Leon Polk Smith

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Leon Polk Smith
Leon Polk Smith

(1906-05-20)May 20, 1906
DiedDecember 4, 1996(1996-12-04) (aged 90)
New York, New York
EducationPocasset High School; East Central University, BA; Columbia University Teacher's College, MA
Known forPainting
Notable workStonewall, (1956)[1]
MovementDe Stijl, Hard-edge School, Minimalism
PartnerRobert Mead Jamieson (from ~1951)

Leon Polk Smith (1906–1996) was an American painter. His geometrically oriented abstract paintings were influenced by Piet Mondrian and he is a follow[2] er of the Hard-edge school. His best-known paintings constitute maximally reduced forms, characterized by just two colors on a canvas meeting in a sharply delineated edge, often on an unframed canvas of unusual shape. His work is represented in many museums in the United States, Europe, and South America. Thanks to a generous bequest from the artist, the Brooklyn Museum has 27 of his paintings on permanent display.[3]

Early life[edit]

Smith was born near Chickasha, a year before Oklahoma became a state. His parents, William and Samantha Smith, had arrived in present-day Oklahoma from Tennessee at the end of the 19th century, and had settled on land with the Chickasaw Nation and Choctaw Nation in Indian Territory. Smith was the eighth of nine children and labored on his parents' modest homestead throughout an impecunious childhood. After high school, he worked as a ranch-hand in Oklahoma, then built roads and constructed telephone systems in Arizona. During this period Smith sent money home to help his parents with the mortgage on their land, but even the aggregate of the family's funds proved insufficient to avoid foreclosure.[4]

After the foreclosure, and released from the burden of familial financial support, Smith enrolled at Oklahoma State College (now East Central University), in Ada, Oklahoma, with the intention of becoming a teacher. Following graduation, he moved to New York City (1936), where he attended the Columbia University Teacher's College. Smith's artistic development was set in motion during his first semester at Columbia, when one of his teachers took him to see the Gallatin Collection, then at New York University. The sight of paintings by Mondrian and sculpture by Constantin Brâncuși and Jean Arp was a formative experience.[5]



Smith had his first show in New York City at the Uptown Gallery in 1941. In the decade that followed, Smith moved through preliminary explorations of neo-plasticism and began to paint in a more hard-edge style, typified by geometric lines, curving shapes of color, and the use of tondo (disk-shaped) canvases. A review for a 1956 solo show at the Camino Gallery noted Smith as a Geometric painter, who had "extended De Stijl principles to include tonal variations and nonrectilinear elements."[6] Smith acknowledged his debt to the De Stijl movement and to Mondrian, but stated that he was looking in his work to take the road beyond: "people said [Mondrian] had hit a dead end, or a stone wall and I said I don't think so."[7]

As late as 1962, he continued to receive notifications for derivative influence: the "flawlessly executed" bas-reliefs of his exhibition for Eleanor Ward at the Stable Gallery were typified as "Arpish."[8]

But with the support of prominent gallerists in the late 1950s, by the mid-60s Smith had found an audience for his work as an independent voice. His artwork was included in two important group exhibitions, The Responsive Eye at the Museum of Modern Art (1965) and Systemic Painting at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1966). His two important series of the period, Correspondences and Constellations impressed reviewers with their interplay of form, color, and space.[9]

He introduced his Constellation series at the Galerie Chalette in 1969.

In 1995, the Brooklyn Museum curated Leon Polk Smith: American Painter, a retrospective exhibition of Smith's career.[10]

He was affiliated with numerous other prominent dealers, including Sidney Janis, Charles Egan, Betty Parsons, Galerie Chalette, and Denise René.


From 1939 to 1948, Smith supported himself via teaching and teaching administration. He was State Supervisor of Art Education in Delaware, Assistant Professor of Art at the TC University System of Georgia, and accepted university teaching positions at Rollins College in Florida, New York University, and Mills College of Education in New York.[11]


Smith died in Manhattan in 1996, with an acknowledged position in the development of American geometric abstraction. He had arrived at geometry before others and remained steadfastly loyal to its principles, cultivating aspects of scale and simplicity that presaged the Hard-Edge and Minimal painting styles of the late 1950s and '60s. Younger painters like Ellsworth Kelly, Jack Youngerman and Al Held visited his studio and came away inspired.[12] But he cultivated a maverick attitude as a New York outsider that resisted definition as part of any single contemporary movement on the arts scene. This challenged his reviewers, as they looked for soundbites to describe his status and his work.[13] When asked for his inspirations at a post-commencement speech roundtable, Smith cited the two professors of English who opened his mind to the beauty of Middle-English and Poetry, rather than name-dropping his contemporaries or artistic mentors.[14]

The Leon Polk Smith Foundation was established by the artist before his death to "preserve and promote the art and legacy of Leon Polk Smith."[15]

