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Booklet published to support art show at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art.

MUSEUM.OKSTATE.EDU
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and VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Executive Order
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hurst, OSU, Stillwater, OK 74078-1035; Phone 405-744-
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This publication, issued by Oklahoma State University
as authorized by the director of the OSU Museum of Art,
was printed at no cost to the taxpayers of Oklahoma.
#6412
Cover:
Leon Polk Smith, Untitled, 1954, opaque
watercolor and metallic paint on cardboard, 8 1/2
inches x 8 1/2 inches. Collection of Oklahoma
State University Museum of Art. Gift of Leon Polk
Smith Foundation.
Acknowledgments
The Museum is most grateful to the Board of the Leon Polk Smith Foundation
who made this generous gift of works on paper possible. Special thanks go
to Patterson Sims, President of the Foundation, and Maryanna Vermonte,
Registrar, Leon Polk Smith Foundation Collection for their knowledge
about the art and assistance with access to the online database of Leon
Polk Smith’s art. My deep gratitude to Senator Jonathan and Mrs. Nichols
for the loan of their Leon Polk Smith painting to the exhibition. Thanks
also to Dr. Taryn Chubb, Associate Professor of Art History and Director
of the Pogue Art Gallery at East Central University, Ada, OK, for giving
me access to University archival materials on Leon Polk Smith and for a
very informative discussion about the artist. Thanks to OSU photographer
Phil Shockley for coming to our assistance on very short notice to shoot
the images used in this essay. Art history masters candidate Tiffany Sides
assisted with the research, and OSU Museum of Art Director Victoria R.
Berry provided me with a valuable sounding board for working out the
exhibition and brochure content.
Published on the occasion of the exhibition
Leon Polk Smith: Back to Oklahoma
Oklahoma State University Museum of Art
May 31 – September 3, 2016
Exhibitions and programs at the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art are supported by
OSU/A&M Board of Regents, OSUMA Art Advocates, and the Oklahoma Arts Council.
Designer: D. Mark Pennie, Assistant Director, Oklahoma State University Marketing
Photography: Phil Shockley, Oklahoma State University Marketing
Published by the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art
720 South Husband Street, Stillwater, OK 74074, USA
Tel. 405.744.2780 Fax 405.744.2800 www.museum.okstate.edu
© 2016 by Oklahoma State University Museum of Art and essayist.
L
ate in 2015, the Leon Polk Smith Foundation in New
York City brought the artist back home. The Foundation
gifted more than 700 works on paper to the Oklahoma
State University Art Museum, to be shared with art
institutions across the State. Leon Polk Smith (1906 – 1996)
gained national recognition in the 1960s in pioneering the
Hard Edge painting movement, which favored abstract,
clean-edged forms, attened space, simple color schemes,
and economic compositions.
Leon Polk Smith: Back to Oklahoma
offers an introduction to his works on
paper. Never widely exhibited or studied,
these works offer a more nuanced pic-
ture of Smith’s development and working
habits. They represent the more famil-
iar periods of his development from his
early gurative work and his testing of dif-
ferent styles of European modernism to
the pared-down, hard-edge abstractions,
which were rened over the remainder
of his career. Drawings from the 1950s,
however, reveal new insights about his
development—a stepping stone to better
understanding how this body of work
relates to his paintings.
1
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MUSEUM OF ART
S
mith’s earliest work draws on his expe-
riences growing up near Chickasha,
Oklahoma. After nishing high school
he worked seven years, rst on ranches
in Oklahoma and then on road and tele-
phone systems construction in Arizona. He
then enrolled in what is now East Central
University in Ada and earned a degree
in English in 1934. During his senior year
he discovered art. After seeing a paint-
ing class in session, he persuaded the
professor to let him sit in. So began his
career. Between 1934 and 1940, Smith
taught elementary and secondary educa-
tion in Oklahoma. In 1936, he attended
the rst of three summer school sessions
at Columbia University Teachers College
in New York City to complete a master’s
degree in arts education and ne art.
