New York

Leon Polk Smith, Untitled, 1953, pencil and collage on paper, 18 × 12 3⁄4".

Leon Polk Smith, Untitled, 1953, pencil and collage on paper, 18 × 12 3⁄4".

Leon Polk Smith

Senior & Shopmaker Gallery

This exhibition of fifteen small, intimate, and oddly fugitive works on paper—prints, drawings, and collages—by the late Leon Polk Smith (1906–1996) gave the viewer a glimpse into the sundry phases of thinking and making that marked the long career of this twentieth-century painter. Smith tackled a range of movements that focused on abstraction, from De Stijl to hard-edge painting and even Minimalism. But such labels tell us little about his singular success in giving precise aesthetic purpose to geometrical form and vivid hues.

Take Little Dogies at Night, 1942, which features an eccentric grid of squares and rectangles depicted in black, white, gray, and primary colors. There’s a sense of compression, closure, even claustrophobia, as the shapes and hues crowd each other and at times overlap. The piece, rendered in oil, scintillates with a certain jazzy liveliness—a sense of inconclusive improvisation. But Dogies was a bit of an outlier, since the other works in the show, while just as captivating, were more decisively resolved. In the acrylic and gouache Untitled, 1967, three squares with rounded corners—each shape vertically divided into blue and green halves—are arranged on a diagonal with an unfussy, Bauhausian elegance. The tilted black oval of Untitled, 1968, gently touches a red circle. Though both painted figures are resolutely flat, their curvilinearity gives them volumetric presence. In Untitled (Tamarind A), 1968, the corner of an aquamarine triangle abuts the left edge of its rectangular, crimson backdrop (or would prison be a more apt descriptor?); the tension between the colors and shapes remains unresolved, yet they are uncannily complementary, dialectically engaged. An unripened tamarind pod contains seeds in a moist pulp—but the juice has been squeezed out of Smith’s lithograph: It is denaturalized, hard, modern.

The collage Untitled, 1953, is a particularly ingenious example of Smith’s graphic flair. A square is outlined on the paper’s surface, its upper and lower edges denoted by blue bands. An additional band in light cobalt marks the center of the square, while two black stripes flank it. The square’s right and left edges are thin and outlined in pencil; similar graphite lines extend the central column beyond the square’s borders. All of Smith’s forms point to the emptiness of the space in which they exist. But they don’t inhere in it, as they stand aloof in all their intellectual glory, their sensuous chroma disguising their Platonic significance and peculiar sublimity. Mind takes precedence over matter in the deceptively simple Werkubersicht/Work-Overview G, 1970–87, a black-and-white serigraph in which two circles appear to function as windows for a Brobdingnagian orb pushing itself into view: It looks like a diagram of some kind of mysterious lunar event. Returning to fundamentals and ascetically limiting the means of his art, Smith makes a subtle conceptual masterpiece: Werkubersicht has a startling immediacy that is revelatory, exciting—a memorable aesthetic experience in a perceptual nutshell.