As of 2020, artist's estate is co-represented by Richard Gray Gallery,[16] Washburn Gallery and Lisson Gallery.[17]




  • Paintings & Sculpture, the Stable Gallery (1962)[18]
  • Torn Drawings, Galerie Chalette (1965)[19]
  • Constellations, Galerie Chalette, (1969)
  • Leon Polk Smith: Retrospective, Galerie Denise Rene, (1975)[20]
  • Recent Work, Washburn Galleries, Uptown & Downtown (1981)[21]
  • Leon Polk Smith: American Painter, the Brooklyn Museum (1995)



"It is very important that the dealer understands the artist's work and [has the] ability to talk about it intelligently. I have heard dealers say: 'I know what I like and I think that is enough.' Enough for a cow but not a dealer."[25]


  1. ^ Smith, Leon Polk (1956). "Stonewall". New York, NY: The Brooklyn Museum. p. Accession No. 2011.12.5. Retrieved 2020-3-23.
  2. ^ "Hard edge painting".
  3. ^ Past Exhibits: Leon Polk Smith - Leon Polk Smith in the Arithmeum, (2001-9-4 - 2002-2-17) Arithmeum, Bonn, Germany. Retrieved 2020-3-21.
  4. ^ Buck, Robert T., Leon Polk Smith Foundation: Biography, (2006) Retrieved 2020-3-20
  5. ^ Smith, Roberta, Leon Polk Smith, 91, Artist Loyal to Geometry, Is Dead. (1996). The New York Times: Obituaries. Retrieved 2020-3-20
  6. ^ About Art and Artists, (1956) The New York Times: Arts. Retrieved 2020-3-21.
  7. ^ Parks, Addison, Interview with Leon Polk Smith, Arts Magazine, (1985). Retrieved 2020-3-22.
  8. ^ Summary of Recent Art Show Openings in City's Galleries, (1962) The New York Times: Arts. Retrieved 2020-3-21.
  9. ^ Smith, Roberta (1995). "Leon Polk Smith Goes Beyond His Inspiration". New York Times.
  10. ^ Leon Polk Smith papers, 1938-1997: Biographical Note," Archives of American Art, The Smithsonian, Washington, DC. Retrieved 2020-3-22
  11. ^ Lewja, Arthur Precis of the Artist, (1969). Leon Polk Smith papers, Archives of American Art, The Smithsonian, Washington, DC. Box 2, Folder 19. Retrieved 2020-3-22
  12. ^ Smith, Roberta, Leon Polk Smith, 91, Artist Loyal to Geometry, Is Dead. (1996). The New York Times: Obituaries. Retrieved 2020-3-20
  13. ^ Mellow, James R., Leon Polk Smith's Maverick Attitude, The New York Times: Arts, (1975). Retrieved 2020-3-21.
  14. ^ American Masterpieces: Leon Polk Smith, Post Commencement Interview, ECU Arts Department YouTube), East Central University, Ada, Oklahoma. Retrieved 2020-3-23.
  15. ^ Leon Polk Smith Foundation, Retrieved 2020-3-23.
  16. ^ "Leon Polk Smith - Artists - Richard Gray Gallery". www.richardgraygallery.com. Archived from the original on 2019-07-29. Retrieved 2019-06-07.
  17. ^ Shaw, Anny (9 June 2017). "Lisson Gallery announces representation of Leon Polk Smith foundation". The Art Newspaper. The Art Newspaper. Retrieved 6 September 2017.
  18. ^ Gallery Openings & Museum Exhibitions, The New York Times: Arts, (1962). Retrieved 2020-3-21.
  19. ^ Drawings Bolster Gallery Fare, The New York Times: Arts, (1965). Retrieved 2020-3-21.
  20. ^ Mellow, James R., Leon Polk Smith's Maverick Attitude, The New York Times: Arts, (1975). Retrieved 2020-3-21.
  21. ^ Russell, John, Leon Polk Smith, Uptown and Downtown, The New York Times: Arts, (1981). Retrieved 2020-3-21.
  22. ^ Buhmann, Stephanie, Leon Polk Smith at the Joan T. Washburn Gallery, ArtSeen, The Brooklyn Rail (Mar 2005), retrieved 2020-3-25
  23. ^ Leon Polk Smith: Hiding in Plain Sight, Heard Museum. Retrieved 2021-2-18
  24. ^ Leon Polk Smith: Big Form, Big Space, Contemporary Art Gallery (Vancouver). Retrieved 2022-2-1
  25. ^ Smith, Leon Polk, Notes on what makes a good or bad gallery, (1965), Leon Polk Smith papers, 1938-1997. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, DC. Record No. (DSI-AAA)13402. Retrieved 2020 3-23.

Further reading[edit]

  • Rapaport, Brooke Kamin, et al. Leon Polk Smith: American Painter. The Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, NY, (1995).
  • Yau, John. Leon Polk Smith. Lisson Gallery, New York, NY (2017).

External links[edit]