Smith’s rural life in Oklahoma frequently
inspired paintings and drawings during
these years: cowboys, cattle branding,
the dustbowl, and college life. While
these subjects reect the preference of
the Regionalist art movement for local
scenes, his stylized treatment of gures
and landscape anticipates his later turn
to abstract form and economic composi-
tions. Smith tested different approaches to
simplifying his forms. In Leo’s Bay (1939,
Fig. 1) he used attened forms encased
in curvilinear black lines to describe a
cowboy on horseback riding through a
hilly landscape. Unifying the background
and gure, a dull red wash animates
the image with drop and spray patterns.
Looking backward with his chest full of
hearts, the cowboy appears to be yearn-
ing for something lost or found.
A
lthough Smith later described his
technical training as limited, his early
drawings suggest that he was inher-
ently talented and a quick study. Within a
six-year period he had leap frogged over
any interest in naturalistic rendering to
increasingly abstracted forms. His summer
stays in New York accelerated his prog-
ress. While taking courses at Columbia
University Teachers College, the artist
was also exploring modern art outside
the classroom. An advanced course in
painting with artist Ryah Ludins the rst
summer was a signicant turning point
in his education and artistic path. Along
with adopting her exercises in free draw-
ing to liberate himself from conscious
thought processes, he followed her advice
to look at modern art in New York. In
1936, accompanied by Ludins, Smith vis-
ited Albert E. Gallatin’s Museum of Living
Art, the rst public collection of modern
art in the country. The novice artist sub-
sequently worked in a range of different
styles in the later 1930s, responding to a
2
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MUSEUM OF ART
Fig. 1
Leon Polk Smith,
Leos Bay, 1939,
watercolor on paper,
19 3/4 x 24 5/8 inches.
Collection of Oklahoma
State University
Museum of Art. Gift
of Leon Polk Smith
Foundation.
3
Oklahoma State University
MUSEUM OF ART
Fig. 2
Leon Polk Smith, Untitled,
1940, opaque watercolor
on paper, 26 x 20 inches.
Collection of Oklahoma
State University Museum
of Art. Gift of Leon Polk
Smith Foundation.
4
Oklahoma State University
MUSEUM OF ART
variety of examples he had viewed in the Museum
of Living Art and elsewhere.
1
A cornerstone of the Museum of Living Art col-
lection, Cubism shaped Smith’s Untitled of 1940,
a geometricized composition suggestive of male
and female gures (Fig. 2). The
artist adapted the collage-like
compositions, solid color forms,
and linear patterns of the later
phase of Cubism known as
Synthetic. He may well have
been inspired by Picasso’s Still
Life with a Glass and a Package
of Tobacco [Composition] (1922),
which Gallatin had purchased in
June 1936.
2
I
n the late 1930s and early
1940s, Surrealism, with its
emphasis on a stream-of-con-
sciousness process, also com-
manded Smith’s attention. Pipets
(1940, Fig. 3) shows his close
study of Joan Miró. Smith had
the opportunity to see four superb examples of the
Spanish artist’s work once again at the Museum of
Living Art, in particular, Painting of 1933. A series
of biomorphic forms merging animal and human
anatomy plus a guitar populate the multicolored
atmospheric space of Pipets, echoing Mirós hybrid
images and variegated backgrounds of the 1930s. This
array of strange creatures conforms to Surrealism’s
Fig. 3
Leon Polk Smith, Pipets,
1940, ink and opaque
watercolor on paper, 19 x
24 1/4 inches. Collection
of Oklahoma State
University Museum of Art.
Gift of Leon Polk Smith
Foundation.
5
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MUSEUM OF ART
arbitrary juxtapositions of invented images
emerging from the human subconscious.
While it is easy enough to identify the art-
ists and styles that Smith “tried on” during
these years, his outcomes demonstrate the
artist’s independent and selective adap-
tations of European modernism. Whether
by imagery and/or style Smith imprinted
these works with elements of the singu-
lar vision that shapes his mature work.
