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Text by Brian O’Doherty
for LEON POLK SMITH 50 Years of Separation: 1940s and 1990s
April 7 – May 27, 2011
Washburn Gallery  20 West 57 Street  NYC

LEON POLK SMITH (1906-1996)

Through a long career Leon Polk Smith favored a clear image, a low profile, and he kept reinventing himself, his surprises – there were many in his later work – were quietly engineered. Why then does he remain elusive? I met him once when a German dealer we shared took me to his studio overlooking Union Square. I liked the art I saw. Administered straight. No nonsense. He didn’t talk much. I left with out having him in clear focus.  He trained at Columbia University Teachers’ College, then a long – he died in 1996 at the age of 90 – and meritorious service to his muse. No hesitations, no blind periods. Just steady self-employment in the interests of hard-edged abstract painting that always seems to travel on an off-the-highway road when compared to the grand thoroughfares of painterly abstraction.

This isn’t Smith’s fault.  He falls into a category of those Americans intoxicated with Mondrian—who converted a host of followers in the late 1940s and 50s from Harry Holtman, the keeper of Mondrian’s flame, to Fritz Glarner, Ilya Bolotowsky and their associates. This type of American painting rarely seems to get its due. Smith saw Mondrian’s and Brancusi’s work at New York University’s exhibition of the Gallatin Collection in 1936, the same year he came to New York from Oklahoma.  Ten years later, he did his Homage to Victory Boogie Woogie #1 (Collection of the Dallas Museum of Art): five large squares, some ten medium size, a scatter of small squares busily filling in – shown at his retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum (essay by Carter Ratcliff) in 1995/96. Smith fulfilled Mondrian on his – Smith’s – terms (as did many others), then he got around the edge of Mondrian. and finally, took a good look at Moscow and Suprematism, resulting in late works with a kinky spatial dimension (there are three in this exhibition plus one of two crossed lines on a blue ground that gives a friendly wave to Malevich).

Why was Mondrian’s influence so powerful? When he came to the U.S. in 1940, he was already legendary. He promised a connection to something very important in 1930s America: society, however politically interpreted.  His Utopianism claimed the future. His work was legible. You could inventory the lines and the colors. He was easy to riff on. His early work – the great plus by minus paintings – weren’t what influenced Americans. A lot has been written about the Cubist grid and its influence. Mondrian’s grid was just as hypnotic. A fever of gridding seized the geometric-American avant-garde.

It’s interesting to compare how painterly abstraction and geometric abstraction deal with the empty canvas. Jack Tworkow used to say when the first brush stroke was put down, a host of paradigms pluck at it. How to avoid them in the name of originality? For the gridders, the first stroke was always a line, and the problem of the empty canvas became one of slicing and dicing rectangles, squares, ultimately confined to their own departmental sections, and presided over (the painterly and the geometric have this in common) by a good gestalt.

You can see this in Smith’s 1940s paintings. Diagonal Passage: Red-Blue-Yellow (1949) is pure Mondrian until you see what Smith is after, diagonal runs of red blue and yellow squares of (mostly different sizes) on a white ground sectioned by a mid-horizontal and (shortened) vertical spine. The diagonal run transgresses Mondrian’s rule of law – and as it happened, Rothko’s, who always said he hated obliques (we know how Mondrian and van Doesberg fell out over an oblique). And transgressed it with a degree of wit. That is visible a few years later (1952/53) in a grey, black and white painting called Diagonal Rectangle. The top right and bot tom left are mirror images and the painting invites a folding along its two axes – horizontal and vertical. What you get out of extreme simplicity is a kind of perceptual sophistication that became a habit in the 1960s, with serial art, conceptualism, and minimal painting. This is the esthetic technology Smith spent a lifetime fiddling with. Later, he twists his shapes into scoops and curves – succinct, functional, unexpected. Always searching for something new that rearranges the flat table of the canvas.

Then there are what I call the “piano-paintings” of the 1940s: horizontal rectangles pushing in from left and right passing through vertical dividers where their colors change. They are all-over paintings insofar as no area (Center Column Blue and White, 1946) is particularly privileged. The colors are descriptive rather than sensational.  Geometric painting confines its quotas of color within boundaries to produce effects as measured as a line. You could say that color in geometric paint ing is in a holding cell and seems to like it. Somewhere someone should he writing a thesis on geometric painting and J.S. Bach, in terms of line color, repetition, geometry, effect. There is a fascinating pocket of modernism where Hans Richter and Viking Eggeling made visual art (and films) in the late ‘teens and 1920s based on Bach’s fugues.

As he got older, Smith left out more and trusted the audience to complete what they saw. I He began to indicate a third dimension that appeared briefly out of two. This of course is painting’s perceptual 101. But Polk Smith brought this bit of pres­tidigitation to a fine edge. Often you can see both two and the implied third dimension at the same time. Many of these 1990s paintings are made with a line or two and a color plane. They promise fleeting volumes, may decide not to deliver, then renew the promise. Grey Rectangle-Black Line (1992) implies a solid rectangle, but the vertical line continues upward to contradict that, He liked this kind of “gotcha!”. Often the lines project beyond the geometric color-shapes to open up phantom volumes.  Big Space-Black Line (1990) is just a dark rhomboid and a line out of one corner – and of course, it’s more than that.

“From the ruins of Utopian geometry.” wrote Carter Ratcliff. “Smith built an idea of the future in which he could believe, an idea that defined him not as a function of theory or history, but as an individual – himself.” Smith set his own table. A feet-on-the-ground realism was, I suspect, part of his nature. This kept him out of svnc with the Mondrian idealists and may have led to some isolation. He came from a different culture – Oklahoma (he was born the year before it became a state) and a Native-American background.  He brought his nature and culture to New York. In 1989 he wrote, in a splendid poetic conceit, “New York City revealed its physical self to me through the mountains and canyons of the Southwest. There were the ups and downs – the high peaks, the inbetweens or the canyons, and lopped with the great dome. I felt the city to be a perfect equation for a great abstraction.” The last sentence summarises his work in an epigram. I get his work perfectly, and it has its share of perfection. The man in his studio overlooking Union Square still is a bit mysterious to me.