New York

Kimber Smith, Egyptian Rose Garden, 1976, acrylic on canvas, 68 x 65".

Kimber Smith, Egyptian Rose Garden, 1976, acrylic on canvas, 68 x 65".

Kimber Smith

James Graham & Sons

Kimber Smith, Egyptian Rose Garden, 1976, acrylic on canvas, 68 x 65".

Kimber Smith might not be a household name, but his paintings from the 1960s and ’70s are knockouts, some of the most formidable to be on view in our moment of near-ubiquitous abstraction. A second-generation Abstract Expressionist better known for his friendships with Helen Frankenthaler and Joan Mitchell than for his own work, Smith spent more than a decade in Paris, where he encountered Annette Michelson in 1964, who called him the “most serious and consequential” of his community of expats. Smith returned to the United States the following year. A few years earlier he had switched from oil to acrylic, and in the late ’60s he would embark on a three-year affair with spray paint. But it is his works from the ’70s (which comprise the bulk of this show) that best demonstrate Smith’s capacity for working his medium—precisely by underscoring his refusal to do so, his willingness to paint only enough washy, brilliantly highlighted strokes to secure a composition amid otherwise empty space (as in the sparely monumental Carnival, 1974, and Friday the Fourteenth, 1979).

Hung together with more muted gouache-on-paper pieces (which often feature bands of circles or linear elements close to the borders, and generally redouble the shapes in the paintings, though in different configurations), the paintings evidence Smith’s thoughtful approach. His plays of color and pattern are neither based on the grid nor do they arise from operations of chance; instead, they are rooted in deliberations about the forms’ relationships to a painting’s edges, say, or the translucent veils of color that Smith left to dry before the application of more paint. The latter consideration—and its avoidance of the durational process of applying wet onto wet (as exemplified by de Kooning’s work)—is especially striking in Egyptian Rose Garden, 1976, where the tangerine cuts across the yellow laid down first. Elsewhere in the same work, one finds shades that do not so much mix as effect perceptibly distinct strata: color over color.

Smith’s works feature a personal lexicon of symbolic shapes—orbs, triangles, rectangles, zigzags, and lozenges—the iconography of which he derived from the minutiae of his quotidian experience: For example, the omnipresent triangles (many limn the sides of panels, as in Back from G H, 1979) refer to the ears of his cat. The paintings nevertheless appear unburdened, and retain an improvisatory and even unfinished quality. The implied insouciance belies Smith’s thoughtfulness, evoking latter-day equivalents of Matisse’s hedonistic, barely abstract thresholds. Indeed, though the paintings from the 1970s were completed in the wake of Smith’s diagnosis of cancer, which precipitated his move to Long Island and ended his life prematurely in 1981, they remain remarkably un-marred by the histrionics that biographical fact might betoken.

To Smith’s immense credit, his work has remained bracingly fresh as it has wafted across the years. The palettes are particularly convincing: They are sentimental and lush and acid all at once. And it doesn’t take long looking at such efforts before the inevitable comparisons arise: to Mary Heilmann, Michael Krebber, and the list goes on. Like those artists, Smith seems to have anticipated much recent practice; his work is oriented toward a studied—even self-reflexive—casualness that admits its precedents even as it disregards the consequences of painting as though they mattered. But Smith deserves to be viewed as more than a bridge (a role Morris Louis famously attributed to Frankenthaler, claiming she was “the bridge between Pollock and what was possible”). This show argued that Smith is important as an innovator in his own right, and it easily convinced.

Suzanne Hudson