Page 1


Leon Polk Smith

2

This catalogue was printed by the University

3

American Original

of Oklahoma Printing Services and is issued by

the University of Oklahoma. 750 copies have

conjunction with the exhibition at the

been printed and distributed at no cost to the

Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art,

taxpayers of Oklahoma.

June 24-September 24, 2006. Cover: No part of this publication may be reproduced Constellation #7: 6 Ellipses, 1973 (see fig. 11).

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

This catalogue has been published in

or used in any form without the written consent of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. Design: Eric H. Anderson, with Karen Hayes-Thumann. Images courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum and the Washburn Gallery.

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

Copyright © 2006 The University of Oklahoma.

© Leon Polk Smith

Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art The University of Oklahoma 555 Elm Avenue Norman, Oklahoma 73019-3003 phone: 405.325.3272; fax: 405.325.7696 www.ou.edu/fjjma

Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art The University of Oklahoma


Leon Polk Smith

2

This catalogue was printed by the University

3

American Original

of Oklahoma Printing Services and is issued by

the University of Oklahoma. 750 copies have

conjunction with the exhibition at the

been printed and distributed at no cost to the

Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art,

taxpayers of Oklahoma.

June 24-September 24, 2006. Cover: No part of this publication may be reproduced Constellation #7: 6 Ellipses, 1973 (see fig. 11).

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

This catalogue has been published in

or used in any form without the written consent of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. Design: Eric H. Anderson, with Karen Hayes-Thumann. Images courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum and the Washburn Gallery.

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

Copyright © 2006 The University of Oklahoma.

© Leon Polk Smith

Foundation/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art The University of Oklahoma 555 Elm Avenue Norman, Oklahoma 73019-3003 phone: 405.325.3272; fax: 405.325.7696 www.ou.edu/fjjma

Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art The University of Oklahoma


4

Leon Polk Smith Born and raised on a farm near Chickasha, Leon Polk Smith

(1906-1996) was one of the most original and influential celebrates its own centennial, the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art is pleased to mark the centennial of Smith’s birth with an

Although Smith eventually settled in New York City and was greatly inspired by European Modernists such as Piet Mondrian, Oklahoma never left Leon Polk Smith. He said that he could not have created his art, with its sense of space, if he had not grown up in the wide open spaces of Oklahoma.1 He alluded to the American Indian cultures of Oklahoma and his own part-Cherokee heritage when he stated that his “freedom of color came out of [his] relationship with the Indians. . . . In the Indians’ philosophy, thinking, and way of talking or telling stories, so much detail was left out, so much was abstract.”2 The artist referenced Oklahoma in the earliest painting in this exhibition, OK Territory (fig.1), 1943, and indirectly in the last painting, Midnight Pyramids (Midnight Teepees) (fig.12), 1986, whose forms, though abstract, and alternate title conjure Oklahoma’s Indian people. [Coincidentally, Midnight Pyramids (Midnight Teepees) also echoes the architecture of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art’s Lester Wing.] A painting such as Stonewall (fig. 4), 1956,

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

exhibition in the artist’s home state.

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

artists that Oklahoma has produced. A year before Oklahoma

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

Foreword

5


4

Leon Polk Smith Born and raised on a farm near Chickasha, Leon Polk Smith

(1906-1996) was one of the most original and influential celebrates its own centennial, the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art is pleased to mark the centennial of Smith’s birth with an

Although Smith eventually settled in New York City and was greatly inspired by European Modernists such as Piet Mondrian, Oklahoma never left Leon Polk Smith. He said that he could not have created his art, with its sense of space, if he had not grown up in the wide open spaces of Oklahoma.1 He alluded to the American Indian cultures of Oklahoma and his own part-Cherokee heritage when he stated that his “freedom of color came out of [his] relationship with the Indians. . . . In the Indians’ philosophy, thinking, and way of talking or telling stories, so much detail was left out, so much was abstract.”2 The artist referenced Oklahoma in the earliest painting in this exhibition, OK Territory (fig.1), 1943, and indirectly in the last painting, Midnight Pyramids (Midnight Teepees) (fig.12), 1986, whose forms, though abstract, and alternate title conjure Oklahoma’s Indian people. [Coincidentally, Midnight Pyramids (Midnight Teepees) also echoes the architecture of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art’s Lester Wing.] A painting such as Stonewall (fig. 4), 1956,

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

exhibition in the artist’s home state.

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

artists that Oklahoma has produced. A year before Oklahoma

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

Foreword

5


6

7

served as an advisor to this exhibition from its inception and

several of Smith’s paintings from the 1950s – its title derives

has written an essay for the catalogue.

from the name of an Oklahoma town.

I am grateful to University of Oklahoma President David L. Boren many decades, for his support of the exhibition, as well as

the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. My gratitude extends to the

the other board members of the Leon Polk Smith Foundation,

museum’s Board of Visitors and the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of

including Patterson Sims, the Foundation’s Chairman, who

Art Association for their assistance with this exhibition and all

first proposed the exhibition to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of

of the museum’s projects. I also wish to thank Sarah Iselin for

Art. Joan T. Washburn, whose Washburn Gallery in New York

editing the catalogue and Eric H. Anderson of the University

represents the Leon Polk Smith estate, has been extremely

of Oklahoma’s School of Art for designing it. As always, I have

helpful with the organization of the show and with the loan of

much appreciation for the museum’s staff, whose hard work has

three paintings.

helped to make the exhibition a success.

