Linear Curves 2014
Linear Curves: Leon Polk Smith
Works from the 1960's
January 11 - February 22, 2014
For all the open spaces, the stark inspiration of his native Oklahoma, Hard Edge painter Leon Polk Smith (1906 – 1996) found his ultimate muse in the city of New York. “New York City revealed its physical self to me through the mountains and canyons of the Southwest…I felt the city to be the perfect equation for a great abstraction.”
Though possessed with an artist’s sensitivity, Smith journeyed to New York to attend Columbia University’s Teachers College. But there, in 1936, he came in contact with the work of European modernists Jean Arp, Constantin Brancusi and Piet Mondrian. Inspired by these fresh-eyed provocateurs and driven by his own tireless ambition, Smith embarked on a systematic exploration of non-gestural abstraction and established himself as a trail-blazing highly respected artist.
In every decade, Smith’s canvasses confound the viewer’s understanding of space. But the genesis for works featured in this exhibition arrived in 1954 via a sporting goods catalogue. The strong outlines of baseballs, tennis balls and footballs provoked a revelatory series of drawings and then paintings known as tondos; curvilinear forms painted on disk-shaped surfaces in a palette of strong primary colors. Ovals of orange, spheres of blue and green, clean edged cubes arranged in the manner of a stairway. No matter where they lead, on paper or canvas, all the works reflect the inventive curiosity of their maker.
The great grandfather of geometric abstract painting was Piet Mondrian but his ideas of great simplicity -- few colors, fewer lines -- have been expanded exponentially by his children, grandchildren, even great grandchildren. Three shows right now exemplify the differences and similarities.
Leon Polk Smith, for example, considered the work of Mondrian to be his initial guide to the realm of non-objective painting. Raised in Oklahoma, where both parents were part Cherokee, he labored in ranching and construction, overcame polio and survived the Great Depression, before making his way to New York in 1936.
He was studying at Columbia University Teachers College, when he first saw the work of Mondrian. By the 1940's, he was exploring those ideas though often using curved rather than straight lines. There evolved a buoyant, even cheerful quality to his art that is evidentLinear Curves: Works from the 60's, at Louis Stern Fine Arts in West Hollywood through February 22.
Consider the pair of square canvases with rounded corners, one mounted one atop the other yet offset, half orange, half white, divided by a slightly curved line that also unites: Constellation Orange-White, 1967. Or the collage of four black paper ovals ascending on an orange background. Smith was in his fifties, even early sixties, when making these energetic pieces and until his death in 1996, at the age of 90, he continued to produce lively geometric abstractions, playing with the sizes of the canvas, the relationship of a simple shape to a carefully chosen color. He never wavered from his faith in the rewards of geometric painting. But his decisions were intuitive, unlike the theoretical ideas of Mondrian or his followers in the de Stijl movement. For more information, go to louissternfinearts.com.