Leon Polk Smith
Joan T. Washburn Gallery
In 1936, a few years before the arrival of waves of World War II immigrants—and among them, many advocates of European modernism—Leon Polk Smith moved to New York City. During the following decade, like most of the other American artists of his generation, he embraced the avant-garde European movements wholeheartedly while searching for his own unique interpretations. Focusing in particular on constructivism and de Stijl, Smith mainly devoted himself to Mondrian’s redefinition of the grid and the interchange of form and space. That is, until the late 1940s, when rectangular shapes formerly floating on neutrally toned grounds began to twist and twitch in Smith’s paintings, morphing into bold curvilinear or zigzagged statements that extend toward the edges of the canvas. In these compositions, our perception of negative and positive space becomes blurred, while the distinction between foreground and background simply no longer exists. As a result, the abstract imagery appears as flattened (yet without translating into patterns), generating a strong sense of design.
This quality is pushed further by Smith’s employment of varying canvas shapes. From the circular “After First One” to “Kochecke” (German for “kitchen nook”), an oval hung on a diagonal, or “Yellow White Sun,” which includes two double curves and might be described as a mirrored image of a children’s book illustration, the diversity does not cease to surprise. Meanwhile, the palette is kept simple. Though never including more than two different hues and preferring to contrast one color with either black or white, Smith’s works from the 1950s on establish more than just a punchy dialogue between tonality and form: they manifest as poetic verses. While contemplating what might have sparked his inspiration for the deep lavenders, fiery reds, or grayish flesh that can be traced throughout his oeuvre, one is led back to Smith’s early biography, as well as to the industrial designs in vogue in the 1950s and 1960s.
Born in 1906, Smith was raised on a farm in Chickasha, Oklahoma, among the Choctaw and Chickasaw Indians, before Oklahoma became a state. Looking at the almost symbolic simplicity and Smith’s determined lines, one can only guess to what extent the artist’s upbringing and intimate introduction to Native American culture must have filled his visual vocabulary. The impact of contemporary design however, is beautifully elaborated upon by a concurrent exhibition at Washburn Gallery. Minimally labeled Forms and Functions in the 1950s, this curatorial gem juxtaposes Smith’s canvases with rare design classics by Verner Panton, Arne Jacobsen, and Bruno Mathsson, among others. Rather than deciphering the magic aura of Smith’s work, this contextualization contributes to the overall timelessness inherent in every curve, every angle, mass, and volume that determine Smith’s unpredictable compositions. Though clearly underrated in the context of twentieth-century art history, Leon Polk Smith was arguably one of the quintessential artistic spirits of his time, who succeeded in fusing primitive and contemporary originality into a harmonious symbiosis.
Wardell Milan: Bluets & 2 Years of Magical ThinkingBy Joel Danilewitz
MAY 2023 | ArtSeen
Walking through Wardell Milans new show at Sikkema Jenkins, I felt among his fleeting figures. In his exhibit, Bluets & 2 Years of Magical Thinking, the collages, sculptures, and paintings produce an intimate atmosphere. The audience forms a loose communion as they wander the three large rooms of the gallery, apprehending his vast paintings upon entrance.
Lynne Drexler: The First DecadeBy William Corwin
DEC 22–JAN 23 | ArtSeen
In Lynne Drexler: The First Decade, simultaneously at both Berry Campbell and Mnuchin Galleries, we come across a voracious and novel form of late Abstract Expressionism. Its a path that runs parallel to color-field painting, and in playing with discreet nodes of color owes as much to Klimt, van Gogh, and Seurat, as it does to Drexlers mentor and teacher, Hans Hofmann. The paintings in these two exhibitions test out how best to manipulate the viewers response to associations of almost-pixelated color units, singular forms which attain a mosaic-like quality: working together but retaining their independence. This causes almost as much visual agita as it creates harmonic compositions.
Erika Doss’s Spiritual Moderns: Twentieth-Century American Artists and ReligionBy Daniel Kraft
MARCH 2023 | Art Books
Through case studies investigating the role of religion in the lives and works of four 20th century American artistsJoseph Cornell, Mark Tobey, Agnes Pelton, and Andy Warholand through a short closing chapter discussing Christian imagery in more recent art, Doss demonstrates how reductive this dismissal of spirituality really is.
Kate Beaton’s Ducks: Two Years in the Oil SandsBy Wyatt Sarafin
NOV 2022 | Art Books
A comics memoir, workplace drama, and, most fundamentally, a migration and generation story thats specific to the Canadian provinces. Dilating and expanding moments of time, it subtly encompasses the quiet and unassuming tragedies that mark our present moment.