Bob Jamieson in Conversation
An interview by Ina Prinz with Robert Jamieson, Leon Polk Smith’s partner, from Leon Polk Smith im Arithmeum. Arithmeum, rechen einst und heute, Forschungsintitut fur discrete Mathematik, University of Bonn, Bouvier, 2001, 35-39
Note: Small edits and corrections were made from the printed version of this interview for its inclusion in this website.
Who were Leon Polk Smith’s forbears? He often used to talk about the fact that the awareness and perception of nature played a special role in his family, and in this connection he also mentions American Indian sunset descriptions. Was he of Native American descent?
Yes, he was Native American. His family lived in Oklahoma but originally came from East Tennessee. His parents were both part Cherokee and went to the Indian Territory in the 1880s. Both parents had Cherokee ancestors and one year after Leon’s birth in 1906 Indian Territory was incorporated into the state of Oklahoma. Leon grew up with the Chickasaws and the Choctaw and understood the Indian’s philosophy. He felt the abstraction of their lives in their celebration of dance and song. His special relationship to nature possibly arose through growing up on a farm and ranch.
But as a child he had Indian friends, didn’t he?
Yes, he played with them. There were many more Indians then there were Whites. And his brother married a half-Indian girl who still spoke her native tongue. He also picked up some of their language. He went to grammar and high school in Pocasset and after receiving his undergraduate degree and teaching certificate at Oklahoma State College, now East Central University, ADA, he became a teacher. It was only after he had finally discovered his love for art he gave up teaching as a career.
Where did he teach?
He went on to Columbia University’s Teachers College in New York City and received a Master of Art. In fine arts education, he taught at various institutions and became head of the Art Department at Mills College of education in New York City. He was an excellent teacher and would spend a great deal of time with his students and loved to discuss and argue at length. He served as Artist-in-Residence at Brandeis University and as guest lecturer at other prominent universities.
How did Leon Polk Smith discover his love for art?
That was more or less by chance. One day he happened to pass an arts class, and he stopped and joined in. That was the first time he met art and he knew at once that that was what he wanted to do. He had found his new vocation; he had discovered his love for art.
How old was he then?
He must have been around twenty – typical college age. At that time he already knew that he was an artist. He often used to say: there are many painters but few real artists.
That is a good aphorism. Didn’t he ever visit an arts college?
He never joined a group of artists like the Art Students League. He knew exactly what he wanted.
So he was a strong-minded person?
Oh yes, very strong-minded. One also soon discovered that when talking to him. He did not think much of being lectured on how to paint. He was completely independent. He did not like to be influenced or have things delegated to him.
Did he come straight from Oklahoma to New York City?
In the 1940s he was away for a summer in Mexico. After his return to New York, he set up his own studio on Tenth Street. When his sales started going well he no longer needed to teach in order to earn his living. So he was then a full-time artist. Yes, but he still used to give guest lectures. He had a full life and a fulfilled career.
Since when have you known him?
Since 1952. We were together for forty years. It was a wonderful relationship between the “East and the West”.
Where do you come from?
I come from the East.
Do you mean you are from these parts?
Yes, I am from New York, and he came from the Southwest, and it was a truly sincere and exciting relationship. We got on very well together and also worked together. People always used to say what a complicated person he was, but I never ever found him to be complicated or difficult. We worked together very efficiently. I mounted the canvasses on wooden stretchers and looked after the accounts and the business-social matters. But 1 never painted.
You really never painted?
Did you comment his artwork?
We were never at cross-purposes. For example, I could always tell right away whether a picture of his was successful. And I knew when it wasn’t.
You mean you were able to criticize his pictures openly?
Did Leon Polk Smith also like music?
Very much, he liked all forms of music. He liked jazz and classical music, and also East Indian music. Normally he liked to listen to extremely loud music, which did not go down too well with the neighbors.
But he also liked dancing as an expression of art. I think that sometimes he was inspired by modern dance forms. He knew Martha Graham very well and introduced her to an Egyptian composer, Halim El-Dahb, who had specialized in percussion. The composer and Martha created a full length performance known as Clytemnestra”.
You mentioned that Leon Polk Smith began his career as a teacher, then turned to art, and was finally able to earn his living as an artist. Did he ever work on commission or paint something for a public institution?
No, he never took on any private or public commissions.
Did he ever feel that he belonged to any particular artistic group?
No, he refused to be tied down. He was an absolute loner.
Did Leon Polk Smith have any particularly active periods or less productive ones?
Not really – he kept going and worked every single day. He got up in the morning, had breakfast and then worked steadily until four or five in the afternoon. Sometimes he returned to his work in the evening. He used to apply his colors in layers and that took time. He always continued if there was still something to finish.
Were there any artists whom he admired and possibly emulated?
He was very impressed with Mondrian. But he also spoke of other artists, Herbin for example, whom he understood very well, as he did most of the geometric artists. But essentially he was an “isolado”, as I used to express it, isolated from the rest of the world. He never would be influenced by anybody.
His paintings have wonderfully romantic titles, not just “Composition 13a” for example. Can you explain that?
For one year he did, in fact, just number his paintings. That was 1976, a particularly productive year. But most of his pictures have titles, chiefly because of identification.
How did he choose the titles?
Usually he chose American Indian titles from his home territory in Oklahoma. They are very poetic.
But you mentioned that he only did that for a while.
Yes, later he just called his pictures “black-white” or “blue-white”. But he always gave his pictures titles. Sometimes people come to me and tell me that they own a picture by Leon Polk Smith which has no title. That always sounds suspicious to me.
Do you know if he was ever inspired by natural forms? Some constructivist artists depict reality very abstractly, like Bart van der Leek. Leon Polk Smith was very consistent in his exclusive use of rectangles and lines. Other abstract artists went about it the other way around: they visualized geometric constructivist elements which they then proceeded to turn into reality.