Because of donations from the artist, the Brooklyn Museum in

Eric M. Lee

New York has the most extensive public collection of Smith’s

The Wylodean and Bill Saxon Director

work. I am grateful to the Brooklyn Museum, its director,

Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art

Arnold Lehman, and its curator of contemporary art, Charlotta Kotik, for loaning eight important works to the exhibition. 1

Robert T. Buck, President of the Leon Polk Smith Foundation, is one of Smith’s greatest champions. Mr. Buck knew the artist well, and it was during his tenure as director of the Brooklyn Museum that Leon Polk Smith made his promised gift of so many works to the museum. Mr. Buck has graciously

Alyson B. Stanfield’s unpublished notes on her interview with Leon Polk Smith, 1994, files of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

2

Brooke Kamin Rapaport, “An Interview with Leon Polk Smith,” in Leon Polk Smith: American Painter, exh. cat., (Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum, 1996), p. 19.

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

and First Lady Molly Shi Boren for their steadfast support of

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

I wish to thank Robert Meade Jamieson, Smith’s partner of

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

does not immediately bring Oklahoma to mind, but – like


6

7

served as an advisor to this exhibition from its inception and

several of Smith’s paintings from the 1950s – its title derives

has written an essay for the catalogue.

from the name of an Oklahoma town.

I am grateful to University of Oklahoma President David L. Boren many decades, for his support of the exhibition, as well as

the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. My gratitude extends to the

the other board members of the Leon Polk Smith Foundation,

museum’s Board of Visitors and the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of

including Patterson Sims, the Foundation’s Chairman, who

Art Association for their assistance with this exhibition and all

first proposed the exhibition to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of

of the museum’s projects. I also wish to thank Sarah Iselin for

Art. Joan T. Washburn, whose Washburn Gallery in New York

editing the catalogue and Eric H. Anderson of the University

represents the Leon Polk Smith estate, has been extremely

of Oklahoma’s School of Art for designing it. As always, I have

helpful with the organization of the show and with the loan of

much appreciation for the museum’s staff, whose hard work has

three paintings.

helped to make the exhibition a success.

Because of donations from the artist, the Brooklyn Museum in

Eric M. Lee

New York has the most extensive public collection of Smith’s

The Wylodean and Bill Saxon Director

work. I am grateful to the Brooklyn Museum, its director,

Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art

Arnold Lehman, and its curator of contemporary art, Charlotta Kotik, for loaning eight important works to the exhibition. 1

Robert T. Buck, President of the Leon Polk Smith Foundation, is one of Smith’s greatest champions. Mr. Buck knew the artist well, and it was during his tenure as director of the Brooklyn Museum that Leon Polk Smith made his promised gift of so many works to the museum. Mr. Buck has graciously

Alyson B. Stanfield’s unpublished notes on her interview with Leon Polk Smith, 1994, files of the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

2

Brooke Kamin Rapaport, “An Interview with Leon Polk Smith,” in Leon Polk Smith: American Painter, exh. cat., (Brooklyn: The Brooklyn Museum, 1996), p. 19.

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

and First Lady Molly Shi Boren for their steadfast support of

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

I wish to thank Robert Meade Jamieson, Smith’s partner of

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

does not immediately bring Oklahoma to mind, but – like


8

Leon Polk Smith

Robert T. Buck The Man and the Artist Anyone who knew Leon Polk Smith well was struck time mieson, Smith’s assistant and companion of more than four decades, has often said summarizing their life together, “there was never a dull moment.” Smith (1906-1996) was a highly original artist who possessed all his mental faculties and considerable physical strength to the end of his long and productive life. He was also known for strong opinions, especially about art and politics, and had a quick temper, regarding which, most friends and acquaintances agreed, it was best not to be on the receiving end. Early formative influences on Leon Polk Smith’s character took place in legendary American circumstances. His family was among the nineteenth-century settlers in the West. His parents had arrived in present-day Oklahoma from Tennessee at the end of the great westward movement, probably after the Oklahoma land run of 1889, and had settled on

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

and again by his force of character. As Robert Mead Ja-

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

Personal Recollections and Some Observations on Selected Paintings

9


8

Leon Polk Smith

Robert T. Buck The Man and the Artist Anyone who knew Leon Polk Smith well was struck time mieson, Smith’s assistant and companion of more than four decades, has often said summarizing their life together, “there was never a dull moment.” Smith (1906-1996) was a highly original artist who possessed all his mental faculties and considerable physical strength to the end of his long and productive life. He was also known for strong opinions, especially about art and politics, and had a quick temper, regarding which, most friends and acquaintances agreed, it was best not to be on the receiving end. Early formative influences on Leon Polk Smith’s character took place in legendary American circumstances. His family was among the nineteenth-century settlers in the West. His parents had arrived in present-day Oklahoma from Tennessee at the end of the great westward movement, probably after the Oklahoma land run of 1889, and had settled on

