Robert Hughes text from Time magazine, December 31. 1973.
LEON POLK SMITH
The Dutch abstractionist Piet Mondrian moved to New York City in 1940 and died there four years later. He was the greatest of all the European artists who, displaced by war, settled in America and began the ferment that culminated in what Art Historian Irving Sandler, in an infelicitously imperial phrase, recently called “the triumph of American painting.” Yet the results of Mondrian’s sojourn have to some extent been set on a back burner.
Only a fraction of the energy that went into the study of abstract expression ism has been spent on Mondrian’s small circle of U.S. disciples, such as Fritz Glarner, Ilya Bolotowsky and Burgoyne Diller. Their aloof and rigorous art could never have been a popular recipe; but allowing for that, and for the fact that they labored beneath the almost overpowering shadow of Mondrian him self, the silence about such pioneers is still remarkable. For though the public did not look closely or often at their work, later artists did; the “mondrian-ists” were one of the secret influences on 1960s American abstraction. A case in point is the work of Leon Polk Smith, now on view – in the sort of brief, scrappy show that makes one wish for a proper retrospective somewhere – at Manhattan’s Denise Rene Gallery.
A vigorous, affable 67-year-old with a Southwestern twang and a long bald skull like a dented kettle, Smith was born a Cherokee in Indian Territory (later renamed Oklahoma) in 1906. His education was rudimentary—”the three Rs, and farm work the rest of the time” – but during the Depression he managed to put himself through Oklahoma State College at Ada. Then, in 19SS, he happened on the art department there. But it was not until 19S7 that, as a student enjoying the first years of a prolonged lave affair with New York, he glimpsed his first Mondrians in the Gallatin collection. “I haven’t seen a painting since I first saw Mondrian that gave me one single idea about form, composition, anything,” asserts Smith.
Some of Smith’s earlier versions of the Dutch master have a quirkish and decorative air, as though the fast color-blips of Broadway Boogie-Woogie had been crossed with the decorative bead patterns of American Indian folk art. But the abiding problem was how to become something other than an imitator, how to disengage himself from Mondrian’s gravitational field.
By the early ’50s, some of his paintings were moving away from the strict line-and-rectangle grid. Instead of Mondrian’s delicately balanced, off-center compositions, a kind of symmetry prevails; the skewed, hefty profiles of black and white fit together like a Yin-Yang symbol as revised by a locksmith. “I liked what Mondrian had discovered – the interchangeability of form and space,” Smith recalls. “But I wanted to apply that to free form.”
What kicked him out of his orbit of homage was – of all things – a sports catalogue he glanced at in 1954. It contained drawings of baseballs and basketballs, and Smith was fascinated by their curving seams. From the middle ’50s on, he embarked on two-color paintings, typically with one curved form set over a color plane: arcs, ovals, S-bends. At the same time, Smith’s palette changed from the classical red, yellow, blue, black and white of his Mondrian years and took on violets, pinks, oranges and greens of peculiarly shrill sweetness and intensity, while staying abstract. “Anything that goes toward an earth color becomes too heavy,” he says. “You should get away from the colors you find on earth; they’re limiting. Anyway, I never thought of nature as if it stopped at our sky. I’ve always thought of my paintings as going beyond earth.”
Smith’s concern with shape and contour remained absolute, and it seems to have been an unacknowledged influence on the doyen of American hard-edge painting, Ellsworth Kelly, who first saw Smith’s pictures around 1956. The essence of such drawings is division—the line cleanly slicing positive away from negative, creating two spaces in one gesture. In Smith’s recent work, this cropping of space can sometimes be a rather stolid operation, but what remains impressive is the man’s steadfast development: his persistent and successful attack on one pictorial problem, anticipating the ’60s but far from their limelight.