PRINT September 1979

Leon Polk Smith: The Completely Self-Referential Object

Self-consciousness is only something definite, it only has real existence, in so far as it alienates itself from itself. By so doing it puts itself in the position of something universal, and this universality is its validity and its actuality.

BEING 40, AS I AM this year, is a most equivocal time of life. Like July, when I am writing this piece, the age is situated in the middle of time. Like noon, it signals a division. During most of the morning most of us have been asleep and waking up. In the afternoon we shall have to prove ourselves. However, at noon we are in the habit of taking another bite to eat. Maybe childhood is definitely over for even the most childish of us. At 40 or so, as Ingrid Bergman in a role on television last night remarked, “we are neither happy nor unhappy.” Gone is the ignorance of youth, the exultation in adulthood, the somewhat saddening lessons of our limitations. At the moment there is a certain desperation in the face of the last dance and ahead one imagines an ease in mastery born of good experience, some graceful instruction to our youngers and, if health supports, an older time in which one may be admired by people whom one now admires simply for their youth. At this strange moment, I have examined myself by coming to know Leon Polk Smith and his paintings.

Now in his 70s, Smith is at the height of his powers as a maker of abstract art. His mastery is tried and true, and his inventiveness continues to inspire other artists. For at least 25 years, Smith’s canvases have been models of the pure in art, the subject matter that is itself, the completely self-referential object. This is not to say that they have been all the same, by any means. His work has confronted and accomplished solutions to most of the issues in abstract art concerning shape, size, scale and, especially, color, and, above all, proportions within the work—the shapes of the colors in relation to each other. This work has proceeded steadily in definite series of works of which the most important are the “correspondences,” the “constellations” and what I call the “symmetries,” the latest series, as yet incomplete but demonstrating the work of a master in his prime—sure but still adventuresome: things that look and feel just right the way they are. I think it is not yet time to make the definite survey of Leon Polk Smith’s oeuvre but it is high time that it be regarded for what it is; a work of great consistency, daring in its attempts to go in directions feared or shunned by other painters (especially in his round works), and also a work which comes out of earlier abstract work and has largely given rise to hard-edge abstract art in America over the past 30 years.

The completely self-referential object has a relatively short history except to the extent that the World is the Work of God. In that context the entire world can be seen as an abstraction. Such a thought, however, makes a mockery of our language—undoubtedly a primary meaning of sacrilege. When we speak of abstract art today, we generally mean something made known by Piet Mondrian and Theo van Doesburg and their group De Stijl in Amsterdam in the 1920s. Mondrian particularly called it “Pure Plastic Art,” which has become known as “Neoplasticism.” Although plastic was a Greek term originally applied to something moulded or shaped, e.g. sculpture, it has long been applied likewise to painting. It was a new kind of plastic art, that which arose out of itself. This art was (and still is) also referred to as Constructivist because in some of its manifestations it appeared to utilize some of the principles of the building trades in terms of making things that did not (or that did not appear to) fall down. I think that analogy with building is antithetical to the original concept and to the ideas of its advocates, including Leon Polk Smith. Pure Plastic Art is Really Abstract. Constructivism is more of a critical conceit. After all, one has to say something! Abstract art was a reaction to the relatively recent developments in painting which took something in nature and made it look strange, of which Cubism is the most famous example. Hence the confusion between “abstraction” and “abstract art.” An abstraction is still a picture of something else. A work of abstract art refers to nothing else and never did.

In his recent essays in Art Monthly (London) Peter Fuller makes a convincing case for the transcendental nature of New York School painting in the ’40s. He claims, in effect, that Abstract Expressionism arose out of Realism and Surrealism. Of this group of painters, Fuller writes:

They sought to create visual equivalents not just for dreams, or immediate perceptions, but also for a wide range of experiences including anguish, hope, alienation, physical sensations, suffering, unconscious imagery, passion and historical sentiments. They had little in common except their desperate desire to seize hold of this new subject matter.1