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

and again by his force of character. As Robert Mead Ja-

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

Personal Recollections and Some Observations on Selected Paintings

9


10

11

Early on, however, Smith knew that the agrarian life was

eighth of nine children. Undoubtedly, in his youth he encoun-

not an option for him. By the age of six, he related, he had

tered many occasions at home in which he had to speak

already decided to become a teacher. After high school he

loudly and act quickly to defend his rights.

worked for a few years on various ranches in Oklahoma, phone systems in Arizona. These were the years of the

of the State of Oklahoma. It is difficult to imagine today the

Great Depression, and he faithfully sent his parents money

circumstances and atmosphere in which Smith passed his

to help pay the homestead mortgage. But that was for

youth. It was a hardscrabble existence in which the whole

naught. The family farm eventually was foreclosed. With

family, young and old, worked the fields together for sur-

this sad event behind him, Smith felt free to start on his

vival; inhabited homes that resembled shacks, at least at the

path to become a teacher as he had promised himself, and

start; and walked miles to go to school or just to fetch the

he returned home to enroll at Oklahoma State College, now

simplest of life’s necessities. Life among the settlers was

East Central University, in Ada.

built on self-reliance, courage and conviction. This was a society in which, with enough determination, one could build

One of the defining moments of Smith’s life occurred at this

a life quite unlike that of one’s immediate forebears. What

college when he discovered an art studio door ajar. Previ-

could be more motivating than the promise of lives trans-

ously, he had never seen any art, at least not consciously. It

formed, causing so many individuals to embark on transconti-

drew him in like a powerful magnet, and he felt comfortable

nental migrations of unknown length, dangers and hardships?

there. He knew on the spot that he would become an artist. By 1934, ten years after his graduation from high school, he had earned his B.A. in English.

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

In 1907, a year after his birth, Indian Territory became part

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

and later he worked building roads and constructing tele-

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

land in what was still called Indian Territory. Smith was the


10

11

Early on, however, Smith knew that the agrarian life was

eighth of nine children. Undoubtedly, in his youth he encoun-

not an option for him. By the age of six, he related, he had

tered many occasions at home in which he had to speak

already decided to become a teacher. After high school he

loudly and act quickly to defend his rights.

worked for a few years on various ranches in Oklahoma, phone systems in Arizona. These were the years of the

of the State of Oklahoma. It is difficult to imagine today the

Great Depression, and he faithfully sent his parents money

circumstances and atmosphere in which Smith passed his

to help pay the homestead mortgage. But that was for

youth. It was a hardscrabble existence in which the whole

naught. The family farm eventually was foreclosed. With

family, young and old, worked the fields together for sur-

this sad event behind him, Smith felt free to start on his

vival; inhabited homes that resembled shacks, at least at the

path to become a teacher as he had promised himself, and

start; and walked miles to go to school or just to fetch the

he returned home to enroll at Oklahoma State College, now

simplest of life’s necessities. Life among the settlers was

East Central University, in Ada.

built on self-reliance, courage and conviction. This was a society in which, with enough determination, one could build

One of the defining moments of Smith’s life occurred at this

a life quite unlike that of one’s immediate forebears. What

college when he discovered an art studio door ajar. Previ-

could be more motivating than the promise of lives trans-

ously, he had never seen any art, at least not consciously. It

formed, causing so many individuals to embark on transconti-

drew him in like a powerful magnet, and he felt comfortable

nental migrations of unknown length, dangers and hardships?

there. He knew on the spot that he would become an artist. By 1934, ten years after his graduation from high school, he had earned his B.A. in English.

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

In 1907, a year after his birth, Indian Territory became part

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

and later he worked building roads and constructing tele-

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

land in what was still called Indian Territory. Smith was the


22

23

paintings after 1943, many, such as N.Y. City (Whitney

struck by the perfection of the concept behind the painting

Museum of American Art, N.Y.; not in exh.), 1946, Homage

and its realization. Color, line, and volume are all in perfect

to Victory Boogie-Woogie No.1 (Dallas Museum of Art; not

synchrony. In each work the artist has chosen how to de-

in exh.), 1946, and WP1 (Guggenheim Museum, N.Y.; not in

liver his image with an immediate energy and visual impact.

exh.), 1949, may be viewed as the artist’s visualized incanta-

Although other geometrically derived works by American

tions to his adopted city. These works serve as metaphors

artists of the period have many similar characteristics, none

for New York itself. Underneath the city’s surface lie inter-

quite matches Smith’s sense of declaration and command.

locking patterns and grids by which its inhabitants navigate.

On a synergetic level, one could say Smith’s paintings are

New York’s central borough, Manhattan, may be the only

almost boisterous.

place in the world where one can never really be lost. As one comes out of the subway a street may be unrecogniz-

To describe the sense of perfection that Smith’s paintings

able by sight alone, but a closer look at a signpost at, for

project, Arthur Danto uses the Greek term entelechy for the

example, the corner of Thirty-Third Street and Ninth Avenue,

state of ideal fulfillment. To simplify this Aristotelian train

situates the traveler in the greater city grid, whether or not

of thought, each thing must be understood by what caused it

one recognizes the surrounding stores and buildings.

