I wonder if that is true in their philosophy or whether the negative is always negative in opposition to the positive, which is always positive?
AH: No, it is an interchanging relationship and, in fact, the polarity established between opposites disappears when the relationship is made. In other words, the Yin and Yang. This is why, as I look at all of your works, without exception, I feel the presence of this polarity of opposites that is formed into one. I find very interesting your own comment that when you draw a line you must consider and be sensitive to what that line is doing in the separation of parts and in the bringing together of parts.
LPS: The separation and bringing together – yes.
AH: Which I find meaningful in your work. I am looking now to the right, as I see other works which are exciting and I am also looking at a painting, rather a construction, it is white on white.
LPS: It is a relief.
AH: It is a powerful arrangement of forms and shadowed gaps. What made you begin to work in relief, especially your work in the round – many of your paintings and other works are in the round?
LPS: I don’t think I can tell you why I did it. They are very closely related to my paintings, really they come out of my paintings. I think I merely want to see my work in another form, an extension of what I am doing into another medium.
AH: Can you tell me something about choosing circles within which to work?
LPS: I have painted within the circle for twenty years. I started back in the early part of the 1940’s doing the circle paintings.
AH: I think that is one of the unique forms that I do associate with you. Have you memory as to why you entered into this form when the usual form is the rectangle or square for painting.
LPS: It isn’t new. I think throughout history there have been paintings composed within the circular format.
AH: But you felt at home within that form.
LPS: Yes, and when I discovered, in 1954, the particular space concept which I have been working with since, it was in a circle. I was looking at an athletic catalogue and the illustrations in this catalogue were drawings rather than photographs of the tennis ball, football, baseball and basketball. They were just line circles with a drawing of the seams on the covering of the balls. I was fascinated by the space that was between these lines and felt bound to them and started immediately drawing some of my own, taking off from this space concept. I did about twelve large circular paintings before I was able to carry this particular space concept, using two or three forms and two or three colors, over into the rectangle. And I still don’t know what this space is. It isn’t just the earthy space that we have been familiar with for centuries, but I think that it has something to do with the other spaces that the whole world has really been interested in for the past decade.
AH: But you seem to come by your vision, by your thought, almost metaphysically, or almost by delivery, so that it is like the word coming through you in some way. Do you understand what I mean. Can you see yourself in that light or your paintings?
LPS: Well, that’s quite a wonderful statement I think you have made. I don’t know really how much it applies to me or whether it is an exaggeration of the qualities that I have, but if I understand it, I don’t know the source but I would say that in part it may have to do with my pioneer ancestry. My folks went to the Indian territory before it became Oklahoma. They pioneered there. They had great strength. They needed to be pioneers and to stay there and to endure what they endured and to live in the primitive manner in which they lived. I was brought up in this environment and was taught to be independent. One had to be to exist. One wasn’t always cared for. One not only had to care for oneself but for many other things. Now, that is something that comes out of environment. I am sure that something of this comes from the other source, from inheritance. But another part that I do know about the environment is that I grew up in a community where at least half the people were Indian – Chickasaws and Choctaws, and when I started school half the children in school were Indian, and I grew up with their philosophy, not so much through words but the way they lived – living with them and seeing how they reacted, and I am sure this had a very early influence on me.
AH: I am fascinated and interested in your early life, because I think something is revealed to me through these facts that you are giving me. I don’t know your earliest work, or the work as you say at the time when you found your form or image which is now manifested so fully and crystalized into the pure and strong image that you present here. Can I know something more about how you see this form emerging, what were the forms you were working with at an earlier time, or did you paint at all in earlier times?
LPS: I started painting rather late so far as most artists are concerned. I was in the latter half of my twenties in my last year at college. I had never been to a gallery nor a museum, I had never seen an original painting nor an artist up until that time, and I had a course in painting the last year at college, and early in that term I felt that I had always been an artist.
AH: What were the things your were painting – were they studies of nature?
LPS: Oh yes. I painted nature, landscapes, animals on the ranch. And when I was teaching in the oil field section, I did many paintings of the oil derricks, of the machinery and men at work, and then in the late thirties and in 1940, 1941 and 1942, I painted in quite a surrealistic manner, in an unconscious state. I had a full-time job, supervisor in art education in Delaware.