These assertions, which will be regarded as controversial in this country, where critics and artists tend to lean too heavily on the legitimacy of AE, nevertheless point out, accurately I think, the essentially representational goals and effects of these painters, whom Fuller regards as having failed to communicate the new subject matter. Robert Motherwell, one of the last surviving Abstract Expressionists and long one of their speakers, published a passionate essay about art and society in 1944. Here Motherwell refers to Mondrian, rather disparagingly, as an inventor of the “first technical advance in painting since the greatest of our discoveries, the papier collé.” From a slightly Marxian point of view, Motherwell claimed that “Mondrian accepted most simply that debased social values provide no social content . . . hence the tendency of modern painters to paint for each other . . . ”2 It was to be another 20 years before Motherwell’s rhetoric would be seen as “literary”—a potent poison during the 1960s, when hard-edge American painting came into its own with the emergence of Robert Indiana, Ellsworth Kelly, Leon Polk Smith and others. In the meantime, pure plastic art had been kept alive through the dangerous ’40s and ’50s by a small coterie of people who admired Mondrian very much and understood him rather well, including Fritz Glarner (whose Relational Painting, 1949–51, hanging at the Whitney, is usually taken for a Mondrian, although the Whitney would hardly show Mondrian, because he lived too briefly in the realm of American art) and Burgoyne Diller and, again, Leon Polk Smith. It is here, in the coincidence of these two little lists, I think, that we can begin to sort out the uniqueness of Smith’s work and look for his ability to continue working with great consistency while transcending critical categories. By the time hard-edge painters were making their big career push, Leon Polk Smith was already regarded as established. Both Lawrence Alloway, in an essay reprinted in his Topics in American Art, and Nicholas Calas, in his book Images and Icons of the 1960s, devoted considerable attention to Smith’s pioneering work in abstract art. Both of them credited him with being the first hard-edge painter of the postwar period. But, as I have suggested, his roots go considerably further back.

Back, precisely, to Mondrian. Here is a quotation from this prolific writer, whose essays are out of print in English:

The laws that have become more and more determinate in the culture of art are the great hidden laws of nature which art establishes in its own fashion. It is necessary to stress the fact that these laws are more or less hidden behind the superficial aspect of nature. Abstract art is therefore opposed to a natural representation of things, but it is not opposed to nature as is generally thought. . . . First and foremost there is the fundamental law of equilibrium necessitated by particular forms . . . non-figurative art demands . . . the destruction of particular form and the construction of a rhythm of mutual relations, of mutual forms of free lines. . . .3

Leon Polk Smith first heard about Mondrian when he was a student at Teachers College, Columbia, in the late 1930s, where he had gone from his native Oklahoma in search of the best training he could get as a teacher. “In studio work, I studied with Ryah Ludins, a very intelligent woman who was a naturalistic painter herself, but there were no bounds to her appreciation. From questions I’d ask in class, she told me, she got the idea that she was not teaching what I really wanted to know. One day after class she said to me I want to take you to a collection down at New York University, the Gallatin Collection of Arp, Brancusi and Mondrian. She spent hours several times talking to me about these artists. And she said these are the greatest artists in the world today, the most advanced.”

After his graduation, in 1938, Smith spent about ten years, mainly out of New York, as a teacher in Georgia, Delaware and Florida, and during this time he was preoccupied with formal problems posed in Europe a generation before the De Stijl group, especially Mondrian. In fact until about 1952 he used the work of Mondrian as a virtual subject matter. The best and most obvious work of this type was that represented by Smith’s well-known work of 1947–8, Diagonal Passage 120 (Cleveland Museum). Although only right angles are present in this painting, there is a very strong diagonal force field to it, which Mondrian never permitted himself to use, being a partisan of North-South, East-West forces. It is also significant that this work is round, a shape Smith has used for many of his most successful paintings through his life. Smith: “Mondrian was my great influence and he was my last influence. I haven’t seen a painting by any artist since the ’40s that has given me an idea about color or form.” In my opinion, Mondrian’s influence on Smith is generally over-emphasized in the Smith bibliographic materials. I think this has given rise to a myth that Smith is a European type of painter. Although he acknowledges antecedents, Smith’s work is highly and clearly American.