4

to be in the state in which it is viewed. Without understanding the underlying causes, we may not fully comprehend what we are contemplating. Danto adds as a simple illustration that the oak tree is the entelechy of the acorn.

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

On first encountering a painting by Leon Polk Smith, one is

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

If one applies this thought to Smith’s earliest geometric

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

The Works of Art


22

23

paintings after 1943, many, such as N.Y. City (Whitney

struck by the perfection of the concept behind the painting

Museum of American Art, N.Y.; not in exh.), 1946, Homage

and its realization. Color, line, and volume are all in perfect

to Victory Boogie-Woogie No.1 (Dallas Museum of Art; not

synchrony. In each work the artist has chosen how to de-

in exh.), 1946, and WP1 (Guggenheim Museum, N.Y.; not in

liver his image with an immediate energy and visual impact.

exh.), 1949, may be viewed as the artist’s visualized incanta-

Although other geometrically derived works by American

tions to his adopted city. These works serve as metaphors

artists of the period have many similar characteristics, none

for New York itself. Underneath the city’s surface lie inter-

quite matches Smith’s sense of declaration and command.

locking patterns and grids by which its inhabitants navigate.

On a synergetic level, one could say Smith’s paintings are

New York’s central borough, Manhattan, may be the only

almost boisterous.

place in the world where one can never really be lost. As one comes out of the subway a street may be unrecogniz-

To describe the sense of perfection that Smith’s paintings

able by sight alone, but a closer look at a signpost at, for

project, Arthur Danto uses the Greek term entelechy for the

example, the corner of Thirty-Third Street and Ninth Avenue,

state of ideal fulfillment. To simplify this Aristotelian train

situates the traveler in the greater city grid, whether or not

of thought, each thing must be understood by what caused it

one recognizes the surrounding stores and buildings.

4

to be in the state in which it is viewed. Without understanding the underlying causes, we may not fully comprehend what we are contemplating. Danto adds as a simple illustration that the oak tree is the entelechy of the acorn.

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

On first encountering a painting by Leon Polk Smith, one is

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

If one applies this thought to Smith’s earliest geometric

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

The Works of Art


24

25

1943, as it happens, pays homage to the artist’s origins both in title and content. Through its title, Smith reminds us of the Oklahoma ranch lands where he grew up, the newly settled Territory that joined the Union a year after his birth. The work is divided into three color fields – black, white and yellow – across which squares and rectangles of vivid

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

The earliest work in this exhibition, OK Territory (fig. 1),

contrasting colors vibrate. OK Territory is a modestly scaled gem in Smith’s oeuvre and consists almost entirely of visual vocabulary inspired by the Neo-Plasticist abstraction of the De Stijl painters associated with Mondrian. The artist nevertheless adds his own humorous device. He infers an animal presence in the white upper right field of this otherwise entirely nonobjective abstraction. With the added hint of a tail, the three black rectangular and square forms that are abutting or overlapping suggest a reclining bovine. This visual pun consists of nothing more than two lines intercepting at a right angle, one of which is partially superimposed over the rectangle. Together they suggest the tail. The otherwise

1. OK Territory, 1943 Oil on canvas, 16 x 12” Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum


24

25

1943, as it happens, pays homage to the artist’s origins both in title and content. Through its title, Smith reminds us of the Oklahoma ranch lands where he grew up, the newly settled Territory that joined the Union a year after his birth. The work is divided into three color fields – black, white and yellow – across which squares and rectangles of vivid

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

The earliest work in this exhibition, OK Territory (fig. 1),

contrasting colors vibrate. OK Territory is a modestly scaled gem in Smith’s oeuvre and consists almost entirely of visual vocabulary inspired by the Neo-Plasticist abstraction of the De Stijl painters associated with Mondrian. The artist nevertheless adds his own humorous device. He infers an animal presence in the white upper right field of this otherwise entirely nonobjective abstraction. With the added hint of a tail, the three black rectangular and square forms that are abutting or overlapping suggest a reclining bovine. This visual pun consists of nothing more than two lines intercepting at a right angle, one of which is partially superimposed over the rectangle. Together they suggest the tail. The otherwise

1. OK Territory, 1943 Oil on canvas, 16 x 12” Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum


26

27

moves the work from the realm of pure geometry to a borderline where one questions definitions of abstraction and

reality. One can only conjecture whether Smith may have

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

known the work of the De Stijl artist van der Leck depicting the formal evolution, from realist to cubist, of a bovine.

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

wholly abstract painting is altered by a small detail that

similar humoristic progression. Smith’s simple addition of the two lines affirms an artistic wit. In the same year, 1943, Smith painted Get Along Little Dogies, a Neo-Plasticist work which, though yielding no discernible realist key in its composition, despite the title, causes the viewer to scrutinize its forms in the chance there is one hidden.