Yes, I understand. He used to say that he would sit facing the empty canvas and stare at nothing but this emptiness. And then he would begin to see geometric forms.
These forms would just appear in front of him on the empty canvas?
Yes, exactly. And the colors would gradually become more intense. That is a very interesting phenomenon.
I have a question on Leon Polk Smith’s use of color. There was a time, early on, when he concentrated intensely on the basic colors, as in the case of the de Stijl movement and other artists. But then things changed. Was that a question of age?
He used the lighter colors a lot, like violet, green, brown and turquoise, but at the same time he also used black and white. He painted many black paintings, I think his choice of colors depended on the way he looked at things. At one time, earth colors dominated. In his early works, when he was living on the farm and Nature was very important to him, he preferred earth colors. Then he turned to black, white and grey tones.
Did Leon Polk Smith himself invent the description “hard-edge” painting for his works of art?
It was someone in Los Angeles, who gave his works of art that label. But Leon Polk Smith adopted this description from the art critic Laurence Alloway, who had used it to characterize his work, and Leon liked it.
But basically Leon Polk Smith can be considered to have begun this art form, is that right?
Yes, of course, he is one of the initiators of “hard-edge” painting. Some even say that he is the one and only initiator.
He even painted a self-portrait in this style: just the contour of his head forms the edge between the black and white areas. The fascinating thing is that, if one has met him, one can recognize him by the contour of his head alone!
Quite right. He actually painted a whole series of self-portraits. They in fact complement one another in a certain way and each shows a certain facet of his. Were one to superimpose them all, one would find that they all depict the shape of his head from the same perspective.
Amongst the constructivist painters there have always been some who also did spontaneous drawings besides their strict geometric works. Do you know whether Leon Polk Smith also did that?
So far as I know, he always painted directly onto the canvas and nobody could ever induce him to do otherwise. That was the way he painted. However he did paint at times leaf paintings, fruit drawings and created a series of beautiful “torn” drawings.
More interesting in his case is the question as to whether he ever destroyed any of his works of art. If he noticed that a piece of work wasn’t succeeding, which hardly ever happened, then he would destroy the picture. Occasionally he would return from a trip and see one of his pictures and would no longer be satisfied with it. Then he would destroy it. But that happened extremely rarely. On the other hand, there were sometimes pictures, which he did not find so good, but which he temporarily stored. If he happened to come across them a couple of years later, he would realize that they were very good after all. Then he was happy that he hadn’t destroyed them. So we had to consider the circumstances carefully. It was no use thinking later that a certain picture had really been quite good if it had been destroyed!
So he used no other medium except painting directly onto the canvas?
That is not quite right. He made collages, used watercolors and painted many works on paper.
Did he do these as studies for his paintings?
I can well imagine that some of the works on paper could be construed to be studies for paintings. But it is not as simple as that. In the end, all his works of art are interrelated. This is particularly the case with his prints and graphic works.
But weren’t the prints often done after the paintings instead of before them?
Yes, that is correct, but all of his works are interrelated in an overall way and should not be taken out of this unifying context.
Leon Polk Smith was always fascinated by geometric forms. Did he never work three-dimensionally, that is, make sculptures? One could well imagine that that would have interested him.
Yes, he did in fact make two or three steel sculptures, not very large, only about 70 cm high. These sculptures are now in private collections. One is still in his estate, but it needs to be restored. He also made several sculptures from open wooden boxes which he painted inside and out.
He was always enthusiastic about anything he could touch and handle. He also painted many stones, beautifully.
How did he go about painting his pictures? Did he apply his colors in any special way? Many modern artists tape the edges of areas and spray the paint on in order to achieve uniformity and save time.
Oh no, Leon Polk Smith never sprayed paint. Until 1967 he painted exclusively in oils and then changed to acrylic. He always used the same principle when painting: first he painted horizontally, then vertically and finally horizontally again, depending on how he wanted the color to cover. He always used materials of the highest quality. For a long time he did not use tape, but started to when he was already quite old. That was quite a difficult technique, as he wanted the color edges to be perfect. Acrylic paints were good because they enabled him to paint more quickly.
How long did Leon Polk Smith take to paint a large canvas?
He could finish a two-color picture in one day.
You mean that was the time he needed when he had formulated his ideas. But how much time did he spend in front of the empty canvas?
Perhaps an hour, sometimes an entire morning.
Were there any non-constructivist artists whom he admired?
Yes, he did like some, but there were no special ones.
What art forms, apart from constructivist art did he like when visiting exhibitions?
Naturally he preferred to view art forms which were closest to his own. He did visit exhibitions with a wide range of art forms, but what attracted him most was constructivist art. He loved sculptures, but didn’t like expressionist art all that much.
As I have already said, Leon Polk Smith was a loner. He had never been taught by another artist and he never let himself be influenced by anyone.
But he himself influenced some other artists. Was the influence more indirect?
There was a time when these artists often visited Leon Polk Smith. They all saw each others’ works of art and discussed them. Definitely, most of them were influenced by Leon’s work.
Who was influenced so directly by him?
There was an entire group centered around Jack Youngerman, Robert Indiana and Agnes Martin. They also learned from one another and were very receptive.
A final question: did Leon Polk Smith handle the sale of his pictures himself or did he work with a gallery?
He did not bother with that side of things. He was not that interested in the money, he was completely absorbed in his art. However, there were quite a few important Galleries who exhibited his work: Betty Parsons Gallery, Galerie Denise René, ACE Gallery, Chalette Gallery, and Washburn Gallery.
Overall, he loved painting and enjoyed an extremely happy life in art and in nature – never a dull moment!