What is it like to be “of one’s time” and not? Leon Polk Smith was a prime progenitor of American hard-edged abstraction whose non-objective pedigree as a protégé of the painter and philanthropist Hilla Rebay, and subsequent track record of showing in the Betty Parsons and Egan Gallery early on, puts him squarely in the pocket of post-war American art ascendancy yet his legacy has subsequently remained a relatively independent part of that particular epic.
This unique position was undoubtedly the result of Smith overcoming his disadvantaged social circumstance with an indomitable will to shape an independent destiny in art. Born in 1906 into a hardscrabble farm family of nine siblings, in what was then called the Oklahoma Territory, Smith knew the realities of carving a living out of one’s bodily capacities. He grew up amongst remnants of the Choctaw and Chickasaw tribes that had been dislocated to the territory a century before by the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Smith’s parents were of Cherokee heritage, and he identified with his neighbors closely, in experiences that would later resurface, in related formal permutations, in his mature artworks……
The Leon Polk Smith exhibition features paintings, works on paper, and design. It includes selections from our own Leon Polk Smith Collection, numbering 756 works on paper. The Leon Polk Smith Foundation gifted this collection to us in 2015. The design objects come from our George R. Kravis II Collection of fine art and design, which we received in 2018. A select number of paintings will be borrowed from institutions and private collections.
This solo exhibition is the first institutional retrospective in Europe of Leon Polk Smith in over twenty years, and the first ever in a Swiss museum. Shown on four floors and largely in chronological order, it combines paintings and works on paper from almost all creative phases of Smith’s career from the mid-1940s to the late 1980s.
The show is accompanied by a catalog published by Hatje Cantz in German and English, with texts by Sabine Schaschl (director of Museum Haus Konstruktiv), Brandon Taylor (professor emeritus for art history at the University of Southampton, UK), Margit Weinberg Staber ( Art publicist and first director of the Museum Haus Konstruktiv) and David M. Roche (director of the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona). The catalog will be available starting in April 2023.
Installation view, Brooklyn Abstraction: Four Artists, Four Walls, Brooklyn Museum, on view August 12, 2022 – August 6, 2023. (Photo: Danny Perez, Brooklyn Museum)
This installation of works by Maya Hayuk, José Parlá, Kennedy Yanko, and the late Leon Polk Smith—four artists with strong connections to Brooklyn—creates a dynamic environment through four distinct, visually immersive experiences.