2. Black-White Definition New York, 1946 Oil on canvas, 45 x 32” Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

Graphic works of Roy Lichtenstein much later follow a


26

27

moves the work from the realm of pure geometry to a borderline where one questions definitions of abstraction and

reality. One can only conjecture whether Smith may have

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

known the work of the De Stijl artist van der Leck depicting the formal evolution, from realist to cubist, of a bovine.

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

wholly abstract painting is altered by a small detail that

similar humoristic progression. Smith’s simple addition of the two lines affirms an artistic wit. In the same year, 1943, Smith painted Get Along Little Dogies, a Neo-Plasticist work which, though yielding no discernible realist key in its composition, despite the title, causes the viewer to scrutinize its forms in the chance there is one hidden.

2. Black-White Definition New York, 1946 Oil on canvas, 45 x 32” Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

Graphic works of Roy Lichtenstein much later follow a


28

29

branding irons he recalled from his early ranching years in

New York, he had started in a new direction. Black-White

the Southwest.5 Artists naturally delve into their memory

Definition New York (fig. 2), 1946, represents such a de-

banks to find expression, sometimes more self-consciously

parture. In it Smith utilizes a repeated bracketlike motif in

than at other times. Smith’s capacity to structure his works

black shaped like a truncated letter U or sometimes like a

into brilliantly conceived, dynamically designed fields remi-

partial block letter or just a right angle. The angular forms fit

niscent of such wide-ranging associations is an important

tightly together, often touching, and appear as lively nota-

and mature achievement. It is all the more remarkable when

tions on a plain white field. Other works in the series utilize

one considers the relatively short time it was since he had

red and black notation on a white ground, red on black, and

become an abstract painter. The paintings are fully accom-

in the final series work, multicolored notations on a white

plished, mature works that can stand up qualitatively to the

ground. The works seem to represent the reappearance

work of his contemporaries who had more experience, such

of an ancient rediscovered language applied to geometric

as Burgoyne Diller or Fritz Glarner.

painting. More simplified, the motifs resemble some of the interlocking forms in the terracotta friezes of ancient Mexico that Smith could have seen on his first visit to Mexico in the summer of 1940, such as the Mitla temple near Oaxaca. Other analogies could include the circa 1914 drawings by Mondrian of Parisian facades, such as that of the church of Notre-Dame-des-Champs, and Mondrian’s depictions of light refractions on the surface of water.

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

with Neo-Plasticism. Two years after his definitive move to

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

But Leon Polk Smith stated that he was inspired by the

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

Smith quickly moved his work beyond dutiful infatuation


28

29

branding irons he recalled from his early ranching years in

New York, he had started in a new direction. Black-White

the Southwest.5 Artists naturally delve into their memory

Definition New York (fig. 2), 1946, represents such a de-

banks to find expression, sometimes more self-consciously

parture. In it Smith utilizes a repeated bracketlike motif in

than at other times. Smith’s capacity to structure his works

black shaped like a truncated letter U or sometimes like a

into brilliantly conceived, dynamically designed fields remi-

partial block letter or just a right angle. The angular forms fit

niscent of such wide-ranging associations is an important

tightly together, often touching, and appear as lively nota-

and mature achievement. It is all the more remarkable when

tions on a plain white field. Other works in the series utilize

one considers the relatively short time it was since he had

red and black notation on a white ground, red on black, and

become an abstract painter. The paintings are fully accom-

in the final series work, multicolored notations on a white

plished, mature works that can stand up qualitatively to the

ground. The works seem to represent the reappearance

work of his contemporaries who had more experience, such

of an ancient rediscovered language applied to geometric

as Burgoyne Diller or Fritz Glarner.

painting. More simplified, the motifs resemble some of the interlocking forms in the terracotta friezes of ancient Mexico that Smith could have seen on his first visit to Mexico in the summer of 1940, such as the Mitla temple near Oaxaca. Other analogies could include the circa 1914 drawings by Mondrian of Parisian facades, such as that of the church of Notre-Dame-des-Champs, and Mondrian’s depictions of light refractions on the surface of water.

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

with Neo-Plasticism. Two years after his definitive move to

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

But Leon Polk Smith stated that he was inspired by the

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

Smith quickly moved his work beyond dutiful infatuation


30

31

Smith’s ultimate homage to the Mondrian compositional format. For this striking and complex work the painter chose

a round canvas, on which a heavy black grid supports blue white space. The inference is that this grid continues off the canvas on the upper left and lower right. Yet the grid is both is suspended in space but held in place on two sides by the black borders of the grid. Here the orthodoxy of the Theosophist Mondrian, whose paintings featured grids composed strictly of horizontals and verticals, is confronted and defied by means of a diagonal structure. With Diagonal Passage 120 Large, Smith declared his independence from Neo-Plasticism. His quest to establish the interchangeability of form and space – in which planes of color are read alternately as voids and as solids – was to continue, and here, through the choice of the round canvas, he introduces a curved line in the composition.

