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Leon Polk Smith is born on May 20, 1906, in Chickasha, Indian Territory. He was the eighth of nine children, born to parents who were each one-half Cherokee, and Smith spoke Cherokee language in his home and immediate community. The Smiths moved to Indian Oklahoma Territory from East Tennessee towards the end of the great westward movement, after the Oklahoma land run of 1889.

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.


Smith graduates from Pocasset High School in Chickasha, Oklahoma in May, with dreams of being a teacher. The following month, the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, also known as the Snyder Act, granted full U.S. 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 graduation, Smith works as a rancher in Oklahoma and then migrates to Arizona, where he helps to construct roads and telephone systems. The U.S. stock market crashes on October 29, 1929, initiating a devastating economic period known as The Great Depression. Smith diligently sent money earned in Arizona home to his parents to help fund the family farm during the turmoil.


His family farm had foreclosed, and Smith returns to Oklahoma, free to pursue his studies to become a teacher. He enrolls at Oklahoma State College in Ada, Oklahoma (which would later become East Central University, Ada).


One day during his senior year at Oklahoma State College, Smith passes by the art studios on campus. The classroom door left 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, it is here that Smith begins his lifelong investigation. In May he receives a Bachelor of Arts in English.


Smith teaches primary and secondary school in Oklahoma.


Smith receives an Oklahoma State Teacher’s Certificate, and decides to further his education by enrolling in the prestigious Teachers College at Columbia University in New York. During the summer months, he attends first of three consecutive summer sessions at the college. In this first summer, he accompanied the artist Ryah Ludins, 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. 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 children 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. He resigns from the Oklahoma school system and moves to New York City in the fall and resides at 332 W. 12th Street.


Smith spends the summer traveling in Mexico.


In January of 1941 at Uptown Gallery in New York, Smith has his first solo exhibition. The fifteen paintings and eighteen watercolors in the exhibition had been created at night and on weekends during his previous six years of teaching in Oklahoma. In May of the same year, he is included in a group exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum. Simultaneously, Smith 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.


Smith accepts a position as Delaware’s State Supervisor of Art Education. 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 black). 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.


Smith continues to teach in Delaware, painting 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.


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. He is awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship in May, which he uses to travel to and set up a studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico. In New Mexico, he further explores non-objective art.


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


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 acclaim in New York. He decides to focus on being an artist and moves for seven months to Varadero, Cuba, to work and prepares for a return to New York.


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. During this period, 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 through 1957 the school’s art gallery.


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 relief wood sculptures, which also use metal in some examples. Smith encounters a number of artists who come to be known by the area where they have their lofts and studios 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 jagged lines of torn colored paper.


At the conclusion of the spring semester, Smith resigns his professorship at Mills College of Education to get back to New York City. 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 and subsequently joins her influential roster of artists.


In the late 1950s Smith continued to explore the shaped canvas and created his distinctive Correspondence series. These large canvases typically consist of two vibrantly colored painted shapes defined by a precise but often irregular contour.


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. Constructivist art had flourished in Venezuela since the 1950s, and two of its chief practitioners, Gego (Gertrud Louise Goldschmidt) and her husband Gerd Leufert, became close friends of Smith.


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 the other’s work.


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 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. In the same year, Smith receives the National Council of Art Award. Leaving the 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.


Smith produces the first of his Constellations, which introduce multiple panels as single compositions. Smith uses both curved and rectilinear forms and uses bright hues including black.


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. For this, 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 with four solo exhibitions in New York City through 1977.


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


Smith and Jamieson return to live in New York City full-time, 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.


Upon closing of Susan Caldwell Gallery, Smith joins Washburn Gallery in New York City, where his work will be given regular one-person exhibitions for the next thirty five years. Back in his New York studio, he begins to work on a larger scale, focusing on simplified, shaped and multiple-section paintings, some of which include wood edging strips that extend beyond the canvas.


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.


Smith exhibits his Constellations 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 receives from East Central University in Oklahoma its Distinguished Alumnus Award.


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


Smith’s first U.S. museum retrospective held at The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio in May. Later that year, Constellation – Twelve Circles, his most monumental work, 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 home in New York on December 4th at the age of ninety. The Leon Polk Smith Foundation commences to preserve and promote Smith’s art and legacy.

Prepared from various sources with content augmented from the chronology produced for the publication Leon Polk Smith, in conjunction with the one-artist show at Lisson Gallery, New York City in the fall of 2017.