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Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Leon Polk Smith

Leon Polk Smith (1906-1996) was a Native American artist. His parents were both part Cherokee and went west to the Indian Territory in the 1880s. In 1907, a year after Smith's birth, the Indian Territory was incorporated into the state of Oklahoma.

At age six, Smith decided that he did not want the hardscrabble life of a farmer. During the Depression, he worked on a few ranches in Oklahoma and built roads and telephone systems in Arizona, dutifully sending money home to his parents for the mortgage payments on the homestead, but eventually the farm was foreclosed, freeing Smith to enroll in college.

In 1934, ten years after he finished high school, he received a bachelor's degree from Oklahoma State College (now East Central University). While there, he had discovered an art studio door ajar. It was the first art he had ever seen, and he immediately knew he would become an artist.

He chose Columbia University for his graduate studies. While there he discovered the geometric art of Piet Mondrian. which inspired his own work, although he made a conscious decision to focus on aesthetics rather than the theoretical process of Mondrian and other members of the De Stijl group.

After receiving his master's degree from Columbia, he became an assistant professor of art at Georgia Teacher's College. While holding this full-time teaching position, he pursued his art and had his first one-man show in New York in 1941.

His reputation was growing, and he had two more shows in 1942. In that same year, he left Georgia, because he felt the state's resistance to desegregation was too much at odds with his deeply held convictions. He accepted a post as State Supervisor of Art Education in Delaware.

In 1944 he accepted a job in New York assisting at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later to become the Guggenheim Museum) and subsequently received a Guggenheim Fellowship, which took him back to the Southwest temporarily.

In 1945 Smith returned to New York City. During the next few years, he established affiliations with various galleries and occasionally accepted visiting teaching positions, including a two-year position with Rollins College in Florida and a brief residence in Cuba. In 1966, he moved permanently to New York City.

Smith is said to have been the originator of the "hard edge" style of painting.


White Woman -1940

Repeated Forms -1940

Red, Black, White -1948

Diagonal Passage White, Yellow, Black, Gray - 1949

Black White Repeat - 1952

Black White Duet with Yellow - 1953

Self Portrait - 1955

Stonewall - 1956

Correspondence Green Orange - 1963

Correspondence Black White - 1965

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  1. I like "White Woman" and "Repeated Forms."

    1. Those are actually my favorites too. I think he made his reputation with his later works, but I favor the earlier ones.

  2. Beautiful! I love his purely abstract graphic pieces, the ones from the late 40s and on. What a great artist!

    1. I think of all those I included in the post, I like the yellow and gray one best.