3. Diagonal Passage 120 Large, 1947-1950 Oil on canvas, 78” diameter Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

expanding and centralized because of the blue square that

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

and red blocks of color in a blatantly diagonal sweep across

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

Diagonal Passage 120 Large (fig. 3), 1947-50, represents


30

31

Smith’s ultimate homage to the Mondrian compositional format. For this striking and complex work the painter chose

a round canvas, on which a heavy black grid supports blue white space. The inference is that this grid continues off the canvas on the upper left and lower right. Yet the grid is both is suspended in space but held in place on two sides by the black borders of the grid. Here the orthodoxy of the Theosophist Mondrian, whose paintings featured grids composed strictly of horizontals and verticals, is confronted and defied by means of a diagonal structure. With Diagonal Passage 120 Large, Smith declared his independence from Neo-Plasticism. His quest to establish the interchangeability of form and space – in which planes of color are read alternately as voids and as solids – was to continue, and here, through the choice of the round canvas, he introduces a curved line in the composition.

3. Diagonal Passage 120 Large, 1947-1950 Oil on canvas, 78” diameter Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

expanding and centralized because of the blue square that

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

and red blocks of color in a blatantly diagonal sweep across

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

Diagonal Passage 120 Large (fig. 3), 1947-50, represents


50

Chronology

Checklist 7. Black on Black (Moon), 1959

Oil on canvas, 16 x 12”

Oil on canvas, 78 x 38”

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Courtesy of the Washburn Gallery, New York

8. Black Anthem, 1960

Oil on canvas, 45 x 32”

Oil on canvas, 72 x 120”

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

1924 May: Graduates from Pocasset High School in Chickasha, Oklahoma. 1924-31 Works as a rancher in Oklahoma and then migrates to Arizona, where he helps construct highways and telephone systems. 1934 Receives B.A. in English from Oklahoma State College, now East

9. Correspondence Black & White, 1967

Oil on canvas, 78” diameter

Oil on canvas, 90 x 50”

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

4. Stonewall, 1956

10. Constellation Milky Way, 1970

Central University, Ada. 1934-40 Teaches primary and secondary school in Oklahoma. 1936 Receives Oklahoma State Teacher’s Certificate. Summer: Attends first

Oil on canvas, 35 1 ⁄ 2” diameter

Oil on canvas, 2 parts, circle: 78” diameter;

of three consecutive summer sessions at Teachers College, Columbia

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

oval: 67 x 40”

University, New York; lives at International House, 500 Riverside

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Drive; with Ryah Ludins, one of his instructors, visits Albert E.

5. Red-Black, 1958 Oil on paper, 25 1 ⁄ 2” diameter

Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art at New York University, where he sees 11. Constellation #7: 6 Ellipses, 1973

Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. Gift of the

Acrylic on canvas, 107 3 ⁄4 x 60”

American Academy and Institute of Arts

Courtesy of the Washburn Gallery, New York

and Letters, and the Hassam and Speicher Purchase Fund

his first works by Mondrian, Brancusi, and Arp. 1936-45 Creates paintings and drawings in various Modernist styles, including Surrealism, Expressionism, and abstraction.

12. Midnight Pyramids (Midnight Teepees), 1986 Oil on canvas, 3 parts, each 80” diameter;

6. Yellow-White (Sun), 1959 Oil on canvas, 78 x 38” Courtesy of the Washburn Gallery, New York

overall 80 x 240”

1937 Summer: Meets Martha Graham after a performance in Bennington College in Vermont.

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum 1938 December 21: Receives M.A. in fine arts and fine arts education from Teachers College. 1939 Summer – early autumn: Travels through Europe. August: Teaches children from the American School in Paris in Étretat, France; creates his first collage, French Peasant.

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

3. Diagonal Passage 120 Large, 1947-1950

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

2. Black-White Definition New York, 1946

51

1906 May 20: born outside of Chickasha, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

1. OK Territory, 1943


50

Chronology

Checklist 7. Black on Black (Moon), 1959

Oil on canvas, 16 x 12”

Oil on canvas, 78 x 38”

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Courtesy of the Washburn Gallery, New York

8. Black Anthem, 1960

Oil on canvas, 45 x 32”

Oil on canvas, 72 x 120”

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

1924 May: Graduates from Pocasset High School in Chickasha, Oklahoma. 1924-31 Works as a rancher in Oklahoma and then migrates to Arizona, where he helps construct highways and telephone systems. 1934 Receives B.A. in English from Oklahoma State College, now East

9. Correspondence Black & White, 1967

Oil on canvas, 78” diameter

Oil on canvas, 90 x 50”

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

4. Stonewall, 1956

10. Constellation Milky Way, 1970

Central University, Ada. 1934-40 Teaches primary and secondary school in Oklahoma. 1936 Receives Oklahoma State Teacher’s Certificate. Summer: Attends first

Oil on canvas, 35 1 ⁄ 2” diameter

Oil on canvas, 2 parts, circle: 78” diameter;

of three consecutive summer sessions at Teachers College, Columbia

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

oval: 67 x 40”

University, New York; lives at International House, 500 Riverside

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum

Drive; with Ryah Ludins, one of his instructors, visits Albert E.