Smith began painting rather late in life. “I was in the latter half of my 20s in my last year in college and I had never been to a gallery nor a museum. I had never seen an original painting nor an artist up to that time. I had a course in painting the last year at college, and early in that term I felt I had always been an artist.” This was in Ada, Oklahoma, where Smith was born in 1906 on a homestead outside town, at about the same time Oklahoma became a state. In the early ’30s at East Central State College, Smith painted “cows and oil wells and Indians and so forth.” In the late ’30s, he was abstracting from such things. Container Corporation asked for one of his paintings for their image ads about this time. “They paid me $35 to do that and they were going to pay me $75 if they selected it, but they said it was too abstract, people wouldn’t understand it, so they sent it back to me.” One of his early paintings which portends his later work is mainly composed of a large shape with two dots on it. It is a map of Oklahoma with Oklahoma City and Ada pointed out. These early paintings as well as his Black Woman and White Woman, of 1940, can all be seen as shapes and colors even where the subject matter is recognizable. Never did Smith paint subjects that were emotional or literary.

His first solo show was held at the Uptown Gallery, New York, in 1941, while he was a teacher in Georgia. The reviewer for Art News remarked, “His quite original style bears more traces of the Southwest than of the Deep South for it has breadth of feeling and assurance rather than a tendency to be traditional.” Smith’s “very elaborate designs, almost Persian” were also noted. During the ’40s, Smith possibly made up for lost time because he was very prolific, producing work in what could be regarded as four different series more or less simultaneously. However, it should be remembered that this was before most painters thought of themselves as working in series. Because of the tradition that subject matter would be different each time one took up the brushes, each work was regarded as a world in itself. It was rare before the ’60s that artists thought of themselves as working through a complete line of thought, like an essayist, before turning to the next. Today painters who had been doing series of paintings, such as Kes Zapkus and Alan Cote, in their most recent shows have works which vary considerably from one to the next. Leon Polk Smith has survived many such swings of the pendulum of fashion. The four types of work which I would single out from the ’40s are, in some kind of ascension unrelated to their dates: (1) the “inch-square” pieces which show an overall grid in which some of the squares are articulated and some aren’t, e.g. Inch Squares #3, 1948–49, including the somewhat different Homage to Victory Boogie Woogie No. 1, of 1946–47; (2) a group which could be called “column” pieces, including such as Center Column, of 1945, and the exciting composition G. W. B., of 1945, which Denise René included in the elaborate Smith catalogue of 1972; (3) the “diagonal” works, including the Cleveland possession already mentioned and Diagonal Passage #3, of 1949, a square yard intended to be hung with one corner upright; (4) the “articulation” group, the most original and the most accomplished of the lot, e.g. Red-Black, 1946–47, Gray-Yellow-Black Exchange, 1947, and Black-White Definitions, 1946–47.

The articulation paintings are Smith’s first masterpieces, and as such they bear a further look. The paintings are good sized, about three or four feet for the longest dimension, but not huge. The forms are very simple, in what Smith felt were like alphabetical shapes; although there is, in fact, only the occasional “L” and what Alloway said were like cattle brands—(I don’t know what cattle brands are like but I thought they were X-K). In these paintings there are simple articulations, as when a little child first says a complete sentence such as “Yes, I would.” As in the inch-square paintings, it can be assumed that there existed a grid of lines, not inch-squares but equidistant. However the articulations are not filled in, they are drawn. The grid, if indeed there was one, lacks importance. A medieval city such as Iruña (Pamplona to us) has all the marks of being a well-planned town that has hardly grown at all over the ages, but it has of course been rebuilt many times, piecemeal. This is somehow what Smith’s articulation paintings are like—they don’t look like a town plan at all, but they share a certain disregard for the plans that may have underlaid them. Not only that, but in these paintings, Smith began his long investigations of the relationships among colors and forms in precise terms. Of course, all painting is investigation of this sort to some extent. But Smith adopts parameters, e.g. the use of two or three colors, the two directional convention of the grid, the rule that the forms may not touch the edge, and in Gray-Yellow-Black Exchange, the flip-flop ambiguity of ground-figure changes in color. Although these paintings are very carefully painted, they are still obviously drawn, and the eye is intrigued through what are neither mazes, streets nor alphabets to see a composition of extreme complexity and subtle irregularities of every possibility within the rules it shows.

