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Leon Polk Smith papers, 1938-1997

Biographical 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.