AH: I didn’t know that.
LPS: Well, I had a third of all the schools in the State under my supervision. It was quite a big job and it took all of my time except nights and weekends, so I did a painting every night before I went to bed, and usually two at the weekends. And these were all unconscious paintings, and I think from the representational paintings that I had done and then doing these unconscious surrealistic paintings, it integrated all of my faculties – my subconscious, conscious, superconscious, unconscious, intellect, emotion – all of the faculties that one can possibly work with became unified and I could produce with all of them in unison and didn’t have to work on a painting and then stop and intellectualize about it. I think that for the last twenty years I have worked in this way. I felt then, perhaps, this strength which your have spoken of earlier. I realized, also, that I had been using, say, texture as a crutch. Texture doesn’t have to be used as a crutch, and I know many great artists have used texture wonderfully, creatively, and beautifully as a very important part or their paintings. But it can be used so easily as a crutch. If the composition doesn’t function properly you can add a little texture in a weak spot and correct the composition. So I decided to do ways with texture since I wasn’t really looking for something easy. I think that I was always looking for the difficult or for problems to be solved. A determined goal to achieve clarity among confusion. I stopped using texture and I eliminated tonality in painting. I began using pure colors, the same color all the way across an area without change of values or intensity. And that seemed to bring a new strength into my work. It brought a quality so intense that even a little texture interfered with the forces and the intensities at work on the canvas. My canvases are something like a magnetic field, and they have to be alive all over; how far will the forces that are established by this division of color carry? And with a large painting using only two areas, this has to be felt very keenly so that the forces will carry across the can vas to the edge of the opposite side, with an aliveness that makes each part of the canvas tremendously sensitive and responsive to every other part.
AH: That, to me, is very very clear in its meaningful self-analysis, and with this in your paintings I surely identify with those images that you are painting with words.
LPS: Well, it doesn’t seem that I make it very clear but I take your word for it and I hope that it is.
AH: I wanted to ask you – you talked about unconscious paintings. Can you give me a more detailed idea of what you mean, what were those unconscious paintings exactly.
LPS: After I had finished the paintings, I would look at them to discover all that I had put into them. It seemed that I was seeing them for the first time. It was at that time that I began to feel, although I had never read any philosophy concerning this, that we have the history of man in our genes, just like the tape-recorder that we are using now and, of course, in recent years scientists have said that there is something like a taped record that unfolds and makes us that we are; that we have black eyes or brown eyes, curly hair or straight hair, and a great lot about our nature is established, and this tape recording is in our genes and I think we haven’t been able to touch it but very little, but I do believe that perhaps the whole history of man is in each person and that some day, we will be able to tap that.
AH: In other words, when you were referring to unconscious painting, you feel that the act of painting was perhaps in its deepest and most real manifestation, like a key that unlocks some of the energies that have come through the centuries into your being.
LPS: Oh, I think you are absolutely right about that, and I think that the unconscious element is still in my paintings and I don’t know the source of the content.
AH: This is the thing I was referring to before when I said that knowing you and knowing your paintings – I think I would know that just by knowing your paintings even if I didn’t know you, but knowing you only strengthens my immediate feeling that there is a conviction in your painting and a strength and intensity that is known before you know it. It is a kind of something…
LPS: Yes, when I look at my paintings I often feel that I would like to know the source of their content – where did it come from. Although I have the feeling that I have seen it or known it, but where, I don’t know.
AH: You have been painting in this image for several years. How many years about?
LPS: Ten years.
AH: Ten years. I find it extremely interesting as a social phenomenon, to note during the height of what is variously called, action painting, abstract expressionism and so forth, when most artists were grouped together in a school, you have persisted in an image alone. That, I find – and I think it has been described as hard-edge painting, is an apt description although it leaves a lot out, but I find it very interesting that in the last few years there is a tremendous new surge of work being done in the hard-edge image. I don’t know if you want to comment on that, but I find it interesting that you, who have always been sure of yourself and your image, were one of the earliest, almost founders of that school, if you can even call it a school.