Painters do not necessarily change their styles by the decade any more than they necessarily produce a new series every several months. However, in the ’50s Leon Polk Smith’s work became classical. He stepped away from his predecessors and his early competitors, such as Diller and Glarner, and he become father of abstract art as we know it today. I like to refer to this event, which occurred in 1953, as the moment when Leon Polk Smith trespassed in outer space. Having painted through very many of the N-S, E-W and diagonal force fields which occurred to him to use, and having begun to utilize the circular canvas (which some people call “tondo,” an abbreviation of the Italian word “rotondo” meaning round), Smith produced a series of 12 paintings, of which the first was called, appropriately, First One, in 1954. I want here to quote at length from an interview I did with Smith in January 1979, and then I’ll return to his classical paintings.

Smith: “One thing I have always been interested in—one of the main elements of art that has interested me—is the space concept in it. What was the artist’s concept of space, from the cave paintings on up? If the wall came out like this, in the cave paintings, they would use that for maybe the shoulders of a buffalo, and then there was low relief and high relief, and also perspective, which was an awful thing they invented, and on into Cubism and then into Constructivism. And since Mondrian it has changed again. In Mondrian, vertical meant up and down, horizontal meant out. That no longer works. . . . Vertical isn’t necessarily up—it could be, but any direction could be up. In outer space there’s really no left nor right nor up nor down. So those old concepts don’t make sense.”

He first investigated planetary space. In a long series of works that came to be known as “Correspondences” Smith divided spaces into two and sometimes three parts. In an art with some parallels to cartography but no similarities to it, he would draw a line on a canvas which he first contemplated for some time. Just as on Earth, where the straightest line is clearly curved, these lines were generally curved, in fact none more so than the line in First One.

Smith: “In most of my paintings the drawings came right on the canvas. I really have a feeling for a certain size canvas and the proportion. Not knowing what I was going to paint, I’d stretch the canvas, hang it on the wall and sit down and just look at the canvas. And often I would get a feeling, I would just see it on there. Then I’d get up to draw it. And there’d be very little change.”

Between 1953, when he painted Black-White Duet with Red, and 1976, when he began his current series of works with No. 7601, Smith’s space treatments were entirely beyond the Constructivist ken and canon. It was during this time that he made the larger part of his work, and in this work he was principally concerned with the relationship of form and color.

Smith: “Somewhat by accident, while drawing with free line on a spherical surface, I observed a situation wherein the idea of space and form were complimentary to each other as well as interchangeable. After many of these drawings I was able to carry this situation over into paintings on a circular format. And not until I had done more than a dozen of the circular paintings could I achieve this interchangeable use of space and form on a rectangular canvas.”4

Here we have Smith’s classicism. Essentially there are two colors. Usually they were colors straight out of the tube. He found out that you could juxtapose any two colors if you had them in the right proportion. The paintings became larger, the surface completely smooth and neutral, yet somehow more “interesting” for being made of brushed oil paint. In all of these very many paintings there is a lifelike sort of tension created when the two colors activate each other. It is as if Smith took the vectors and force-fields of traditional painting and caused them to mass along the borders of his line, contending like armies for the space. As he gained more and more experience with this essentially very simple procedure, he undertook extreme variations, some more successful than others. Correspondence: Orange-Blue, of 1965, which I saw in Alloway’s “Systemic Painting” show at the Guggenheim in 1966, seems to me less compelling than the Correspondence: Blue-Yellow, of 1963, which was shown in Smith’s most recent solo show in New York, last April. At the same time, some of the others in that show did not come close to the power, the visual force of his later works, four of which were shown together in a separate room. But it is the “Correspondence” paintings which establish Smith as a modern master, I think, because of the extent of his variations on a really simple concept. During all of this time, with few exceptions (such as Moon, of 1958), Smith’s line of force created asymmetrical compositions of color which intensify the experience of the whole.

It was during the ’50s that other artists began to work in the hard edge style. Alloway, one of the first to use the term, explained: “The purpose of it was to refer to the new development which combined economy of form and neatness of surface with fullness of color without raising memories of earlier geometric art.”5 Betty Parsons opened an adjunct to her gallery called Section 11, where she showed Leon Polk Smith, Paul Feeley, Agnes Martin, Robert Indiana, Barnett Newman, Ellsworth Kelly and other hard-edge painters. Smith had a solo show there in 1958.

