Monday, December 23, 2013

Leon Polk Smith: Revisited

"You can't explain a painting. It explains itself, if you give it a chance."

Leon Polk Smith, 1983 (From Photo by Nancy R. Schiff/Getty Images)


Leon Polk Smith admits to being one of the twice born; art too claims its converts. Seated in his New York apartment, which also hosts his studio, he speaks softly and serenely of the life art has shared with him. The air is surprisingly fresh and relaxed, it doesn't feel like New York. His living room is cool and bright from a crossfire of east and west exposures, high up they overlook Union Square on one side and face a cathedral of water towers on the other. Only Smith's paintings dress the walls, and they light the room with an elegance which is betrayed only by their jaunty and jubilant spirit. He explains that while he is an ardent art enthusiast, all of his ideas come from his own works, and they serve him well by being where he can look at them. He speaks with a gently rhythmic but a touch crusty southwestern accent, and there is still a shadow of the rugged frontier about him, which can be traced back to his work.

"I discovered art my last year in college ... 1934. Having grown up in Oklahoma and having been older than the state, there wasn't much art there. So it was still younger than I at college age, and I had never seen an original painting. I don't think I knew anyone very well who even had art in their vocabulary. And it's quite by accident that I discovered art. That last year, I was in a building I had never been in before, walking down the hall, looking into the rooms as I passed. . . and this room had students and they were painting and drawing. And somehow that fascinated me immediately. I thought: I wish I could do that. And l went in and asked the instructor if I could come in and work for the rest of the term. He said yes.

I think I realized very quickly that I had always been an artist, and that that was what I wanted. That I would always keep it for myself, that I would never prostitute it, or do anything with it just for money.

I had prepared to be a teacher. When I started school, I said, I want to be a teacher, and it never entered my mind.... Even after I discovered art, and said I was going to be an artist, I knew that to make a living I would do what had been my first choice, which was teaching. I taught for about twenty-five years.

After I finished college, and taught one year, I came to New York in 1936 to study at Columbia ... get my Masters ... education and psychology. I knew I wasn't going to start selling paintings (he laughs). Paintings didn't start selling to somehow support me until about 1957. That's when I stopped teaching. "

From the awesome horizontality of the Oklahoma plains to New York's concrete peaks and valleys, Smith's one preoccupation has been space. From the late thirties through the early fifties it was the Constructivist space of Mondrian which dominated his scope: pure rectilinear abstraction with a parity of positive and negative form. Like many others working under the mast of Constructivism, Smith was looking for the next step up, a stage further in the evolution. Some painters pursued lyrical abstraction, but these solutions sat too self-centered to excite him. So he pushed on.

Leon Polk Smith; Center Column Blue and White, 1946

"When I discovered this thing in 1954, of dividing a canvas into two areas, painting in two colors, I did about twelve to fifteen tondos before I was able to carry the idea over into the rectangle. Because I discovered the idea on a circular format, you know I must have told you about seeing this athletic catalog ... the illustrations that were done that were pencil drawings rather than photographs, of a baseball, tennis ball, football ... that came into my studio, that was in the mail. I don't know why it was sent to me ... found myself going through the catalog ... looking through the drawings. certainly was not interested in any of them as a baseball or a basketball, but I was looking. And I thought, what the hell am I doing this for, why am I looking at this ? And a little voice says, because that's what you're looking for ... that excited me and l knew immediately what it meant. I rushed into my studio, got some paper and a compass and started drawing circles and dividing them up. Then I had to start inventing my own break up. I was inspired. Because that presented what was I looking for?

"When Mondrian died, I think 1945, people said he had hit a dead end, or a stone wall and I said I don't think so. There is no such thing as a stone wall except in one's mind. I said to myself, I think it would be wonderful to use his great discovery of the interchange of elements of form and space, or background-- foreground, although he only used it at a direct angle or a straight line--if one could find a way of using that in curvilinear form-and that's what I was looking for, all through the forties ...

Leon Polk Smith; New Moon For August; 1983

"I certainly wouldn't have gone to an athletic catalog to find it, but that's where I found it. Of course the shapes and lines were very limited, and immediately had to start finding my own, which I did. But then that created a space there that I had never seen in painting before. It was flat and at the same time it was curved. It was like a sphere. The planes seemed to move in every direction, as space does. And so I thought, maybe that is because that's on the tondo. I've got to find out if that is true or not. I've got to do some on a rectangle to see if the form and the space still moved in every direction. And it did. So it was exciting to do a painting on a rectangle that seemed to have a curved surface. It was the first time, you see that I had made an important step myself, or contribution in art. "

Color and shape are the converging planes which form the fulcrum over which Smith see-saws his space. They form the language of which he is a master. Color and shape are his domain; the crossbars of his scope; his words. With them he writes poetry; poems which magnificently sweep their time and space into a single gesture.

In space there is no up or down; up here is down there on the other side of the globe. Smith enlarged the concept of space in painting to meet with the twentieth century, everything moves at a diagonal. He first started experimenting with this in the rectilinear Constructivism of the forties; he implied lines which moved diagonally between points. Later he exposed the diagonals and still maintained a vocabulary of implied lines. Both are central to his dialogue, especially today.

Leon Polk Smith; Sunset Caribe; 1983

In the multiple panels Smith takes the concept of positive/negative parity one step further. He invites the surrounding space into the experience, and activates it into an equal exchange. The painting becomes a point of departure - a runway into space.

We sense the awe in this work, and wonder. These latest paintings are of a dimension so large, so fast and so deep, they tower like futurist space machines, seeming to pulsate on the threshold of infinity. Smith constantly talks of excitement as though it were an essential. He has a faith in what art can do, and be, and this is supremely evident in his work; so much so that with it he restores even our doubt in the doubt intrinsic to both.

“. . . Isn't it simply wonderful to be able to paint? That's what l wanted to do. Now I can - It's something I would pay to do, if I were able to, if I had to.”

August, 1982
Reprinted Catalog Essay Courtesy of the Joan Washburn Gallery
From the Artdeal Magazine Archives

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