5. Red-Black, 1958 Oil on paper, 25 1 ⁄ 2” diameter

Gallatin’s Gallery of Living Art at New York University, where he sees 11. Constellation #7: 6 Ellipses, 1973

Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art. Gift of the

Acrylic on canvas, 107 3 ⁄4 x 60”

American Academy and Institute of Arts

Courtesy of the Washburn Gallery, New York

and Letters, and the Hassam and Speicher Purchase Fund

his first works by Mondrian, Brancusi, and Arp. 1936-45 Creates paintings and drawings in various Modernist styles, including Surrealism, Expressionism, and abstraction.

12. Midnight Pyramids (Midnight Teepees), 1986 Oil on canvas, 3 parts, each 80” diameter;

6. Yellow-White (Sun), 1959 Oil on canvas, 78 x 38” Courtesy of the Washburn Gallery, New York

overall 80 x 240”

1937 Summer: Meets Martha Graham after a performance in Bennington College in Vermont.

Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum 1938 December 21: Receives M.A. in fine arts and fine arts education from Teachers College. 1939 Summer – early autumn: Travels through Europe. August: Teaches children from the American School in Paris in Étretat, France; creates his first collage, French Peasant.

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

3. Diagonal Passage 120 Large, 1947-1950

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

2. Black-White Definition New York, 1946

51

1906 May 20: born outside of Chickasha, Indian Territory (now Oklahoma).

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

1. OK Territory, 1943


52

53

professor of art at Georgia Teachers College in Collegeboro.

1952 Returns to New York; moves to 51 West 10th St. (the Tenth Street Studio Building). Creates a series of “light sculptures” by reflecting sunlight from a metal plate. Meets Robert Jamieson, who becomes

his studio assistant, archivist, and longtime companion. Summer:

Gallery, New York. March 28-May 1: First group exhibition held at

Teaches two courses at New York University. Autumn: Appointed

Brooklyn Museum, New York.

professor of art at Mills College of Education in New York, where he also directs the school’s art gallery.

1942 Accepts position as Delaware’s State Supervisor of Art Education; 15: First one-person museum exhibition organized by Telfair Academy

1954 Emerges from Neo-Plasticism with a series of tondos inspired by drawings of baseballs he saw in a sporting-goods catalogue.

of Arts and Sciences, Savannah, Georgia. 1954-55 Moves to 82 West 12th St. 1944 February: Having resigned his position in Delaware, begins working at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York as an assistant to

circa 1955 Creates his first sculpture.

Hilla Rebay, director; subsequently moves to 332 West 12 St. April: th

Receives $15 check from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

1958 Introduces Martha Graham to the Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh,

for painting supplies. May: Awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.

whom she subsequently asks to compose the music for her dance

Late June/early July: Travels to Oklahoma and then New Mexico,

Clytemnestra. Resigns his professorship at Mills College at the

where he spends the next several months painting and increasing his

conclusion of the spring semester. Honored with a Longview Foundation

awareness of nonobjective art.

Purchase. September: Joins Betty Parsons Gallery.

1945 Winter/spring: Returns to New York; moves to 108 West 16th St. 1945-54 Produces various series of paintings and drawings in the Neo-Plastic mode. 1949 Appointed professor of art at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.

circa 1960-67 Produces the Correspondences. 1961 Leaves Betty Parsons Galley and joins Stable Gallery. Creates his first screen. Begins a series of folding tabletop paintings. 1962 September: First one-person museum exhibition outside the United States opens at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas.

1951 Resigns professorship at Rollins College. Summer: Moves to Varadero, Cuba, where he spends the next several months.

1963-64 Moves to 47 East 19th St.

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

moves to 12 South Bedford St., Georgetown, Delaware. February 2-

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

1941 January 13-February 6: First one-person exhibition held at Uptown

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

1940 Summer: Travels through Mexico. Autumn: Appointed assistant


52

53

professor of art at Georgia Teachers College in Collegeboro.

1952 Returns to New York; moves to 51 West 10th St. (the Tenth Street Studio Building). Creates a series of “light sculptures” by reflecting sunlight from a metal plate. Meets Robert Jamieson, who becomes

his studio assistant, archivist, and longtime companion. Summer:

Gallery, New York. March 28-May 1: First group exhibition held at

Teaches two courses at New York University. Autumn: Appointed

Brooklyn Museum, New York.

professor of art at Mills College of Education in New York, where he also directs the school’s art gallery.

1942 Accepts position as Delaware’s State Supervisor of Art Education; 15: First one-person museum exhibition organized by Telfair Academy

1954 Emerges from Neo-Plasticism with a series of tondos inspired by drawings of baseballs he saw in a sporting-goods catalogue.

of Arts and Sciences, Savannah, Georgia. 1954-55 Moves to 82 West 12th St. 1944 February: Having resigned his position in Delaware, begins working at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting in New York as an assistant to

circa 1955 Creates his first sculpture.

