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Leon Polk Smith’s family moved to Indian Oklahoma Territory from East Tennessee towards the end of the great westward movement in the aftermath of the Oklahoma land run of 1889. His parents were William Elliott Smith (6/5/1867 — 1/25/1945) and Samantha Pauline Smith (2/4/1869 — 10/26/1951). He was born on May 20, 1906, in Chickasha, Indian Territory, the eighth of nine children. Though no solid proof exists, his parents were each believed to be part Cherokee, Native American, and Smith may have spoken Cherokee language in his home and immediate community.

In 1907 Chickasha became the state of Oklahoma. Growing up, Smith’s neighbors and classmates were predominantly Chickasaw and Choctaw native people. His childhood was largely agrarian — he and his siblings worked the fields before or after school to support the family.


His family moves to the town of Franks (now called Byrd’s Hill, south of Ada) and then on to Jesse, Oklahoma. He completed 8th grade in Stonewall school and then went to the Pocasset High School in Chickasha, Oklahoma.


Smith graduates from Pocasset High School in May with dreams of being a teacher. The following month, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, also known as the Snyder Act, granted fullUS citizenship to Native Americans born in the US, though voting rights were still determined on a state-by-state basis. The act was signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge on June 2, 1924.


After high school graduation, Smith works as a rancher in Oklahoma and then travels to Arizona, where he helps to construct roads and telephone systems. In 1928 and 1929 he is listed as a student at East Central State Normal School (college) in Ada, Oklahoma. He lives in Stonewall, Oklahoma. The US stock market crashes on October 29, 1929, initiating the devastating economic period known as The Great Depression. Smith diligently sent money earned in Arizona home to his parents to help support the family and farm during the turmoil.


His family farm had foreclosed. Smith was able to return to East Central State Normal School (in 1939 this college will be renamed East Central State College Normal School, then in 1985 East Central State College, and starting in 1985 East Central University) to finish his studies.


One day during his senior year at East Central University, Smith passes by the art studios on campus. The classroom door was ajar, Smith enters and requests the teacher allow him to sit in and observe. Having no prior interest in art nor any experience with it, Smith begins his lifelong involvement with making art. Meets Ida Hoover, a professor who becomes a mentor. She was a Columbia University Teachers College graduate among other professors at East Central State College professors who had studied elsewhere. In May he receives a Bachelor of Arts in education degree with courses in psychology and art.


Smith teaches primary and secondary school in the small towns of Franks and Fittstown in Oklahoma.


Smith decides to further his education by enrolling in the prestigious Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. He attends first of three consecutive summer sessions at the college. He lives in International House near Columbia. The teachings of Arthur Wesley Dow were an important influence there.In this first summer, he accompanied the painter and muralist Ryah Ludins (1896-1957), one of his instructors, to Albert E. Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art at New York University, where he first sees the work of Piet Mondrian, Constantin Brancusi, and Hans Arp. These artists’ modern, hard-edged style does not enter his work until the early 1940s. He spends most of the next nine years creating surrealist and expressionist figurative paintings and drawings.


In his second summer at Teachers College Smith meets the choreographer and dancer Martha Graham after a performance at Bennington College in Vermont. He became deeply influenced by her and contemporary dance. Smith remains friends and continues to attend her company’s performances throughout his life.


Smith receives a Masters of Arts in Art and Educational Psychology from Teachers College at Columbia University.


Smith travels in Europe in the summer, his first trip overseas. He ends his European trip by teaching students from the American School in Paris in the picturesque coastal town of Étretat, France for the month of August. It is here that he creates his first collage, it is representational. He resigns from the Oklahoma school system and in the fall moves to New York City, residing at 332 West 12th Street.


Smith spends the summer and early fall traveling in Mexico. He is appointed assistant professor of art at Georgia Teachers College in Collegeboro, Georgia. While Smith made friends with influential members of the faculty and overall thrives in his position, he disagrees with the local politics and resigns after less than two years.


In January of 1941 at Uptown Gallery in New York, Smith has his first solo exhibition includes fifteen paintings and eighteen watercolors. In May he is included in a group exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum.


