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The Dynamics of Diagonals and Space

By Addison Parks / August 1, 1994



Every time I've visited Leon Polk Smith's studio during the past 14 years, I've been nothing short of stunned by the power and surprise of his latest work. If I ever had a purer, more intense aesthetic experience time and again, I can't think of it. The Parthenon? The Lions at Delos? The Caravaggios in Rome? The Rothkos in the Tate?

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Sadly enough, you'd have to go to Europe to see Leon Polk Smith's work as well. The museums there happily celebrate this American master's achievements, even if we haven't. That is, until just recently.

Last year the Brooklyn Museum unveiled a new modern-art wing, and devoted two permanent galleries solely to honor and do justice to this living icon. The results are magnificent.

There are few artists as huge as Leon Polk Smith, whose influence among artists is as profound; yet he remains virtually unknown to the general public.

Smith was born in Oklahoma before it achieved statehood. Part native-American - a child of the Plains - he fell in love with the skyscrapers of New York City and made a perfect connection between his past and the modern age.

From a single beautiful epiphany upon seeing the work of Piet Mondrian back in the 1930s (something that made absolute sense to him instantly), he has never stopped. But whereas Mondrian went north-south, east-west, in his hard-edge abstraction, it was the diagonal that took Smith in his own direction - a diagonal that not only captured the spirit of the West, but also embodied the new wide-open spaces of the future.

For more than half a century, Smith has directly or indirectly influenced one generation after another; from Ad Rienhardt and Ellsworth Kelly, the minimalists by the scores; early Richard Tuttle and the Monochrome painters; to the more recent planer geometric imagemakers, Neo Geo, and beyond. He cut the trail, and still does.

It is somewhat of an embarrassment to the New York art world that Smith has been left out in favor of artists like Kelly, but this recent move by the Brooklyn Museum is a wonderful gesture, and a good start toward putting this artist where we can see him, and where he belongs.

When you enter the main gallery, which is cavernous, it's like stepping into a time capsule. It hurtles you into space. When you see the dates on some of the works, it's hard to believe.

After 50 years, the abstracts still startle. All around the space the shaped canvasses fly like dazzling kites. These bichromes get their lift and motion as a result of their dynamic color and shape. Works off to the side of our line of vision dance impatiently, itching for their turn to strike a pose.

Leon Polk Smith is an American legend, self-made, with the requisite touch of the renegade. He has that hard-and-true Western mettle, rugged individuality, and no-nonsense demeanor. And of course the crusty charm.

But for all his hard-line fierceness and severity, what is underneath is pure poetry. This goes for both the artist and his work.

His pieces show a love for form, line, shape, and color. People might see the abstracts and think that they must be the result of calculations and intellectual ideas.

But these strong visual statements just happen. They have no other voice in them, no intellectual positions, no hard-line dogma; just tender, moving expression. Plains Haiku. They require nothing more from the viewer than a willingness to take the ride.

Smith is an inspired artist; his work has always been about the language of pure form and color that he inherited from Mondrian. He has never stopped discovering something new, every bit of which has grown out of his vast oeuvre.

His art is a dialogue - sometimes in the most literal way, like two shapes, two colors, moving in their perfect space. Smith's vision is that clear, crisp dialogue, so to speak, with himself. It defines his work so sharply, the picture of earth and sky.

There is no telling what Smith will come up with next. As he approaches 90, anything seems possible. of all the artists I've admired, in so many ways, there has been no one like him. He has been such a tower. And perhaps not surprisingly, it is only by example, not by words.

The only time he ever ventured to say anything about art that I can remember was to remind me that color is innocent and not to prejudice it. That was all.