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Leon Polk Smith papers, 1938-1997

Leon Polk Smith papers, 1938-1997

Smith, Leon Polk, 1906-1996

Sculptor, Painter, Printmaker

Representative image for Leon Polk Smith papers, 1938-1997

This site provides access to the papers of Leon Polk Smith in the Archives of American Art that were digitized in 2011. The bulk of this collection has been scanned and totals 9,145 images.

Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Leon Polk Smith Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Collection Information

Size: 7.2 linear feet

Summary: The papers of New York abstract painter Leon Polk Smith measure 7.2 linear feet and date from 1938 to 1997. The papers consist of biographical material, business and personal correspondence, interview transcripts and an interview video recording, writings, financial records for the corporate entity Leon Polk Smith, Inc., printed material, photographic material, and a scrapbook of newspaper clippings.

Biographical material includes official affidavits, certificates, passports, expense receipts, and a travel expense notebook. A curriculum vitae, family history, and medical records are also included in the series.

Correspondence, both business and personal, comprises the bulk of the collection. This includes correspondence between Smith and his life companion, Robert Jamieson; art critics Arthur C. Danto, Claudine Humblet, and David Galloway; and artists Gego (Gertrude Goldschmidt) and Ray Johnson. Business correspondence relates to Smith's various gallery and museum exhibitions, loans, and sales. There is extensive correspondence between Smith and the Brooklyn Museum, Butler Institute of American Art, Di Laurenti Gallery, Edition and Galerie Hoffmann, Galerie Denise Rene, Meyers/Bloom Gallery, Washburn Gallery, and the Wilhelm-Hack Museum. The business subseries also includes correspondence between Smith and his alma mater, East Central University, formerly known as Oklahoma State University.

Interviews consist of six typewritten transcripts of interviews conducted with Smith over the course of his professional career from 1950 to 1993, a 1995 video interview of museum director Robert T. Buck discussing the Brooklyn Museum's exhibition of Leon Polk Smith for the television program National Arts, and a 1965 interview transcript with gallery owner Lucile Horsley.

Writings include sixteen published and unpublished scholarly essays on Smith and his work. The series also includes notes and a brief artist's statement by Smith regarding the pros and cons of modern art galleries.

Financial records are 1978-1989 federal income tax filings and routine tax preparation and payment receipts for the corporate entity Leon Polk Smith, Inc. Smith's personal filing records from 1987-1989 are also included in this series.

Printed material consists of two books, including the Brooklyn Museum's monograph, "Leon Polk Smith: American Painter," newspaper clippings reviewing Smith's work, and exhibition announcements and catalogs of Smith's museum and gallery shows from 1941 to 1997.

A scrapbook contains newspaper clippings documenting Smith's years as an educator and artist in Oklahoma in the 1930s and 1940s.

Photographs are of Smith and his acquaintances circa 1930-1960, and a representative selection of photographs and color slides of Smith's artwork from 1939 to 1960.

Biographical/Historical Note

Leon Polk Smith (1906-1996) was a painter from New York, N.Y.


The papers of Leon Polk Smith were donated by the artist's partner, Robert Jamieson, in 1998. Additional materials were donated by Jamieson in 2002.


Funding for the processing and digitization of this collection was provided by the Leon Polk Smith Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.

A Finding Aid to the Leon Polk Smith Papers,
, in the Archives of American Art
Biographical/Historical note
Leon Polk Smith (1906-1996) worked primarily in New York City as a painter, educator, and lecturer. He is considered one of the founders of the hard edge style of minimalist abstract art.
Smith was born in Chickasha, Indian Territory one year before its formal incorporation into the Oklahoma Territory. Both of his parents were of Cherokee ancestry and he was raised in a small farming community that included Cherokee and Choctaw Indians. After receiving his teaching degree in 1934, Smith worked as an educator in rural Oklahoma communities and, at the same time, took the opportunity to introduce arts programs to local schools. In 1936, he enrolled in Columbia University's Teachers College to pursue a graduate degree in arts education and began painting full time. That summer, he visited the Albert E. Gallatin Gallery of Living Art at New York University, where he was first introduced to the work of the European modernists Constantin Brancusi, Jean Arp, and most importantly, Piet Mondrian.
In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Smith accepted university teaching positions at Rollins College in Florida, and New York University and Mills College of Education in New York. During this time, Smith moved beyond his early 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. In 1958, Betty Parson's Section Eleven Gallery showcased his new work in two one-man exhibitions, which introduced him to a wider audience of museum curators and art collectors. In the 1960s, Smith's work was included in two of his most important group exhibitions,
The Responsive Eye
at the Museum of Modern Art (1965) and
Systemic Painting
at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1966). In 1995, the Brooklyn Museum curated
Leon Polk Smith: American Painter
, a retrospective exhibition of Smith's career.
Smith produced works exploring shapes and lines, minimalist use of color, and modularity well into the 1990s and exhibited at a number of affiliated galleries, including the Stable Gallery, Galerie Chalette, Galerie Denise Rene, Washburn Gallery, and ACA Galleries. Smith died in 1996 in his home in Manhattan, at the age of 91.
Arrangement note
The collection is arranged as 8 series:
Series 1: Biographical Material, 1938-1994 (Box 1, OV 10; 11 folders)
Series 2: Correspondence, 1939-1997 (Boxes 1-5, 9, OV 10; 5 linear feet)
Series 3: Interviews, 1950-1995 (Boxes 5-6; 8 folders)
Series 4: Writings, 1963-1996 (Box 6; 13 folders)
Series 5: Financial Records, 1979-1990 (Box 6; 15 folders)
Series 6: Printed Material, 1941-1997 (Boxes 6-7, 9; .5 linear feet)
Series 7: Scrapbook, 1930-1940 (Box 8; 1 folder)
Series 8: Photographic Material, 1930-1990 (Box 8; 8 folders)
The papers of Leon Polk Smith were donated by the artist's partner, Robert Jamieson, in 1998. Additional materials were donated by Jamieson in 2002.
Processing Information note
The collection was processed, arranged, and described by Judy Ng and digitized in August 2011 with funding provided by the Leon Polk Smith Foundation and the Terra Foundation for American Art.

Additional Forms Available

The bulk of the collection was digitized in 2011 and is available via the Archives of American Art's website. Blank pages, blank versos of photographs, photographs of artwork, duplicates, and medical and routine financial documents have not been scanned. In most cases, only the cover, title page, and individual relevant pages have been scanned from published materials.

The video recording in this collection was digitized for research access in 2011 and is available at the Archives of American Art offices. Researchers may view the original cassette for the archival notations on it, but the original cassette is not available for playback due to fragility.

Restrictions on Access

Use of original papers requires an appointment and is limited to the Archives' Washington, D.C., Research Center. Contact Reference Services for more information.

How to Cite This Collection

Leon Polk Smith papers, 1938-1997. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

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