S
mith’s rst viewing of a painting by
Dutch modernist Piet Mondrian in
1936, once again at the Museum of
Living Art, was a turning point for his art
a decade later. A major memorial retro-
spective at the Museum of Modern Art in
the spring of 1945 offered another oppor-
tunity for him to revisit the Dutch artists
work. Living in New York between 1945
and 1949, Smith set the abstract direction
of his art with a group of works inspired
by Mondrian’s minimalist geometry, two
being tributes to Mondrian’s New York-
inspired Boogie Woogie paintings. The
American artist focused on the formal
implications of Mondrian’s art, leaving
behind its utopian social theories. In
particular, he embraced the Dutch artist’s idea of
“the interchangeability of form and space,” as Smith
termed it, wherein “space and form were compli-
mentary to each other as well as interchangeable.
Fig. 4
Leon Polk Smith,
Untitled, 1943, crayon,
ink, and marker on
paper, 14 3/4 x 11
inches. Collection
of Oklahoma State
University Museum of
Art. Gift of Leon Polk
Smith Foundation.
6
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MUSEUM OF ART
Fig. 5
Leon Polk Smith,
Untitled, 1946, pencil
and opaque watercolor
on paper, 14 3/4 x
11 inches. Collection
of Oklahoma State
University Museum of
Art. Gift of Leon Polk
Smith Foundation.
7
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8
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He added to this goal the challenge of using
Mondrians idea “in a curvilinear manner, in curved
lines, free forms.
3
Smith’s drawings track his transition from Cubism
to Mondrian. In a 1943 example, Smith aban-
doned the quasi-gurative imagery of the 1940
Cubist-inspired drawing (Fig. 2) for a grid com-
position (Fig. 4). Though the work moves a step
closer, Smith’s freely drawn rectangular forms and
striping have yet to comply with Mondrian’s ruled
grid. Smith adopts a more restricted but less regi-
mented palette than the Dutch artists, which was
limited to black, white, and the primary colors—
red, yellow, and blue.
Another drawing from 1946 shows Smith impro-
vising to create his own distinctive congurations
(Fig 5). It represents a more simplied version of
the 1943 grid with closed rectilinear forms. Their
overlapping creates an interplay between the solid
and void references, with the gray becoming a con-
trasting painterly plane. Once again, Smith departs
from the Dutch artists strict formal vocabulary in
introducing C and L shapes to his grid composi-
tion, eliminating line, and varying his color scheme
with a combination of black, gray, red, and orange.
T
he 1948 work on paper and NUSH’KA are the
most direct adaptations of Mondrian’s style,
conforming to his palette and rectangular forms
(Figs. 6, 7). The similarities stop there, as Smith sets
up some alternative formal problems to investigate.
Fig. 6 (opposite page)
Leon Polk Smith,
Untitled, 1948, pencil
and colored paper on
cardboard, 17 x 13
5/8 inches. Collection
of Oklahoma State
University Museum of
Art. Gift of Leon Polk
Smith Foundation.
Fig. 7
Leon Polk Smith,
NUSH’KA, 1949, oil
on board, diameter:
12 inches. Jonathan
and Talitha Nichols
Collection.
9
Oklahoma State University
MUSEUM OF ART
Smith broke with Mondrians strict grid composition
by introducing diagonal axes. Further, in the work
on paper, not all the blue blocks are contained by
lines or paper edges but rather anchored at corners
(Fig. 6). These blocks read as solid forms suspended
in space, again sidestepping Mondrian’s notion of
interchangeability.
NUSH’KA exemplies Smiths early efforts to imple-
ment his concept of interchangeable form and space
based on curves, here through a shaped canvas
(Fig. 7). This painting combines closed and open-
ended rectilinear forms of the earlier 1940s draw-
ings. The textured white areas give the painting a
physicality that transforms background into sur-
face. As a result, the lines and rectangles sink into
a space behind the white plane, another spinoff
on the Mondrian interchangeability of form and
space concept.
I
n the 1950s, Smith continued working in an
exploratory vein. He pursued two alternative
models that advanced his art to its maturity and
recognition as Hard Edge, one of which has not
been previously recognized. Representing a signif-
icant body of work, studies of plant forms suggest
that Smith returned to the lessons of art educator
Arthur Wesley Dow that he had studied at Columbia
University Teachers College. First appearing in 1899
and last published in 1940, Dow’s text Composition
was an early prototype for teaching what today is
known as design—principles of line, form, space,
color, and composition in the abstract (Fig. 8). Smith
Fig. 8
“Notan. IX. Flower Compositions. Two
Values—Variations—Design,” in Arthur
Wesley Dow, Composition. A Series
of Exercises in Art Structure for the
Use of Students and Teachers, ninth
edition, revised and enlarged. Garden
City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company,
1914, p. 85.
