New York

Leon Polk Smith

Galerie Denise René

Leon Polk Smith’s recent exhibition of some 24 paintings spanned more than a quarter-century. The work has been consistently abstract and geometric, although it has run a gamut of styles. It is difficult for me to know how accurately this exhibition represents Smith’s achievement, but taken at face value it seems very uneven. Some of the earliest work is best, particularly Black-White Repeat which dates from 1953, but is similar to Red-Black from 1946-47. Together they establish Smith’s interest in combining shapes so they are equally and ambiguously positive and negative. However, others from the same period seem obviously derived from Mondrian and Klee and result in a very precious geometry. Smith’s paintings from the late ’50s are austere now and must have seemed more so then. This work and that done in the ’60s is, at its best, similar to but not quite as critical as Kelly’s. When it veers away from extreme simplicity, it suggests Youngerman and Feeley. Smith’s shapes remain truer to their Constructivist sources than Kelly’s, and when they do become more organic they always retain a certain fussiness. Smith never lets his line become as smooth or unencumbered as Kelly’s, nor are his relationships of figure and ground often as daring. In many of the recent paintings, the color is shrill and the configurations complicated. A constellation from 1971 is an irregular group of small round-cornered canvases on which a portion of a circle is painted in different colors. I find the most recent work rather weak; it is as if the uninteresting ideas Smith has had all along have finally overcome the interesting ones. The good paintings suggest that it might have been a better exhibition.

Roberta Smith