For sixty seasons, Leon Polk Smith has played on his fascination for the space between the lines which is the literal and figurative metaphor of his work. His hunger to create is nourished/fed by the infinite possibilities of form, color and content. It’s in the Hard-Edge abstraction that he has accomplished his life’s work. Whether he arranges his canvas as a single image so that the foreground and background fuse in a whole or in a “correspondence” of form and color, whether he makes of the shape of the canvas itself a part of his “story,” or whether he connects multiple canvases in a single composition or “Constellation,” Smith’s work offers a richly complex balance of stimulations, both visual and intellectual.
Smith is certainly one of the greatest American artists, a fact that no one could contest. But paradoxically he has not been officially recognized as such–even among many artists who deserve official recognition less– and this despite the preponderance and the indisputable importance of his contribution.
At this point in his long career, Smith finds inspiration in his own work. Over the last years, his work is self-referential. The paintings of his first collages have their roots in his work from the beginning of the 1960s. “I transform an earlier period,” he says. “I would say that I have attained pure space, even if space has been at the center of my preoccupation/focus for many years. I have transcended barriers.”
At the beginning, when Smith investigated his own creative “problem” he found a source of inspiration in the work of Piet Mondrian. “Mondrian discovered the interchangeability of form and space. That interested me enormously, even if it limited itself to rectangular forms. In the beginning of the 1940s, I distanced myself from Mondrian to try to find a way to free this concept in order to be able to express myself with a curved line as well as with a straight line.”
His stimuli? A sporting equipment catalogue with drawings of tennis balls, soccer balls, basketballs and baseballs. The stitches traced on the drawn circles helped him find his solution. As the critic Lawrence Alloway wrote in an exhibition catalogue from 1970: “He resolved the problem in 1954 but it’s his later work that made him famous, vibrant bicolored paintings, free-form, in which large planes of color balance and oppose one another from a wavy (undulating) border more than six feet long, that traverse the canvas form end to end.
The work of Smith at the end of the 1950s to the beginning of the 1960s prepared the ground for a new style that was later called “geometric abstraction”, yet no one considered him the “grand master” of this style.
Leon Polk Smith was born in 1906 on Indian territory that became the state of Oklahoma the following year. He was one of nine children of a father who was a farmer and ranch owner, and a mother who was half Indian. “The only thing that I know and that I feel in my blood is Indians and their philosophy of unity where we work together in our unity, I think I have that from my Indian side,” says Smith. The only thing he received from the “half-Oklahoman side of the house” and from the period of his birth was poverty and deprivation. But he figured out how to take advantage of that in many ways. “I never had doubts,” he says in his forthright manner. “An art historian friend of mine always said to me ‘You were born pre-programmed’ and I found that that was completely true because I always knew what I wanted in life, and never had the problem of asking myself what I would want to do. I think that I grew up in a period that was so hard that I never would have thought that it could be any worse. I was raised in The Grapes of Wrath,” he says in an ironic tone, alluding to the John Steinbeck novel. Steinbeck describes a tragic chapter of American history when nature combined with economic forces to cause a double plague: the country was plunged into full-on economic depression, while the American Southwest became a vast Dust Bowl.
It was a long time ago that Smith abandoned the dusty plains of Oklahoma for the rubble-strewn streets of New York. Today, at the age of 86, he lives in a 5,400 square foot loft on the fourteenth floor of an old building on Union Square West in Manhattan. With a panoramic view of the center of the city, the apartment forms an immense ‘L,’ as geometrically pure as the paintings and collages that the artist creates there. It’s a space that’s astonishingly modern in the clean hard edge of its lines, but as warm and welcoming as Leon Polk Smith himself. “As soon as five o’clock comes, that’s when we have a little Schnapps break,” he says.
Smith’s childhood was bathed in the riches of Indian culture, “in the Southwest, where the colors of nature were pure and luxurious, and where my Indian neighbors used color to make things vibrate and shock.” But he grew up away from any influence of outside artistic culture. “The state of Oklahoma, the same age as I was, had not yet had time to build museums and to build art collections.” His interest in art came later, in his last year of high school–at the end of the 1920s– and developed even further when he moved to New York in 1936. He never tried to fill the gaps in his historical knowledge. “The past never sufficiently interested me so that I would fill up my unconscious with history. People become stuck in history, and never succeed in disengaging themselves. The present fascinates me so much, and fills my spirit so completely, that the simple idea to have to distance myself from it and turn toward the past is repugnant to me. I went to Europe for the first time in 1939, and I felt that history pulled me backwards, above all when I went to Italy and found myself amidst all those ruins. I had to get out of there. And I asked young painters who were there: ‘How the hell can you make something new with all these ruins all around you?’ They understood and answered: ‘You can’t imagine how difficult it is.’ And I said that I could imagine which is why I told them ‘I’m getting out of here right away, I’ve got to get out of here. And that’s how I saved my spirit for the new, the contemporary, the modern.”
Are there still barriers to transcend? “If I knew, I would start today,” he confided. “My rhythm of work is completely disordered, and it always was, more or less. I never entered my studio to work unless I felt compelled, unless I felt that I had the feeling that I had to go in there and start to create. I never thought that because I’m an artist, I have to spend a certain number of hours in my studio. I’ve seen my friends destroy so many paintings when they weren’t really in the mood to paint. I would say “Don’t go in your studio unless you have to. Don’t wreck good paintings because you think you can make them better when you’re not feeling inspired.” I keep all of my paintings because my ideas come exclusively from my work and my work is the source of my inspiration. When I look at my own work it gives me the desire to paint another painting.”