PRINT March 1975

Alvin Smith

ALVIN SMITH’S EXHIBITION OF new paintings, currently on view (March 4–31) at Amherst College’s Mead Art Gallery, projects a refined depth of sensibility, as well as an admirable aim for making decipherable artistic statements with limited color. This exhibition marks the first exposure of a full complement of the artist’s works since he exhibited, in 1971, at the Musée Rath, Geneva, Switzerland (a show which I directed). It also culminates a year of work as Artist-in-Residence at Amherst College in Massachusetts. Appropriately enough, this collection of paintings is called the Amherst Series.

The use of color in painting is used to describe or suggest a variety of affective meanings, and/or it can also serve to code people, objects, forms. Paul Jenkins and Clyfford Still, to cite two excellent examples, place great reliance on color as a means of projecting those psychological energies and tensions that formed the basis of their dominant interests, while such artists as Fairfield Porter and Alex Katz more obviously concern themselves with an analytic use of chroma to delineate forms and objects. There are artists, of course, who often combine these functions of color in single works. However, Smith, whose work I’ve been privileged to watch for several years, lends to the affective potentials of color his own highly charged organic sensibility.

The precise reasons that prompt an artist to embrace a particular style have much to do with his individual set of life circumstances and studio experiences. Smith’s earliest training was highly representational in the academic mode. One assumes that his present choice to avoid the documenting and storytelling aspects of painting emanates from his conscious rejection of this former restricting experience. The rigidly formularized primary color harmonies emphasized during those early years have now been replaced by a careful selection and pairing of color relationships that are commanding in impact. His formidable use of color as expression was never more evident than, for instance, in two large canvases, namely Mylai and In Memoriam: Orangeburg, that he exhibited in Geneva; they depicted the horrors of war, and the pervasive social injustices here at home, with such potency as to render him an artist from whom we had every right to expect much in the way of continued artistic growth. The painting Purple Triangle (1973–74) represents the conclusion of a series of works that basically played upon an emotional as well as optical use of color. In his most recent works, Smith explores the possibilities of irregular edges and looser handling of paint that further enhances his emotive drive.

When I asked him if the jagged and often encrusted edges (so distinguishable in his Amherst Series of immense canvases) represent an “organic” approach to painting, Smith responded in the affirmative: “The leading edges of most of this series of painting strive to replicate a variety of growth patterns (and even decay) one so readily associates with evolution in nature. I found this exciting! I pursue this course, as opposed to a direction that gives greater importance to the invention of so-called emblematic and symbolic forms, because I find the latter approach no longer challenging.” This new stylistic modus operandi obviously offers Smith a great deal of personal gratification—no doubt occasioned by the very challenge and emotional excitement he himself reveals. The relatively vacant, torpid central areas of Smith’s latest works, which are basically monochromatic, assume an associative importance mainly because of the organic edges that form their perimeter.

Essentially, most artists share a mutual disdain for being labeled or categorized because of their constant creative development, which may well move them—with great frequency—from one idiom to the next. If we are going to distinguish an innovator from the masses of his fellow creators, then it seems entirely appropriate to single out just what his distinguishing skills and attributes are. I feel the best way to highlight the uniqueness of Smith’s painting style is to term it “organic reductivism.” Smith’s earthy manipulation of color on alternating edges of many of his hybrid canvases would subvert any attempt to classify them as exclusively intellectual exercises. The enormous sweep of smooth color (Untitled, Plum, #2, 1975) that dominates most of his paintings is often halted at one or more of the canvas’s edges by a textural barrier as in another large work, Untitled, Yellow, #1 (1975). Even though Smith’s new works normally incorporate mossy, textured elements, the singular forcefulness of a dominant hue reads with pronounced clarity.

Since Olitski also makes use of edges in his painting, some viewers may relate the current works of Alvin Smith to that artist. If there are seeming parallels between the styles of the two painters, a closer examination will reveal considerable differences. For instance, Olitski usually holds his line to one or more edges of his canvases, while all other surfaces of the canvases are repeatedly sprayed with many layers of paint. Such is not the case with Alvin Smith, who invariably utilizes more than one edge of his paintings and very definitely changes tactility from canvas to canvas. Moreover, Smith dares to use highly saturated, bright colors (that are applied by a brayer, palette knife, and by hand), rarely seen in Olitski’s process.

As in the orphic works of Robert Delaunay, color in the paintings of Alvin Smith functions both as subject and form. The dynamic relationships of related colors in each of his works interact to create pleasing visual tensions, further establishing a kind of color asymmetry. Despite the inclusion of texture in his color works, Smith has not made an attempt to use it as an illusionistic device—that is, there does not exist in the artist’s compositions a conspicuous use of color to give a semblance of depth or perspective.

Most notable in Smith’s evolution (1971–75) has been a lessening of his dependence on a variety of geometric forms to support the emotional impact of color. These striking, new fluid works—in square and rectangular format—do far more than use paint to titillate one’s visual senses. It is true that these metaphors of Alvin Smith cannot be paraphrased. Nevertheless, the gamut of his emotional references is a wide one, ranging upward from tempered serenity to a serious joy and, finally, to powerful celebration.

Henri Ghent