Inca by Leon Polk Smith
Inca by Leon Polk Smith (1970).

Leon Polk Smith, the Mid Century Modern artist who gave us hard-edged painting is known for his bold use of color and geometry. The artist grew up in Oklahoma and identified as Cherokee, though he did not do so publicly until late into his career. Still, the Heard Museum’s exhibition explores the question of how his work was inspired and shaped by Native American culture and identity.

Hiding in Plain Sight exhibition
A photograph and quotation from Leon Polk Smith stand at the beginning of the exhibition.

Hiding in Plain Sight

Leon Polk Smith’s words kick the exhibition off and serve as the launching point for the exploration of his work through the lens of Native American culture. As the exhibition catalogue names right away, however, the story is complicated. Smith self-identified as Cherokee but was not, so far as we know, enrolled as a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, and he did not claim his Native American identity publicly until 1996.

Still, Heard Museum director David M. Roche writes in the Foreword to the exhibition catalogue, “Museums do not decide who is Indigenous. In working closely with tribes and Indigenous artists, curators, and scholars for more than ninety years, the Heard Museum considers identity as a spectrum.” Even with the complexity around the issue of identity, exploration of Native American influence on Smith’s work proves fruitful.

Comanche Shield and Cover, Heard Museum
Unidentified Artist, Comanche Shield and Cover, c. 1880.

The exhibition displays Smith’s work alongside Indigenous art and artifacts allowing viewers to recognize the affinities. Take, for instance, the Comanche Shield and Cover above, which is representative of what Smith would have encountered in his native Southwest. Compare to Smith’s vibrant color and the implied circular shape in Constellation Yellow-Blue-Violet (below).

Constellation Yellow-Blue-Violet, 1972
Constellation Yellow-Blue-Violet by Leon Polk Smith, 1972.

The exhibition opened on February 4, 2021 and will continue until May 31 at the Heard Museum in Phoenix, Arizona. If you can’t make it to Phoenix, you can purchase the catalogue, with essays and images of the artwork, at Heard’s website.

Another influence on Leon Polk Smith was Piet Mondrian. Read about Mondrian’s Red Blue Chair here, with a museum curator as your guide.

And of course, don’t forget to follow us on Instagram, Facebook and Pinterest for more Mid Century Modern inspiration!