Leon Polk Smith's iconic paintings inspired by Mondrian aim to express the 'endless space' of artistic freedom

© Leon Polk Smith, Constellation – Square Circle Violet Black Red, 1967

A new exhibition at the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago this month will feature paintings from Leon Polk Smith's iconic Correspondence and Constellations series which he produced over fifteen years between the 1950s and the 1970s.

Characterised by shaped canvases and pressurised compositions, the paintings of this era have come to represent the most signature works from the American artist’s career.

The show, entitled Endless Space, reveals Smith's nimble and daring shift from rectilinear canvases to shaped supports, and from single-panel works to involved, polyptych installations.

Smith’s compositions exceed the confines of the canvas and fuse together bright colours at a curved edge. "I was fascinated by the interchange of the positive-negative aspect of [Mondrian’s] paintings with no background," Smith described in a 1966 artist statement. "I was thrilled to think that if I could liberate this quality which he confined to the rectangle into a free form, that I would be able to express the endless space."

Says the Gallery: "As Smith’s large-scale paintings reveal an abundance of formal ingenuity, they also contain elements of personal narrative that demand further examination. Smith was born in 1906 to mixed, half-Cherokee parents near the territory of Chickasha one year before it was incorporated into the state of Oklahoma.

"The artist’s Native heritage and proximity to indigenous traditions provide a nuanced background for the role of space and colour within his compositions. With this biographical context, Smith’s abstract expanses thereby reemerge as open roads, infinite plains, and vast skies – vestiges of the artist's rural upbringing working on his family’s farm and constructing highways."

Offering an important frame of reference alongside Smith’s Native identity are his experiences living as a gay man in the McCarthy era of New York City. Art historian Jonathan David Katz discusses the artist's painted forms as a coded representation of the then-illegal homosexuality, a "redirection of the impersonality of geometry towards the chaos of desire."

Leon Polk Smith's Endless Space at the Richard Gray Gallery in Chicago runs until 23 November 2019.

© Leon Polk Smith – Red Triangle, Black Square, 1968

© Leon Polk Smith – Red Triangle, Black Square, 1968

© Leon Polk Smith – Untitled No. 7613, 1976

© Leon Polk Smith – Untitled No. 7613, 1976

© Leon Polk Smith – Installation view of Endless Space

© Leon Polk Smith – Installation view of Endless Space

© Leon Polk Smith – Installation view of Endless Space

© Leon Polk Smith – Installation view of Endless Space

© Leon Polk Smith – Installation view of Endless Space

© Leon Polk Smith – Installation view of Endless Space