New York

Kimber Smith, Kup’s White Diamond, 1970, acrylic on canvas, 94 × 65 1⁄4".

Kimber Smith, Kup’s White Diamond, 1970, acrylic on canvas, 94 × 65 1⁄4".

Kimber Smith

Cheim & Read

“Cosmically we find that matter organizes around centers, which are often marked by a dominant mass,” the gestalt psychologist Rudolf Arnheim once said, but “we cannot be grateful enough for living in a world that, for practical purposes, can be laid out along a grid of verticals and horizontals . . . the Cartesian grid.” In two early works by the abstract painter Kimber Smith (1922–1981) at Cheim & Read—Untitled, 1965, a modestly sized gouache on paper, and Kup’s White Diamond, 1970, a large acrylic on canvas—the center is utterly conspicuous. In the former, it is a pale, luminous void edged by golden bands; in the latter, it is a stuttering throng of rhomboid shapes, a sort of distorted or devious grid rendered mostly in primary colors. The gilded rings of the drawing Untitled, 1966–67, also lack proper cores, much like the quartet of emptied spheres on a navy ground in the painting Day Circle Blue, 1967. But this pair felt undeniably empyrean because, as Arnheim posited, “the circle stands in many cultures for . . . the celestial, and the eternal.”

The heart of virtually every work in Smith’s exhibition here unravels into a number of scrawling gestures, even as the image manages to maintain its geometrical form. The pinkish orbs of Untitled, 1976, become painterly blobs, evaporating into the milky-white paper on which they appear. The strange circles and earthbound pyramids in Egyptian Rose Garden, 1976, are a mass—a mess?—of slapdash tangerine slabs. The canvas has a visionary, otherworldly quality, as does the painting Zday, 1979, in which a flash of colorful brushwork is surrounded by a mystical, diamond-like figure that is “threatened” by a sort of hardened black lightning that approaches from the right side of the composition. And in the middle of Tilt, 1980, four overlapping triangles in burning red and autumnal yellow seem to have been created by a flurry of more or less horizontal strokes. At first glance, all of these crude abstractions, with their decidedly kindergarten palettes and rough-and-tumble facture, appeared to have been made by a little boy.

If Smith’s art resembles that “spontaneous form of communication” by children, as the psychoanalytic art therapist R. M. Simon says, and his wild gestures bespeak his “true self,” as the pediatrician-psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott thinks, then there is an expressive authenticity to the painter’s output that connects it to romanticism—“a mode of feeling” involving “intimacy, spirituality, color, [and] aspiration towards the infinite,” as Charles Baudelaire characterized it. To call Smith’s work provisional painting is to award it a mindless misnomer; his pieces are spiritually ambitious and lyrical, a breed of art informel carried to an insistent extreme. I think Smith was searching for and achieved a new innocence in painting, the kind “with which a small child absorbs form and color,” per Baudelaire. And with that a numinous experience of space merges with a transcendental relation to nature, as suggested by the grassy greens, ocean blues, and sun-kissed oranges in the sixty-inch-square painting My Satin Doll, 1980, which the artist made just a year before his death. Smith’s enigmatic images are emotionally and aesthetically complex—masterpieces both subtle and sublime.