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Contemporary Art Gallery

555 Nelson Street
Vancouver, Canada
Admission always free

Today's hours
12 pm - 6 pm
14 May 21until22 Aug 21

Leon Polk Smith

Big Form, Big Space

B.C. Binning and Alvin Balkind Galleries

A painting by Leon Polk Smith. The work is a vibrant red, painted flatly all over. In the lower half of the image sits a large, light blue shape: two circles connected by a rectangular form.

Leon Polk Smith, untitled, 1962. Photo: Adam Reich.

The Contemporary Art Gallery presents the first solo exhibition in a public gallery in Canada by American artist Leon Polk Smith (1906-1996). Focusing on paintings and works on paper from the 1950s, the exhibition charts a critical moment in Smith’s artistic career in which the signature visual language of his work began to manifest, reflective both of prevalent trends of the time and an increasing engagement with the contexts of his upbringing and identity.

Through almost forty works, the exhibition traces a period in which Smith initiated a move away from the Eurocentric impulses of his formative years to embrace and make plain connections to his rural upbringing in the American Southwest, his Indigenous heritage and his identity as a gay man. At times playful, Smith’s refraction of his background is evidenced throughout his work: in his distinctive palette, in his approach to titling, and in the frequent evocation of body, place and landscape, at times recalling shapes, colours and patterns he experienced in his life, family and surroundings. Big Form, Big Space provides a timely opportunity to re-evaluate Smith’s place within art history, looking beyond the strict appreciation of his place within hard-edge modernist abstraction to encompass broader considerations of context, time and identity.

Guest curated by Nigel Prince

Leon Polk Smith: Big Form, Big Space is realized with generous support from the Leon Polk Smith Foundation and Lisson Gallery, London, New York and Shanghai.


Leon Polk Smith (1906–1996) holds a unique place in the long tradition of American geometric abstract painting. Born outside Chickasha in what would become the state of Oklahoma, to parents of mixed Cherokee and settler heritage, Smith grew up in a farming community among the Chickasaw and Choctaw nations. He graduated from East Central University in Ada, Oklahoma in 1934, before moving to New York City in 1936, where he attended Columbia University. He remained in New York for the rest of his life. He was a painter heralded for his lifelong commitment to simplified shapes, brilliant colours and minimal, intense compositions. Since his first solo exhibition in New York City in 1941, Smith has been the subject of numerous retrospectives, most recently Leon Polk Smith: Hiding in Plain Sight, organised by the Heard Museum, Phoenix, Arizona which presents his work alongside that of 19th and 20th-century Indigenous artists. His work is included in major institutional collections such as those of the Art Institute of Chicago; Brooklyn Museum; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; and Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.