Leon Polk Smith 1906–1996
One of the foremost pioneers of the minimalist movement, Leon Polk Smith transformed American painting with his hard-edged forms and bold colors. Smith was born in the American Indian territory of Chickasha, Oklahoma, in 1906. He was of Cherokee descent, and his parents instilled in him the concept of equality in an era marked by racism. In 1936, Polk Smith graduated from Oklahoma State College. He later moved to New York in 1936, where he began his Master’s degree in Art Education at Columbia University. While in New York, one of his professors took him to see A. E. Gallatin’s Museum of Living Art, a collection that consisted of contemporary art and sculpture that were “fresh and individual.” Polk Smith was struck by the neoplastic paintings of Piet Mondrian and the revolutionary sculptures of Constantin Brâncuși and Jean Arp. While inspired by these modern artists, he would later go far beyond their rigid philosophies by employing new forms to create his monumental works.
In 1941, Polk Smith held his first show at the Uptown Gallery in New York. While showing his paintings in the city, he became close with a group of artists that included Carmen Herrera and Barnett Newman who strove to rethink geometric abstraction in their paintings. During the 1960s, Polk Smith was sympathetic to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement and he created paintings in support of equality. He began to play with the idea of fragmentation starting in the 1970s, as he incorporated his love of the American landscape and the night sky into his paintings. Polk Smith passed away in 1996. The same year, the Brooklyn Museum organized a monumental Polk Smith exhibition. Polk Smith’s work is held in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, among many others.
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