Smith accepts a position as Delaware’s State Supervisor of Art Education and moves to Delaware. The Delaware school system is segregated, and Smith initiates a movement to combine the two separate annual state teachers conventions (one was held discussing curriculum for white schools and the other for Blacks). Due to his efforts, the conventions are successfully combined two years later. In February 1942, Smith is awarded his first solo museum exhibition organized by Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences in Savannah, Georgia. He also has his second solo exhibition in New York at Pinacotheca Gallery. During this time in New York he visits the Museum of Non-Objective Art and meets Hilla Rebay, the advisor to Solomon R. Guggenheim and director of the museum. Rebay introduced him to Frank Lloyd Wright and the painter Jean Xceron. At the Telfair Academy of Arts and Sciences in Savannah,Georgia he is given his first one-artist museum show.


Smith continues to teach in Delaware, painting mostly in watercolor in his spare time. He produces his first abstract compositions, including OK Territory (collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art). With a visual vocabulary inspired by the De Stijl painters associated with Mondrian, in this painting Smith adds his own references to his early influences with cattle, ranching and Native American tradition. He applies for a fellowship at the Museum of Non-Objective Art in New York.


Smith resigns his position in Delaware and moves to New York full time to commit to art making. He begins working at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York as an assistant to Hilla Rebay. Rebay would later become the co-founder and first director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, which opened in its Frank Lloyd Wright building in 1959. Eight Smith works are included in a group show at the Museum of Non-Objective Art in April. He is awarded a Solomon R. Guggenheim Scholarship in May, which he uses to travel to and set up a studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In New Mexico to further explore making non-objective art.


Smith returns to New York City, moving to an apartment and studio at 108 West 16th Street near Union Square. Strongly influenced by Piet Mondrian, Smith continues to develop various hard-edged abstract compositions such as his Columns, Articulations, Diagonal Passages, and Inch Square series of paintings.


Smith is appointed professor of art at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. In May, his work is included in the group exhibition Post Mondrian Painters at Sidney Janis Gallery in New York, which also features works by Josef Albers, Ilya Bolotowsky, and Fritz Glarner.


While Smith enjoyed the warm winters in Florida, he decides to resign his professorship at Rollins College at the end of the school year, as his work is getting further attention in New York. He decides to focus on being an artist and moves for seven months to Varadero, Cuba, to work and prepare for a return to New York City.


Smith moves back to New York as Abstract Expressionism is in full ascendance. He moves in to the Tenth Street Studio Building at 51 West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. Creates a series of “light sculptures” in his studio space by reflecting sunlight from a metal plate. He meets Robert Jamieson, who becomes his life partner, studio associate, and archivist. That summer, he teaches two studio art courses at New York University. The following fall, he is appointed professor of art at Mills College of Education in New York, where he also directs he school’s art gallery program through 1957.


Inspired by illustrations of baseballs, basketballs and footballs he sees in a sporting-goods catalogue, Smith introduces circular shapes and motifs into his art. Over the next few years, he refines his signature hard edge style, beginning with creating a series of paintings and drawings where he explores the circular, curvilinear, and straight-edged shapes using two different colors, and later experimenting with the curvilinear model with more colors in oval, rectangular, and square shapes. He creates the first of his numerous small painted wood relief sculptures, which also use metal elements. He lives for a year at 82 West 112th Street.Smith encounters a number of artists living and working on Coenties Slip in lower Manhattan near the East River. They include Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, and Jack Youngerman. Kelly and Youngerman visit Smith’s studio.


Begins to make his extensive series of collage works on paper created with free-form lines of torn colored paper.


At the conclusion of the spring semester, Smith resigns his professorship at Mills College of Education. He is awarded a Longview Foundation (a no longer extant entity) grant, which he uses that summer to paint in New York City. The grant entails his work being included in a group show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1959. Smith hosts a party when his friend, the Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh, comes to town. At this party, Smith connects El-Dabh to Martha Graham, and he goes on to create the music for her masterpiece, Clytemnestra. In September of that year, Smith has his first exhibition with Betty Parsons Gallery in New York and subsequently joins her influential roster of artists.


Focuses his work on his distinctive Correspondence series. These large canvases and many smaller drawings typically consist of two vibrantly colored painted shapes defined by a precise but often irregular organic contours.


Smith leaves Betty Parsons Gallery and joins Eleanor Ward’s Stable Gallery. His first solo exhibition with the gallery in January features recent paintings and sculpture. Smith’s reputation grows as several modes of non-gestural abstraction, Color Field, Op, and Hard Edge abstraction leading to Minimalist painting are also blossoming.


