New York

Leon Polk Smith

Jason McCoy Gallery

“Geometrical abstraction” often tends toward the iconic. It seeks reduction to a contemplative essence that can monopolize the viewer’s attention. Such works—Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings, for instance—rebuff close hanging, all the more so when it comes to similar works by a single artist. So perhaps Leon Polk Smith had a point to make by crowding two not-very-large rooms with no less than sixteen substantial paintings (some of them already seen at his 1995–96 retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum) made between 1990 and 1994, for what sadly turned out to be the last solo show of his life. These works are dynamic and expansive but never in a self-aggrandizing or overbearing way, so that they can rub shoulders, even jostle one another without getting bent out of shape.

Common to all but two of the earliest paintings collected here is a contraction of pictorial means to lines (generally black but sometimes white) on a monochrome ground (often very light gray, though Smith also used a wide range of other colors). The canvases are rectangular or circular. (Tondos were a specialty of Smith’s; his use of the form dates to at least the mid ’40s.) The lines are consistently contained by the painting’s field rather than intersecting its edges. As a result, especially in those works with the quite neutral light gray grounds, the lines hardly interact with the real space surrounding the paintings but seem rather to describe, diagrammatically, pictorial structures existing in some ideal space. Indeed, the self-containment of Smith’s compositions is such that the paintings can be hung differently without suffering, so that paintings illustrated as vertical in the catalogue (Big Space—Black Line, 1990; Equinoctial, 1993) were finally shown horizontally. The width of the line varies greatly, and this variety contributes much to the particular velocity or languor, delicacy or bluntness, proper to each painting. That the artist took great care with the width of his lines is evident from the revisions they have sometimes undergone. The white lines in Event in Black, 1994, for instance, were reduced to about a third of their original thickness with brushstrokes in which the painter’s “hand” remains far more evident than in the typically uninflected ground that surrounds them. In general, Smith took a relaxed stance toward such surface properties as his grounds. In Jubilee Square, 1994 the gray field reveals considerable adjustment of the placement of the black lines.

Henry James wrote that “as certain elements in any work are of the essence, so others are only of the form; that as this or that character, this or that disposition of the material, belongs to the subject directly, so to speak, so this or that other belongs to it but indirectly—belongs indirectly to the treatment.” While there is nothing portentous, no self-conscious summing-up in these paintings, they evidence the depth of their maker’s experience (he was born in 1906) in the ease with which they give the illusion of going directly to their subject, of nearly doing without what the novelist calls “form” or “treatment.” That this is an illusion we know from just those alterations Smith was happy to let us see. He knew that the strong illusions of art have nothing to fear from the contradictions they can contain.

Barry Schwabsky