PRINT March 1997


Leon Polk Smith

LEON POLK SMITH was born in what was then known as Indian Territory and a year later, in 1907, as Oklahoma. Both his parents were part Cherokee, and many of their neighbors were Chickasaws and Choctaws. Smith was to speak with warmth about the Native American stories, songs, and rituals he learned as a child. His heritage would put him at odds neither with contemporary America nor with Modernism; in fact the spirituality of the Native Americans, he felt, attuned him to the present and its possibilities.

Attending Oklahoma State College as a young man, Smith passed an open door that showed him an art class in progress, and realized for the first time—and with utter certainty—that he would become a painter. Another, later flash showed him that painting has a destiny as well as a history—or, anyway, that certain Modernists were trying to give it one. This moment came in 1936, in the galleries on Manhattan’s Washington Square that housed the collection of Albert E. Gallatin (now in the Philadelphia Museum of Art). Here Smith saw works by Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi, and other European avant-gardists. The most dazzling for him was Piet Mondrian. Other young Americans, equally dazzled, became Mondrian’s disciples; Smith, however, reinvented him, and thus invented himself.

America defines itself spatially, in terms supplied by a vast geography. Europe takes its defining terms from time, from history. Mondrian’s forms show us narrative in a distilled state—composition as the traceable story of its own coming into being. And each of his works was to be read as an early episode in the story of European culture achieving its utopian potential. Tearing down and rebuilding the geometry he learned from Mondrian, Smith opened painting to the currents of the American infinite, which submerge time and carry the individual into a New World utopia, private and unbounded.

That’s where and how Smith lived, and he expected his example to be followed—we all, he thought, should be as uncompromisingly independent as he was. That so few of us are so free disappointed him, and may account for some of his famous irascibility, which flared up suddenly and subsided as fast. Mostly, though, he was calm and collected, and relentlessly attentive to the moment.

For years he lived with Bob Jamieson on an upper floor of a building overlooking Union Square. This was first and last a place of work, yet it was unburdened by the clutter so often found in artists’ studios—the residue of light manufacturing carried on in fits and starts. Smith’s studio was immaculate because he never sank to the desperation of toil, of drudgery in the service of an idea, a style. His working process was steady, and from that steadiness flowed five decades of innovation.

Last season’s retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum showed how clearly Smith saw his options. Of course it’s hard to get lost when the path you follow is the one you blaze yourself, in confident isolation. Yet Smith did not advance directly from the Modernist abstraction of the ’30s to the clarity and openness of his late work. At crucial moments he took lateral leaps. These moves were never rushed; nor were they anticipated. He knew that when it was necessary, he’d leap—or sail—in the right direction.

Needing no art-world cues, Smith had no reason to live in an art neighborhood. He chose his Union Square studio for its spaciousness and, possibly, for its distance from SoHo. In recent years, the streets around the north end of the square have become a fringe of the models-and-photographers district, which reaches up Park Avenue into the 20s. Leon’s studio floated above all that. With a day’s work done, he and Bob would sit in the zone of the loft that served as a living room. Sometimes friends would assemble, for drinks or hors d’oeuvres, as late-afternoon light swept into the white-walled space.

Smith would talk about his life—his schooling, his friendship with Martha Graham, an early meeting with Willem de Kooning. Though his history was long, his imagination was not historical: with his precise and seamless memory, he could make any detail of his past seem present, a nuance of the moment at hand, which opened onto the infinite of his art. A few years before his death, Smith said, “I can’t imagine that there is an end to space,” and he saw a meaning in that endlessness. It tells us, he said, that we are “to keep going, to be optimistic.”

Smith joined no groups, followed no trends. For more than half a century he worked alone, with the certainty of an artist unable to do otherwise. It’s tempting to say that in his Emersonian self-reliance, he was the quintessential American painter. To argue that point, you need a definition of America, and there are as many of those as there are people willing to hazard one—which, I believe, Smith did in his art. His paintings give us a glimpse of the faith in possibility that belongs to the earliest ideas of what America might become.

Carter Ratcliff is the author, most recently, of Fate of a Gesture: Jackson Pollock and Postwar American Art.