Fig. 9
Leon Polk Smith, Dusty
Miller, 1955, opaque
watercolor on paper,
23 3/4 x 17 7/8 inches.
Collection of Oklahoma
State University
Museum of Art. Gift
of Leon Polk Smith
Foundation.
10
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MUSEUM OF ART
Fig. 10
Leon Polk Smith,
Untitled, 1956, paper
on paper, 11 x 14
inches. Collection
of Oklahoma State
University Museum of
Art. Gift of Leon Polk
Smith Foundation.
11
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MUSEUM OF ART
Fig. 11
Leon Polk Smith, Untitled,
1954, pencil, ink, and
opaque watercolor on
cardboard, 8 1/2 x 3
3/4 inches. Collection
of Oklahoma State
University Museum of Art.
Gift of Leon Polk Smith
Foundation.
12
Oklahoma State University
MUSEUM OF ART
followed Dow’s strategies of “arranging lines in
space,” with attention to the distribution of form,
color, and values to create an all-over patterned
space—what Dow termed Notan.
4
A series of studies of dusty miller illustrate how
Dow’s exercises of framing and cropping guided
an avenue of organic abstraction. More naturalistic
descriptions from the early 1950s evolve into more
economic, stylized forms and colors seen in Dusty
Miller (1956, Fig. 9). Smith’s plant studies are logi-
cal outcomes of Dow-inspired strategies of closing
in on an image, simplifying and cropping the form,
and reducing composition and color to a two-color
surface pattern fundamental to the breakthrough
painting series Correspondences (Fig. 10).
I
n 1954, Smith discovered another of his visual
models, which is well known. A chance view-
ing of a sporting goods catalogue enabled him to
resolve his other Mondrian-inspired formal challenge.
Illustrations of tennis balls and baseballs showed
him “how to use the curvilinear form within an inner
circle” and advanced his abstraction.
5
He quickly
progressed from images closely resembling base-
balls in the orange-and-beige study (1954, Fig. 11)
to the frontal composition of the gold-and-white
drawing (1954, Fig. 12), which takes on an iconic
presence. Smith then applied this curvilinear model
to rectangular and square formats; and, in tandem
with the Dowian insights, the Correspondences
series was born.
Fig. 12
Leon Polk Smith, Untitled,
1954, opaque watercolor
and metallic paint on
cardboard, 8 1/2 inches x
8 1/2 inches. Collection
of Oklahoma State
University Museum of Art.
Gift of Leon Polk Smith
Foundation.
Fig. 13
Leon Polk Smith, Untitled,
1958, opaque watercolor on
paper, 16 1/8 x 13 inches.
Collection of Oklahoma State
University Museum of Art. Gift
of Leon Polk Smith Foundation.
13
Oklahoma State University
MUSEUM OF ART
I
n 1958, Leon Polk Smith left teach-
ing and turned to art full time. His
1940s and 1950s experimentations
crystallized into a set of formal goals
that guided his mature abstractions. The
Correspondences series created in the
late 1950s established Smith’s reputation
as a major artist. An example from 1958
conrms his account of beginning with
“three shapes, three forms, but I reduced
it to two. I would paint this one colour
and that one colour” (Figs. 10, 12)
6
The
forms in this series vary from free form to
angular, rendered in two colors. Seen as
early as 1955 in his drawings, this econ-
omy also involved eliminating line. The
interfaces of color elds and the support
edges replace line as boundaries. With
these reductive measures the scale of
forms increases, amplied through their
cropping and framing.
Smith’s overarching goal was visual
equilibrium” as he termed it, starting
with line. For him drawing a line cre-
ated “two worlds in direct opposition to
each other and yet so well related that
they t into each other as a jigsaw puzzle
must.”
7
The color choices, their intensity,
proportions, and solidity, made equally
important contributions to this balance.