Smith’s first one-person museum exhibition outside the United States opens in September at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas. He travels to Caracas. Constructivist art had flourished there since the 1950s, and Smith meets two of its chief practitioners, Gego (Gertrud Louise Goldschmidt) and her husband Gerd Leufert, who became among his close friends.


Smith moves to 47 East 19th Street, a few buildings away from the studio residence of painter Carmen Herrera. The two become friends and confidants, frequently meeting and discussing and championing each other’s work.Leon Polk Smith in his studio.


Smith is included in the landmark group exhibition The Responsive Eye at The Museum of Modern Art, New York, organized by William Seitz. He begins working with Madeleine Lejwa and joins her gallery, Galerie Chalette, in New York City.


Lawrence Alloway includes Smith’s work in Systemic Painting at The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Alloway becomes Smith’s chief critical champion. Smith is awarded a National Council of Art artist’s grant. Placing his New York studio’s contents with Madeleine Lejwa, Smith and Jamieson buy a house with property for a garden in the town of Shoreham on the North Shore of Long Island. He creates the large folding screen Seven Involvements in One.


Smith produces the first of his Constellations, which introduce his use of multiple panels in the composition of his paintings. Smith uses both curved and rectilinear forms and bright hues including black. The series dominates his painting and drawing through the mid-1970s.


During the spring, Smith serves as artist-in-residence at Poses Institute of Fine Arts at Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts. As part of this residency, he is honored with solo exhibition highlighting his work of the last decade, curated and with a publication with an essay by Lawrence Alloway. The exhibition travels to the San Francisco Museum of Art. That fall, he is the recipient of a Tamarind Fellowship and spends October and November in the Tamarind Lithography Workshop in Los Angeles, where he produces sixteen lithographs.


Smith supports contemporary Native American artists advocate Lloyd Oxendine (Lumbee,1942-2015) in Oxendine’s founding and operation of the first gallery of contemporary Native American contemporary art, the American Art Gallery in New York City.


Smith serves as a distinguished visiting professor at the University of California, Davis for the spring semester.


Smith affiliates with Galerie Denise René for three solo exhibitions in New York City through 1977.


Smith serves as a Lecturer at the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas, Austin.


Smith and Jamieson return to make New York City their prime residence, moving into a rent-controlled apartment and studio at 31 Union Square West.


Smith joins Susan Caldwell Gallery in New York City. Smith curates an exhibition of Northwest Native American artists for the visual artist and filmmaker G. Peter Jemison (Seneca, b.1945) who runs the American Indian Community House in New York City. Smith begins to execute the Form Space series, two-part paintings that can be installed in various ways.


Smith receives a Hassam and Speicher purchase fund award from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in New York for his painting Red-Black, 1958, which is donated to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art at the University of Oklahoma. Smith serves as a guest lecturer at the Graduate School of Art at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut.

Sunset Caribe, 1983 Sunset Caribe, 1983


Smith exhibits his Constellation series of paintings and drawings at both of Washburn Gallery’s uptown and downtown locations in January. In May, Smith’s first solo museum exhibition in Europe presented at Berlin’s Nationalgalerie.


Smith travels to London in connection with a solo exhibition at the Third Contemporary Art Fair. In July he receives its Distinguished Alumnus Award from East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma and gives the Commencement address.


Creates his retrospective portfolio of prints with Galerie & Editions Hoffmann, Freidberg, Germany.


Smith’s first US museum retrospective held at The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio in May. Later that year, Constellation – Twelve Circles, his most monumental painting, is installed in CIBA-GEIBY’s Pharmaceutical Developments Building in Summit, New Jersey. The work is later returned to Smith after the sale of CIBA-GEIBY.


Leon Polk Smith: American Painter a retrospective survey exhibition organized by museum director Robert T. Buck opens at The Brooklyn Museum in New York in September.


Leon Polk Smith passes away at his New York City apartment on December 4th at the age of ninety. The Leon Polk Smith Foundation commences to preserve and promote Smith’s art and legacy.

Information drawn from various sources primarily based on the chronology produced for Leon Polk Smith published in conjunction with his one-artist show at Lisson Gallery, New York City in the fall of 2017 and including research by Arlette Klaric of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art in Stillwater, Oklahoma.