Betsy Senior Fine Art

Leon Polk Smith: Influential Forms

Leon Polk Smith: Influential Forms

Leon Polk Smith

Long recognized as a key originator of the Hard-Edge style in the United States, Leon Polk Smith (1906–1996) began producing abstract paintings around 1940. Scholars and critics have often drawn a clear lineage from Smith’s work back to that of Piet Mondrian and other European modernists. Only recently—with a major exhibition at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona—has serious attention been focused on an earlier, foundational source of inspiration: Native American art and aesthetics.

Born to parents who were both said to be part Cherokee, Smith spent his childhood in Oklahoma among Chickasaw, Choctaw, and other Indigenous neighbors. Their world views and traditions, not to mention arts and design, would have a lifelong impact on him, influencing his bold, flat positive and negative forms—which are also prominent in the ribbon- and beadwork techniques of Oklahoma Tribal artists—and his distinctive palette. “I grew up in the Southwest,” he once noted. “Where the colors in in nature were pure and rampant and where my Indian neighbors used color to vibrate and shock.”

When Smith began making prints, in the late 1960s, he quickly embraced the medium’s reductive and graphic qualities. His screenprints and lithographs, among his most distilled works in terms of composition and color, reflect not only the culmination of his artistic objectives but also, perhaps, their origin. Such a reexamination of Smith’s work provides new insights into the development of a seminal figure in twentieth-century art and, by extension, illuminates the myriad wellsprings of American modernism.

Image Credit:

Leon Polk Smith, “WERKUBERSICHT/WORK-OVERVIEW C,” 1949–87 (detail)

I was always impressed by the high quality of aesthetics in design and craftsmanship in [American Indian] art. In 1938, I did my most abstract painting to date. It was called “A Stroll in the Forest,” and I think that was very much influenced by Indian art—the simplicity of it and the directness of it, and not putting in anything that wasn’t needed. . . . There was something more that’s not visual. In the Indians’ philosophy, thinking, and way of talking of telling stories, so much detail was left out, so much was abstract.

Leon Polk Smith, in conversation with Brooke Kamin Rapaport, 1993

Leon Polk Smith

COLOR FORMS (E)

1974

33 x 23 1/4 inches (83.8 x 59.1 cm)

Screenprint

Edition of 150

Signed, numbered, and dated along lower margin

9 EvB- Artwork 9 (Gachet) (Portraits) -

Leon Polk Smith

COLOR FORMS (G)

1974

33 x 23 1/4 inches (83.8 x 59.1 cm)

Screenprint

Edition of 150

Signed, numbered, and dated along lower margin

9 EvB- Artwork 9 (Gachet) (Portraits) -

Unidentified artist, Southern Plains Blanket, early 1900s. Wool, silk, silk ribbon, German silver, silk thread, and miscellaneous thread, 69 ½ x 47 inches (176.5 x 199.4 cm). Heard Museum, Phoenix, Gift of Mrs. J. C. Lincoln

Leon Polk Smith

UNTITLED (TAMARIND J)

1968

30 x 22 inches (76.2 x 55.9 cm)

Lithograph

Edition of 20

Signed, numbered, and dated along lower margin

9 EvB- Artwork 9 (Gachet) (Portraits) -

Leon Polk Smith

UNTITLED (TAMARIND K)

1968

30 x 22 inches (76.2 x 55.9 cm)

Lithograph

Edition of 20

Signed, numbered, and dated along lower margin

9 EvB- Artwork 9 (Gachet) (Portraits) -

Leon Polk Smith

Leon Polk Smith

UNTITLED (TAMARIND O)

1968

30 x 22 inches (76.2 x 55.9 cm)

Lithograph

Edition of 20

Signed, numbered, and dated along lower margin

9 EvB- Artwork 9 (Gachet) (Portraits) -

Leon Polk Smith

UNTITLED (TAMARIND D)

1968

29 5/8 x 18 3/4 inches (75.2 x 47.6 cm)

Lithograph

Edition of 20

Signed, numbered, and dated along lower margin

9 EvB- Artwork 9 (Gachet) (Portraits) -

Installation view, “Leon Polk Smith: Hiding in Plain Sight”—a 2021 exhibition at the Heard Museum, Phoenix, exploring the influence of Native American aesthetics on Leon Polk Smith’s art

9 EvB- Artwork 9 (Gachet) (Portraits) -

UNTITLED (TONDO) A

Leon Polk Smith

1968

25 5/8 x 25 1/2 inches (65.1 x 64.8 cm)

Screenprint

Edition of 80

Signed, numbered, and dated along lower margin

Leon Polk Smith

WERKUBERSICHT/WORK-OVERVIEW C

1949–1987

46 1/2 x 32 inches (118.1 x 81.3 cm)

Screenprint

Edition of 90

Signed, numbered, and dated along lower margin

9 EvB- Artwork 9 (Gachet) (Portraits) -
9 EvB- Artwork 9 (Gachet) (Portraits) -

Leon Polk Smith

WERKUBERSICHT/WORK-OVERVIEW E

1952–1987

46 1/2 x 32 inches (118.1 x 81.3 cm)

Screenprint

Edition of 90

Signed, numbered, and dated along lower margin

Leon Polk Smith

WERKUBERSICHT/WORK-OVERVIEW D

1949–1987

46 1/2 x 32 inches (118.1 x 81.3 cm)

Screenprint

Edition of 90

Signed, numbered, and dated along lower margin

9 EvB- Artwork 9 (Gachet) (Portraits) -

Leon Polk Smith (1906–1996) holds a unique place in the long tradition of American geometric abstract painting, which includes such artists as Burgoyne Diller, Fritz Glarner, Al Held, and Ellsworth Kelly, among others. Smith’s printmaking activity, begun in 1965, resulted in close to seventy distinct images characterized by a lively, high-contrast color palette and buoyant forms floating on solid backgrounds. Among these are early color lithographs dating from 1968 created at Tamarind Lithography Workshop, Los Angeles, to a suite of large-format screenprints printed at Edition Domberger in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1987. Betsy Senior Fine Art is the representative for the artist’s editioned works from the Leon Polk Smith Foundation. Established by the artist himself, the Foundation has actively sought to preserve and promote Smith’s art and legacy since his death at the age of ninety in 1996.

Smith has been the subject of numerous retrospectives, and his work is included in major institutional collections such as those of the Art Institute of Chicago; Brooklyn Museum; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, D.C.; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.

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