Smith thereby eliminated the spatial hier-
archy of foreground and background in
favor of adjoining elds of equal sub-
stance. Collectively these formal deci-
sions impart a monumentality that gives
the drawings a heightened presence and
importance. The impact is all the more so
with his paintings on canvas, which had
increased in size to mural scale.
The artist evoked a still greater sense
of space with the Constellations series
begun around 1967 (Fig. 14). Instead of
increasing the size of individual paintings,
he introduced multiple units as single
compositions. Smith returned to geomet-
ric forms—curved and rectilinear—and
vivid hues plus black. These components
are arranged in tangential sequences that
imply their unlimited expansion. The
alignment and partitioning of the com
-
ponents suggest fragmented large-scale
forms. With this new format, his paint-
ings break out of their canvas boundaries
and expand across the walls, integrating
them into the compositions.
S
mith simplied his compositions still
further beginning in the 1970s while
continuing to incorporate wall space
into the artworks. He repeatedly explored
formal issues through black-and-white
compositions, as he had throughout his
career. The deceptively austere composi-
tion of this 1979 work on paper integrates
Fig. 14 (opposite page)
Leon Polk Smith, Untitled,
1966, acrylic paint on
paper, 24 3/4 x 17 3/4
inches. Collection
of Oklahoma State
University Museum of Art.
Gift of Leon Polk Smith
Foundation.
14
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15
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Fig. 15
Leon Polk Smith, Untitled,
1979, acrylic paint on
paper, 14 3/4 x 20 inches.
Collection of Oklahoma
State University Museum
of Art. Gift of Leon Polk
Smith Foundation.
16
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MUSEUM OF ART
a white eld with black modules to set
up provocative perceptual experiences
(Fig. 15). The sequence of forms moves
the eyes simultaneously in two directions,
upward and to the left, over the support
surface and beyond. Designating shaped
canvases, the black forms become, as
Smith explained, “the nucleus for a much
larger area [of wall].
8
V
iewed in hindsight, Leon Polk Smith’s
career shows the very self-contained
character of his art in the best sense.
As the artist repeatedly stated, beyond
Mondrians art very little outside his
vision shaped his development. Like
other movements from the 1960s and
1970s such as Minimalism, Smith’s Hard
Edge compositions reduced art to its most
basic elements. He sought to identify the
essential components of art and to resolve
related formal problems. In effect, Smith’s
work is art about art. From the audience’s
perspective, the viewing of his art com-
bines perceptual and intellectual experi-
ences to understand what makes art art.
Arlette Klaric, Ph.D., Associate Chief
Curator / Curator of Collections
1 For further information on A. E. Gallatin and his museum, see Gail Stavitsky, “The A. E. Gallatin Collection: An Early
Adventure in Modern Art,” Philadelphia Museum of Art Bulletin, 89, No. 379/380 (Winter – Spring, 1994): 1, 4-47.
2 A. E. Gallatin donated his collection the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 1943. To learn more about the specic artworks
discussed in this essay, go to http://www.philamuseum.org/collections/search.html and search the museum’s online col-
lections database.
3 Artist Statement, c. 1961, typescript, Galerie Chalette, New York, NY, 1968; and “A Conversation between Konstanze
Chrüwell-Doertenbach and Leon Polk Smith,” Nike, No. 19 (July/August/September, 1987); reprinted in Leon Polk Smith,
exhibition catalogue, Wilhelm-Hack-Museum, Ludwigshaften am Rhein, and Musée Grenoble, 1989, p. 105.
4 Arthur Wesley Dow, Composition; A Series of Exercises in Art Structure for the Use of Students and Teachers, seventh
edition, revised, Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Page & Company, 1913, p. 53.
5 “A Conversation between Konstanze Chrüwell-Doertenbach and Leon Polk Smith,” p.105.
6 Ibid.
7 “The Paintings of Leon Polk Smith. A Conversation between Leon Polk Smith and dArcy Hayman,” in Leon Polk Smith im Arithmeum,
exhibition catalogue, Arithmeum im Forschungsinstitute für diskrete Mathematik, University of Bonn, Germany, 2001, p. 19.
8 Brooke Kamin Rapaport, “An Interview with Leon Polk Smith,” in Leon Polk Smith: American Painter, 1996, exhibition
catalogue, Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, p. 23.
17
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