New York

Kimber Smith

André Emmerich Gallery downtown

Kimber Smith has been around for a long time, although mostly in Europe, which is why he may seem like a new face. In fact, he has been around so long—he was born in 1929—that while his painterly abstraction is fully contemporary, it actually rests on the experience of sharing in the original flowering of Abstract-Expressionist painting in the United States.

His new paintings from 1972 and 1973 are mostly loose and light, and relaxed in an offhand way. That, combined with his expatriation, may suggest Cy Twombly, but the flavor is more like Matisse—when he charms by contented laziness, putting a daub roughly the right size in roughly the right place, as though painting from a chaise lounge—plus some older New York muscle. Also, Smith likes to use one or more geometric shapes, in a softened, painterly state to let his blobs of sometimes tasty, sometimes somber paint play against. He uses lozenge forms and repeated, loosely circular, oversized dots this way.

The lozenge, on its vertical axis, allows the painting process to consist of a reconciliation between its native clarity and geometricity (as in Noland and Kelly) and the more aimlessly lyrical, watercolor-like, thinned strokes that play around it. Also, the lozenge sets up an understated analogy between its own quadrilateral identity and that of the canvas, just as the piled-up, ragged strokes that overtake it agree with the looser scribbling in between. The lozenges get compounded too, as with an extra pair of smaller ones growing out of the main diamond shape. This configuration, combined with the asymmetrically balanced position that the compounded lozenge occupies—as in Red Smile—evokes Larry Zox, although the full-blown painterliness of Smith changes its character entirely. One work, entitled Cleo’s Blue Needle, 1973, might seem to supply an iconographic key to the lozenge motif, relating it to the faceted point of an obelisk; but the paintings don’t depend on that kind of meaning.

Gaspard de la Nuit, No. 2, 1972, a small painting using three lozenges of equal size in a radial array, is unusually gray and heavy, and somber in its effect, with dark blues and only small spots of purple. That it is still particularly lovely suggests an unusual range to Smith’s lyricism that is no doubt a benefit of his earlier experience. I am interested in this as a general problem because so much latter-day painterly abstraction deals exclusively with charming sensations and pleasant emotions, whereas the older painterliness more or less limited itself to heavy, “meaningful“ moods. I sometimes wonder whether the concept of expressionism can even extend to altogether happy emotions, and especially whether a contrivedly cheerful painting can even be truly expressionist in a centrifugal way—as the urgent emanation of a state of mind—at all. It is as if there is a criterion of intensity that works better in terms of pain than of pleasure. But the problem fades into at least temporary irrelevancy before’ Smith’s pictures.

Besides the lozenge there is another recurrent motif, a straight or curved row of roughly circular blobs linked together by a line. The appealing feature of the device is the affectionately pawing way it is realized: “lines” in between are big clumsy, inelegantly wide swipes, with the directness of finger painting, as in Roundabout—which is mainly blue and yellow, with some easygoing, if clumsy, intermixture producing a light green. Oddly, despite their modern lyricism, Smith’s paintings are not all that easy to indulge in. They have a stubborn edge and don’t want to be liked too easily, although in the light of Smith’s experience that isn’t so odd.

Joseph Masheck