Hilla Rebay, director; subsequently moves to 332 West 12 St. April: th

Receives $15 check from the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation

1958 Introduces Martha Graham to the Egyptian composer Halim El-Dabh,

for painting supplies. May: Awarded a Guggenheim fellowship.

whom she subsequently asks to compose the music for her dance

Late June/early July: Travels to Oklahoma and then New Mexico,

Clytemnestra. Resigns his professorship at Mills College at the

where he spends the next several months painting and increasing his

conclusion of the spring semester. Honored with a Longview Foundation

awareness of nonobjective art.

Purchase. September: Joins Betty Parsons Gallery.

1945 Winter/spring: Returns to New York; moves to 108 West 16th St. 1945-54 Produces various series of paintings and drawings in the Neo-Plastic mode. 1949 Appointed professor of art at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida.

circa 1960-67 Produces the Correspondences. 1961 Leaves Betty Parsons Galley and joins Stable Gallery. Creates his first screen. Begins a series of folding tabletop paintings. 1962 September: First one-person museum exhibition outside the United States opens at the Museo de Bellas Artes in Caracas.

1951 Resigns professorship at Rollins College. Summer: Moves to Varadero, Cuba, where he spends the next several months.

1963-64 Moves to 47 East 19th St.

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

moves to 12 South Bedford St., Georgetown, Delaware. February 2-

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

1941 January 13-February 6: First one-person exhibition held at Uptown

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

1940 Summer: Travels through Mexico. Autumn: Appointed assistant


54

55

in the landmark group exhibition The Responsive Eye, The Museum of

1984 May 31-July 29: First one-person museum exhibition in Europe presented at Berlin’s Nationalgalerie.

Modern Art, New York. 1986 Receives East Central University’s Distinguished Alumnus Award.

1988 May 7-June 19: First museum retrospective held at The Butler 1966 Receives National Council of Art Award. Moves to Shoreham, Long Island.

Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio. December: Constellation – Twelve Circles, one of his most monumental works,

1968 Spring: Serves as artist-in-residence at Poses Institute of Fine Arts, Rose

Summit, New Jersey. 1994 Affiliated with ACA Galleries in New York

Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, which gives him a solo exhibition that travels to the San Francisco Museum of Art.

1996 Dies at home in New York on December 4.

October-November: Produces sixteen prints in Los Angeles under the auspices of a Tamarind Fellowship.

This chronology is an updated version of the one that originally appeared in Leon Polk Smith: American Painter, exhibition catalogue (Brooklyn: The Brooklyn

1972 Spring: Serves as distinguished visiting professor at the University of California, Davis. 1973-77

Affiliated with Galerie Denise René in New York.

1978 Moves to 31 Union Square West in New York. 1980-84 Affiliated with Washburn Gallery in New York. 1983 Honored with a Hassam and Speicher Fund Purchase by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in New York. The purchased work, Red-Black, 1958, is later given to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

Museum, 1996), pp. 97-9.

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

is installed in CIBA-GEIGY’s Pharmaceutical Development Building in 1967-72 Produces the Constellations.

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

1965-70 Affiliated with Galerie Chalette in New York.

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

1965 Produces a series of drawings made by tearing colored paper. Included


54

55

in the landmark group exhibition The Responsive Eye, The Museum of

1984 May 31-July 29: First one-person museum exhibition in Europe presented at Berlin’s Nationalgalerie.

Modern Art, New York. 1986 Receives East Central University’s Distinguished Alumnus Award.

1988 May 7-June 19: First museum retrospective held at The Butler 1966 Receives National Council of Art Award. Moves to Shoreham, Long Island.

Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio. December: Constellation – Twelve Circles, one of his most monumental works,

1968 Spring: Serves as artist-in-residence at Poses Institute of Fine Arts, Rose

Summit, New Jersey. 1994 Affiliated with ACA Galleries in New York

Art Museum, Brandeis University, Waltham, Massachusetts, which gives him a solo exhibition that travels to the San Francisco Museum of Art.

1996 Dies at home in New York on December 4.

October-November: Produces sixteen prints in Los Angeles under the auspices of a Tamarind Fellowship.

This chronology is an updated version of the one that originally appeared in Leon Polk Smith: American Painter, exhibition catalogue (Brooklyn: The Brooklyn

1972 Spring: Serves as distinguished visiting professor at the University of California, Davis. 1973-77

Affiliated with Galerie Denise René in New York.

1978 Moves to 31 Union Square West in New York. 1980-84 Affiliated with Washburn Gallery in New York. 1983 Honored with a Hassam and Speicher Fund Purchase by the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in New York. The purchased work, Red-Black, 1958, is later given to the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

Museum, 1996), pp. 97-9.

THE UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA

is installed in CIBA-GEIGY’s Pharmaceutical Development Building in 1967-72 Produces the Constellations.

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

1965-70 Affiliated with Galerie Chalette in New York.

FRED JONES JR. MUSEUM OF ART

LEON POLK SMITH

1965 Produces a series of drawings made by tearing colored paper. Included


56

LEON POLK SMITH

AMERICAN ORIGINAL

Leon Polk Smith Catalog Preview  

Buy the full exhibition catalog at Muse. http://www.ou.edu/content/fjjma/shop/ExhibitionCatalogs.html

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