LPS: Well, I think hard-edge applies to this severe pure color combination – pure color coming up to another pure color in very large areas in the last ten years when I discovered this particular space. I think it was just after that that the term “hard edge” was coined, I believe by Lawrence Alloway, in order to refer to this particular type of painting, and it doesn’t include the painting that was done in pure color prior to this: it comes under other categories. Well, my persistence in this through the forties and early fifties when no one was particularly interested, here in New York, in anything other than the abstract expressionists, didn’t bother me at all with my own work. I had no idea of changing and it never occurred to me to change to another way of painting, because when I discovered art I thought it was such a wonderful thing and I thought that this is it for me and I will never commercialize it. I will dig ditches if I need to make a living but I will always paint the way I feel, the way I want to paint, the way I must, from within. So I kept on painting the same way and then I discovered this new space in 1954, and two or three years later, recognition, and many other artists were fascinated by this space and by the color experience, and, you are right, there are many artists who are working in this direction today, not only in the States but all over the world.
AH: Yes, I feel that you have been responsible. …I want to ask you now, about these small works that you call drawings, lam interested not only in their form and color and very subtle differences from your paintings, but I am also wondering why you call them drawings. I would not have called them drawings myself at the beginning but I am now beginning to see the way in which you see them as drawings.
LPS: I have been doing these torn drawings for about six or seven years, and they are drawings, and they are torn. Instead of using a pencil, pen or brush to draw with, I tear the drawing, and it has to be on paper that is colored only on one side so that the torn beveled edge will be a contrasting color, usually white. And then I put that beveled edge on top of the other piece and glue it down. And so you have a line there, it is a torn line, that separates the one color from itself, the two forms. Some of these are done on thin paper, some on heavy cardboard, sometimes the torn piece is put on a different colored paper, or an entirely different texture paper, and then I call it a collage, but if I put it back on to the same piece of paper from which it was torn, I call it a drawing. There have been torn collages, but to my knowledge I have never known anyone else doing torn drawings.
AH: How did you come to this decision to make drawings in this way.
LPS: Well, the first was accidental, I am sure, and something happened. I tore a piece of paper that was colored only on one side, and then it accidentally went down into place on the beveled edge, lapping over the piece of paper, and I was fascinated at what had happened there and it gave me the idea to continue with this drawing medium.
AH: I am curious in your use of the word ‘accident’. L am convinced that the element of accident is a very important one, not only in art, but in our lives. Perhaps it isn’t only the accident itself that is important to us but how we
LPS: Yes. An awareness is a most important element in creative work and perhaps sometimes we think that there are boundaries and limitations to awareness, but I do not believe that there are any boundaries or limitations to potential awareness.
AH: I agree. Leon, I see over there a small room or a chamber, or a container. Can you tell me about that most provocative form in the far corner. What is it? Is it a painting? Is it a sculpture?
LPS: The box.
AH: Oh. A box.
LPS: Open the door. … I had in my studio for several years a hardwood rectangular prism about 4 ins. high 5 2 ins. square. I didn’t want to throw it away because I liked looking at it. I liked the weight. I liked picking it up occasionally and it just seemed to be something that I shouldn’t throw away. One day while I was looking at it I had a pencil in my hand and I did some drawings, just one line on each side of it, and then that created a form, half of which was on one side of this rectangular prism, and the other half of the form around the corner on the other side. I colored these. There were four of these forms and I colored them four different colors and put it over on the table to look at, and it looked so much larger than it was. It was very exciting. A sculptor friend came in and was immediately fascinated by it and I had the feeling that I should do it much larger, several feet high, or one similar to it, but before I was ready to do the second one I thought of doing it on a box form rather than a solid piece of wood and I made this box something like four feet high and fifteen inches the other two dimensions, and left one side of it as a door that opened. I painted it inside and out, the same form, the same colors on the inside as on the outside so that when the door is open and you pass in front of it you get a constant interchange of form and colors, some moving into view, others moving out of view. I just call it a painted box. It’s like a strange piece of sculpture that changes its personality completely when the door is opened or closed, and I have had the feeling that I would like to do one quite large, maybe twenty feet high and ten feet square, with a door in front and one in the back so you could walk through it and have this color experience from within it completely surrounded.
AH: It’s an inviting form. I always feel I need to go inside.
LPS: Most everyone asks to be let inside.
