Selected Essays & Reviews : Lawrence Alloway, 1974

Latest Posts

Text by Lawrence Alloway, “Leon Polk Smith: Dealings in Equivalence,” Art in America, July-August, 1974

“A constellation is a group of stars to which a definite title has been given: Orion, say. In concrete poetry it is referred to like this by Eugen Gomringer: “The constellation, the word-group, replaces the verse.”[1] Gomringer again: “The constellation is an arrangement, and at the same time a play-area of fixed dimensions.”[2] In Smith’s later work, of 1968 to the present, a constellation is a group of two to five panels, each one distinct but all bound by a common image or sequence that none of them provides singly. Though one early Constellation consisted of a stack of three identical red ovals, Nicolas Calas has accurately observed that “Organization of constellations provides the artist with a stimulating alter native to the monotony of serial order.”[3]This revival of intricacy grows out of a group of freestanding screens that Smith made with hinged canvases: he was experimenting with variables because the zigzag of the folded screen, necessary for stability, provides a mov ing spectator with changing views of the panels. There was some awkwardness in the forcing of stretched canvases into the role of freestanding screens, but the problem was surmounted by the development of the Constellation, in which unpredictable clusters of canvases seem to explode or spin or fall across the wall. The crisp color of the works after 1968 marks Smith’s change to acrylics.

In the Constellations the unit canvases are arranged to touch, often in ways that make them seem to bounce off one another. This effect is countered by the fact that the conjunction of panels evokes larger forms that span the group. Often this form is a circle, not fully given, but the regular appearance of sections of it testifies to its presence. Smith makes a forceful interplay of implied and literally present forms, of the given and the inferred. The continuous space that Smith had evoked by color within earlier single-unit paintings is now generated by treating panels as objects and grouping them into larger units. The accents fall unexpectedly, sometimes on color (used in a greater profusion than before), sometimes on intercepted boundaries. The themes of the hidden column and the diagonal passage recur, with a sudden eloquence and bounce, as “a play-area of fixed dimensions.” Though each unit retains the classic aplomb of Smith’s preceding work, the climactic effect of the separate pieces and diverse color is one of manic movement, of conjunctions that have reached a momentary array, which is far removed from stasis. The internal animation of color in the Correspondences and the orbital swing of the Constellations depend on a sense of organic form that derives from his essentially intuitive, as opposed to systematic, work procedures.”

[1] In Emmett Williams,ed., An Anthology of Concrete (New York, 1967)
[2] “From Line to Constellation,” in Mary Ellen Solt, ed., Concrete Poetry: A World View (Indiana, 1971)
[3] Nicolas and Elena Calas, Icons and Images of the ’60s (New York, 1971), p. 168

Back to Selected Essays & Reviews