Topics in American Art since 1945

By Lawrence Alloway | Go to book overview
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LEON POLK SMITH

Leon Smith works in oil paint, unlike most artists interested in using large areas of even color who tend to use acrylic paint. Smith prizes the density of oil paint which he builds up solidly until it is "like a wall," as he says. Acrylic paint, though very neat when used flat, results in a dematerialised image of color. The technique of Smith's, on the contrary, is one that intensifies the weight and, as it were, massiveness of tonally unmodulated color. For the first coat he uses plenty of turpentine as a medium, so that he can work quickly with the liquid paint. From the beginning his decisions about color areas arc pretty exact, leading continuously, without major changes, to the final image. The number of coats he lays in varies with the color: for yellows and cadmium reds, three is sometimes sufficient; for blues, somewhat lighter, five coats may be necessary. In these later coats Smith uses oil as the medium, so that the color is firmer and more solid. Successive coats arc laid on in different directions, north-south followed by east-west, which has the effect of reducing the presence of the weave of the canvas. It is not effaced on principle so that the color may be pure and imperturbable, but neither is it retained to become, as in much acrylic painting, an integral part of the dye-like paint.

The oil paint in the later coats is sticky enough to retain tracks of Smith's brushwork. This is a point worth stressing because the appearance of brush strokes (the record of pressure and indicators of direction) is a part of Smith's intent. The obvious functions of visible brushwork in abstract art are seismic (feeling expressed via touch) and sensuous (a manipulative play with paste). Smith's brushwork, however, is neither expressive nor hedonistic in these senses. The marks, seen within large, even color areas, stress the physicality of the paint, its weight as a substance. This is a means of control for Smith, inasmuch as the perception of large unbroken color areas tends to induce after‐ images in the spectator's eyes, and the protracted contact of the edge where the two bright colors meet may appear to oscillate. The brush

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SOURCE: From Leon Polk Smith (San Francisco, 1968), pp. 3-9, the catalogue of an exhibition at the San Francisco Museum of Art.

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