AH: I certainly find this a very interesting development in your work and also a very powerful form. I am going to ask you next about your sculpture here. These sculptural forms.
LPS: Well, this is stainless steel, a half inch square. It’s a linear composition, like taking the line from between the forms in that painting and placing it in space.
AH: I see. What I think needs to be very carefully considered is that these lines out of your own formed and controlled context, must be very carefully placed in relation to other things, otherwise I think they are lost. … Do you understand what I mean?
LPS: Yes, the background…as they need to be somewhat near a background for that particular reason. Anything between them and the background would interfere with the tension going on in them. Even if a shadow of the sculpture on the wall is allowed to form it interferes. It must be lighted in such a way that there is no shadow, because the shadow acts in the same way as tonality or texture would in my painting. And when you look at this linear sculpture I think you will find that very quickly you stop being interested or concerned with the metal line itself and become involved with the space forces around it; like a zigzag or lightning shape form you feel spaces coming in from the left and another space coming up from below pushing the whole thing upwards.
AH: I think it demands your own environment and I think that I would miss something if it were placed, say, in a museum show with a lot of other pieces around or near it.
LPS: They would need to understand how to display them properly.
AH: We have been talking, of course, about your own work and your own life, which I find extremely revealing, but I know you to be a person of social consciousness and sensitivity, concerned about not only your own inner life, but about your outer which touches other human beings. Now I am interested in asking you just one or two questions about your own thought concerning the function of the artist in our contemporary life and about your feeling concerning the arts, the whole realm of painting and painters in our time. What do you think? How does the painter function in society, or is he completely isolated from society? Does he have a social function? How does he contribute to the overall work of human beings?
LPS: I think artists contribute in many ways, and different ways, not only through their work but their contact with people. Some artists are more inclined to have wide social contacts with society and others, whether they have a wide or narrow contact with society, make many contributions. Just by being around, there’s a general atmosphere that they help to create, their attitudes, their expression of their oppositions as well as their affirming the positive elements in our society. I think that all of these contribute, as well as the ideas and feelings expressed in their art. As to the situation of art today and certainly in America -1 know more about it. I think it is the healthiest I have ever known. There have been periods in recent art history when no one was interested in anything except social realism or the ash-can paintings or the academic painting, or abstract expressionism. Only one at a time. But today, there are many, many art forms, art directions, or styles, and there seems to be an audience for each, which I think makes for a very, very lively, interesting and healthy situation.
AH: I do agree with you. It seems to me to be that way. I also wanted to ask you: you have lived all, or most of your life in the United States. You haven’t felt the need, as do so many painters, to go to Paris or Rome, or has this been something of your choice?
LPS: Well, I have travelled quite extensively in Europe, in South America and Mexico. I was in Venezuela last fall. I had an exhibition in the Museum of Fine Arts there. I was invited down and stayed a month and found it very exciting, very interesting, but I find New York the most stimulating place in which to work.
AH: I feel that you, as an American painter, one of the most American painters, coming, in fact, from our American Indian heritage, certainly have something important to say, and something unique to say in your work and with such a conviction and strength that I feel it is not only important as an individual art work, but as a reflection of ties and a culture in which you are allowed and encouraged to work. Also, Leon, as a painter, I am interested in knowing how you discipline yourself, how you look upon discipline as an element necessary or unnecessary to your work and to your life?
LPS: The word discipline has so many connotations it is difficult to talk about it, or use the word. I think we are inclined to think of discipline as something that is imposed and, of course, that discipline can come from within, from an inner order, an order that has been established within one -. Then there is a certain element of discipline in everything that one does and it is quite a different thing from an imposed discipline, or disciplining yourself according to established rules. There are no rules for the inner discipline, or the discipline that comes from an inner order, and it is always changeable, it’s always free and it is always adjustable.
AH: I’m glad you used the word ‘inner order’ because I meant how much in the way of self order is necessary to your work. I would guess a great deal. I would guess that you are an orderly person, a person of integrated parts.
LPS: I never plan order. It doesn’t matter what I do – painting the house, mopping the floor, making a garden or a painting, things take on an order unconsciously as I work, as I proceed to do any task that I have to do. Everything falls into order.