Selected Essays & Reviews : Michael Auping, 1989

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“Abstraction Geometry Painting: Selected Geometric Abstract Painting in America Since 1945”, Harry N. Abrams Inc. publisher with the Albright Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, New York, 1989, pages 49-50

Other Viewpoints

Newman and Reinhardt were by no means the only abstract painters to reject gestural painting during the 1950s; many others– Leon Polk Smith, John McLaughlin, and Myron Stout, for example– simply received far less critical attention. They belong to a kind of lost generation whose mature aesthetic can to some degree be identified with the American Abstract Artists group—though none of them ever joined—as well as with the holistic, nonrelational qualities of the Abstract Expressionists, though they were peripheral to that movement as well.

Smith clearly acknowledged his debt to the AAA group’s guiding force, Mondrian. He identified the clarity of experience in Mondrian’s work with his memory of the colorful, geometric art of the Southwest American Indian. In a statement regarding his discovery and appreciation of the Dutch artist, Smith remarks on Mondrian’s color: “ I grew up in the Southwest where the colors in nature were pure and rampant and where my Indian neighbors and relatives used color to vibrate and shock.”

Smith had seen and greatly admired the work of both Jean Arp and Mondrian in the Gallatin Collection in the late 1930s. Indeed, Smith’s overall development can be understood in terms of his ambition to combine the provocative biomorphic forms of Arp with the austere color-space dynamics of Mondrian. Smith has said he would like to “release Mondrian from the rectangle” while maintaining “Mondrian’s discovery of the interchangeability of form and space.” For Smith, the odd curve or oblique line that demarks the edge of a field of color can establish a situation in which “fields of adjacent color lock together so there is no sense of specific form but a bold and frontal abstract space. Like the Indians I grew up around, I’ve never been afraid of color. I let color establish the space and the feeling. The way you approach edge or line gives color the freedom and room to express.”

In 1954, Smith chanced on a “way of freeing Mondrian’s concept of space so that it could be expressed with the use of the curved line as well as the straight.” The initial inspiration came from a series of drawings of baseballs, footballs, basketballs, and tennis balls in a catalogue of sports equipment. The curvilinear seams on the different balls, when flattened out, offered a provocative set of forms or fields—part biomorphic, yet stolidly geometric—that established a dynamic but unified circular space.

Like Newman and Reinhardt, Smith’s concerns evolved toward the breakdown of a figure-ground relationship, as well as of the relational character of Cubism and Mondrian. He employed the S-curve to establish an image that locked the ambiguous dynamic between flatness and curvature into a single static image which the artist has described as a “curved space which moves in every direction and when at a particular point a line changes its course you cannot tell whether it turns right or left, up or down, in or out.”

In a further attempt to establish a more unified, holistic image, Smith was an early pioneer in allowing the shape of a canvas to generate the interior image of the painting. As Lawrence Alloway has pointed out, 

“In Smith’s tondos of the mid 50s, for example, the circumference frequently generates the internal image, serving as the base for entering curves and converging planes… the support and the surface are bound together as a whole image. In rectangular paintings, too, Smith was impressively early and resourceful in relating the real corners and the ninety-degree turned-over edges of the stretcher to the canvas plateau facing the spectator.”

Smith found that his large, holistic images were best served when accommodating a reduced number of colors: two colors often offered the optimum experience. This limitation functioned in two ways. First, the reduction in color parts helped to maintain a unified image that could be perceived at once. “I wanted to explore composition and division, and I wanted the viewer to see that division at once. Understanding what it actually did might take time, but I wanted it seen quickly, maybe disarmingly, not part to part.” Second, it allowed Smith to expand the area of a given color, to allow them room to perform. Many of Smith’s configurations appear to relate to things seen—a landscape, a building, a portion of a figure. Yet these would be schematic if not for Smith’s sense of color, which activates the space in these works. In Smith’s work, color is the catalyst that activates the tension between an image that couples a seemingly solid form with an ethereal space. In many of his images there is a Yin and Yang quality in which strong color opposites balance each other. According to the artist, “I see color almost as ‘thing,’ a substance with weight. I try to translate, even complicate those equations with my color. You ask if it relates to landscape. It doesn’t relate to landscape specifically, but nature. I love looking at nature, but I don’t want to see it when looking at my paintings. I want you to feel it.”

Michael Auping. Pages 49-50

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