It was during this period, too, that people began to notice similarities between the work of Smith and the work of Kelly. Both did large paintings with two forms, often in two colors. However, their work was so essentially different it is hard to see how much confusion could persist. But it did. Smith, the master of tension, form and color, thinks that Kelly was influenced by his work for ten or fifteen years. One can certainly see similarities. In Diane Waldman’s compilation of Kelly’s sketches and studies (Smith has never made sketches or studies for paintings) the greatest similarities of form seem to occur between 1956 and 1962, especially in such shapes as White Form, Study for “PALM,” Study for a sculpture and Study for Bay. Kelly also made the serial panels, for which he became well known, which bear no relation to Smith’s work. Both acknowledge that they exchanged studio visits in the mid-’50s, and Kelly remembers Smith borrowing one of his small works to show to his students at Mills College. I asked Kelly about the similarities and he said he had never been influenced by Smith, but that he always had thought of him as the best of the hard-edge painters. Concerning Kelly, Smith told me: “I think he’s a good painter. I don’t think he has a lot of originality. Most every painting he does you can see whose painting inspired it. But he makes it his own, that’s why he’s a good painter.” The adjudication of these controversies is perhaps best left to the smoothing dust of time, but in this case Kelly’s progress has tended to daunt Smith’s recognition most unjustifiably. Moreover, there is no absolute originality in art, and every work is a summation of one’s experience and a valediction on other art. Nobody owns ideas, and stylistic similarities are common among painters working in the same milieu. Or, as T. S. Eliot remarked forthrightly, “Minor poets borrow; great poets steal.”

During the period of the “Correspondences,” Smith also made a large number of collages and drawings, few of which have ever been shown. One of his most interesting types of “drawing” is done by tearing a sheet of paper that is colored on one side and white on the other. What results is a single white line in the midst of two color fields. In the early ’60s, while he was doing the “Correspondences,” he made a number of sculptures out of different materials, metals and wood. Some of them were stainless steel wires forming a single line which, viewed in certain ways, could divide space in much the same way as his paintings divided up planetary space. In an interview given in 1964 Smith talked about his line:

I am not just drawing one form; I am drawing two forms with one line, and I am having to think of both sides of the line, feel both sides, know both sides and one side is no more important to me than the other. . . . I will get up and draw this one line through the canvas which creates two forms, one on either side of the line, and while I am drawing this line it seems that I am traveling many, many miles in space instead of just 50 or 60 inches or whatever the canvas happens to be, and I begin to feel the tensions develop and the forces working on either side of this line, there is often a color suggested, usually the color that I am going to use comes to me before the line reaches the other side of the canvas.6

In a painting like White Yellow Deep, of 1964, one sees the beginning of a search for new modes. Although there are still two colors, there is a clear, nearly symmetrical shape. This also occurs in one of the last “Correspondences,” Blue-Black, of 1967. Here it seems to me Smith was looking for a way to “project” his compositions in space. He found a way which reminds one strongly of his rectangular painting G.W.B. (George Washington Bridge), of 1945. There he has various kinds of interchangeable negative-positive spaces painted as units that almost trick the eye.

Beginning in 1968, Smith made his “Constellations,” which are round or oval canvases attached together tangentially and usually, hung on the wall, although they could be attached to the ceiling—and I have seen them in his studio on the floor where they look just as good. Groups of stars, of course, probably look good from any point of view, although we have had as yet little opportunity to study them from any other place than here. These “Constellations” do not relate to any stars we know. They are completely self-referential objects. More than his other works, I think these pieces are foiled by reduction and reproduction. One sees color in space. Slightly akin to, for example, Richard Smith’s “kites,” they are likewise not sculpture but paintings that display spatial concepts in a unique manner. You might almost call them lyrical, except that there is nothing chancy or linguistic about these paintings which neither soar nor fly nor divide but unite space in a way that could be called a universal style. The paintings utilize Smith’s long experience with circular shapes in a way that is less daring than his single round or oval paintings such as Okemah or Black Rock, of 1955, (in that period his titles were place names in Oklahoma) and also more showy, more confident, more exuberant, in the way of Stonewall, 1956 or Kockeche, 1957. Such works as Consbell E, 1968, Constellation No. 2, 1974, and Constellation No. 12: Yellow-Blue, 1972, unite the mastery of color and space within the canvas to the mastery of the space around the canvas. The “Constellations” grew out of a related type of painting which Smith labelled “Modular.” These works were made up of many identical squares with rounded edges placed in symmetrical groups, showing the wall behind between. These, to my mind, are Smith’s least successful and most decorative works. But if he had to go through them to achieve the “Constellations,” it was worth it.

