SWOSU Hosting Leon Polk Smith Art Exhibition


Works by Leon Polk Smith, a significant American artist who bridged his Native American culture and European culture to become a key figure in the development of Minimalism, will be on exhibit through April 30 at the Southwestern Oklahoma State University Art Gallery in Weatherford.

The exhibition includes 22 of Smith's works out of a 47-piece collection held by East Central University, one of the largest in the United States. Smith donated the bulk of his collection to ECU in 1993. Titled "American Masterpieces: Leon Polk Smith," it contains two paintings, one collage, several artist-proof serigraphs, 12 larger-edition serigraphs and three larger-edition lithographs.

Admission is free, and the public is invited. Hours are 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays.

"Leon Polk Smith hid his Indian heritage for a long time, fearing his contributions would be ‘pigeonholed' as Native American pattern painting," said Dr. Brad Jessop, chair of the Department of Art at ECU. "Even though he brought that sensibility, he was definitely working in the European tradition."

Smith's mother was Cherokee. Smith was born in Indian Territory in 1906, the year before Oklahoma became a state. Before he could enroll in college, he spent several years working on highway construction crews and as telephone lineman in Arizona. He returned to Oklahoma and put himself through East Central State Teachers College in Ada, now East Central University, graduating in 1934.

Jessop said Smith was one of the founders of Minimalism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, Formalism and Neo-Geo. The traveling exhibit of Smith's works is funded in part by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Smith taught school in Oklahoma then took additional courses at Columbia University in New York and graduated with a Master of Arts degree. It was at Columbia in 1937 that he saw his first Mondrian. By the early 1950s, he was diverging from strict adherence to Mondrian's grid, and by later that decade he began to incorporate curves, arcs, ovals and bends. His colors evolved into bright, unearthly hues of green, violets, pinks and oranges. 

By the 1980s he had experimented with torn paper lithography and broad planar-shaped canvases. His work continued to evolve throughout his working life, including his ongoing developments with regard to the problem of space and form and the pictorial plane, and although he greatly anticipated the hard edge movement of the 1960s, he was neither caught in its limelight nor trapped by its success.

As a college professor in the south in the 1940s and 1950s, he recognized the inequity and injustice inherent in the Jim Crow laws of the day and worked actively to oppose them.  An artist in New York in the late 1960s, he was present at the beginnings of the Gay Rights movement at its inception in the Stonewall riots.

Leon Polk Smith died in 1996. He provided ECU with the bulk of its collection as a gift in 1993.

For more information, contact E.K. Jeong in the SWOSU Art Department at 580.774.3035 or ek.jeong@swosu.edu.