Finally it is time to make a remark or two about art that isn’t finished yet, Smith’s work of the last three years, his “Symmetries.” He thinks of them as going back to his work of the ’40s and “bringing Constructivism up to date.” I see what he means, but I do not think of these works as commentary on his early work, nor do they seem to me very Constructivistic. They are huge symmetrical forms, so far all in black and white. Having discovered years ago that it is possible to juxtapose any two colors, Leon Polk Smith has now achieved the position where he can use any form he pleases. In a room full of four of these works shown this year, one saw his most masterful images, the cross, the square, the ellipse, and, of course, the circle. The most haunting of all his paintings, to me, is 7809. In my memory it has a quality of the sketch of a genius, but in fact it is as carefully executed as any of his paintings, though in acrylic rather than in oil. I see it as a sketch of part of the universe, but not something too highly conceived, like the passage between two thoughts. To judge by some of his recent paintings on paper, forms such as that of 7610, done in 1976, will probably continue to engage his attention.

In 1966 Smith and his assistant, Bob Jamieson, moved to a house in Shoreham Village on Long Island which they had been looking for years to find. In 1978 they moved back to New York, building a huge studio on a high floor overlooking both Union Square and the Hudson River. Smith is ready to do more work and it is time for his whole oeuvre to be seen in a major museum retrospective. As in the case of Matisse, Smith’s importance has always been controversial. He has friends and partisans as well as enemies and detractors. At least he did have in the past. I think the situation now is clearer. His is an achievement of heroic proportions, but as yet he is an unsung hero. His heroism is rather stoical—a lifetime spent working in concord with general principles and without regard to fashion. In an art world such as ours, which is so fashion-conscious that painting often displays nothing more than fashion, such a modest hero as Leon Polk Smith regards his achievements as speaking for themselves. Being pure examples of “Abstract Art,” completely self-referential, they don’t shout for attention. They wait for us to need them.

Some were certainly wanting to be doing what this one was doing that is were wanting to be ones clearly expressing something. Some of such of them did not go on in being ones wanting to be doing what this one was doing that is in being ones clearly expressing something. Some went on being ones wanting to be doing what this one was doing that is, being ones clearly expressing something. Certainly this one was one who was a great man. Any one could be certain of this thing. Every one would come to be certain of this thing. This one was certainly clearly expressing something. Any one could come to be certain of this thing. Every one would come to be certain of this thing. This one was one, some were quite certain, one greatly expressing something being struggling. This one was one, some were quite certain, one not greatly expressing something being struggling.7

Ted Castle



1. Peter Fuller “American painting since the last war,” Art Monthly, No. 27 (p. 8, 1978), continuing in No. 28. (London, 1978).

2. Robert Motherwell, “The Modern Painter’s World” (1944), in Barbara Rose, ed., Readings in American Art Since 1900, New York, 1968, p.133.

3. Piet Mondrian, Plastic Art and Pure Plastic Art, New York, 1945, pp. 50–63.

4. Leon Polk Smith, “Statement” (1961), unpublished.

5. Lawrence Alloway, “Systemic Painting” (1966) in his Topics in American Art since 1945, New York, 1975 p. 79, which also includes Alloway’s “Leon Polk Smith” (1968).

6. D’Arcy Hayman and Leon Polk Smith, “The Art of Leon Polk Smith,” in Art and Literature (Lausanne), No. 3, (1964), pp. 82–103.

7. Gertrude Stein, “A Portrait of Matisse,” in Selected Writings of Gertrude Stein, New York, 1945, pp. 332-2. Quoted is the entire last paragraph. Gertrude Stein’s work is an enthusiasm than Smith and I share, and this portrait is one of his favorite works of hers. It is easier to read it aloud.