Between 1956 and 1964, in a few short years, Leon Polk Smith produced a wonderful and largely overlooked body of works that continues his process of inquiry into the compositional possibilities of monochrome abstract painting. Disarmingly simple works on paper, or rather of paper, the “Torn Paper Drawings” are collages made of single sheets of thick paper, which Polk Smith colored, ripped, and scraped to great effect.
One of the earliest works is from 1956, a small vertical work with a single fine tear that arches from the top left to the bottom left corner and almost touches the right middle edge of the paper. Looking closely at the single, continuous, slowly but deliberately executed rip, we see how it is made visible as the white core of the paper, its fuzzy torn edge, stands against the deep black of the paper’s surface. By reversing the layering of the paper along the tear—tugging the top of the torn paper with the black surface intact underneath the bottom of the torn paper—Polk Smith brings to the fore the simple yet remarkable mechanism of the work. In subsequent works, the artist refines this basic process to produce richly detailed collages with tear lines of remarkable variety, thickness, and expression. One of the largest works in the group, an untitled collage from 1962, reveals the possibilities of variation in staggering richness. The overall composition is of a vertical rectangular picture plane, which is intersected by a basic ovoid shape incomplete along the left paper edge. Its basic outline is defined by three individual tears: one semi-circular rip that begins at the upper quarter of the left edge, arches upward, and ends at about the vertical middle of the paper; a second rip curves gently inwards, reversing the direction of the curve of the top one, and following the middle of the paper down to about the bottom quarter of the sheet; a third rip curves outward again and completes the shape by rounding it out and tracing it back to the left edge of the paper. But if we look closely, we can observe the variations of direction Polk Smith employs. The top semi-circle is torn and glued so that the upper part of the paper becomes the bottom element in the rip, revealing the white inside of the paper mass, here brought to the top of the surface. As the semi-circle pans out into a white wedge-like form, the direction of the staggering is reversed and the fuzzy edge of the upper part of the collage starts to tug itself under the similarly exposed flesh of the middle section of the collage, what could be called the inside of the ovoid form. The second curve, sloping inward and down, now has fully reversed the lay of the paper, the white line of the tear belonging to the left part of the collage. As the line changes into the final curve, this stacking of the paper elements reverses again and the right part of the collage assumes the top position once more. Further, Polk Smith manipulates the thickness, width, and fuzziness of the white strip of fleshy paper by additionally scraping and pulling away little flecks of surface layer. Some small parts of the collage are also painted over, revealing the artist’s compositional corrections, like tiny pentimenti in the process of finding the final shape of the line.
Almost every collage displays a variation on these elements, sometimes using two differently colored papers to highlight the rip as an edge between surfaces, sometimes exaggerating the scraping and broadening of the white paper flesh to turn the rip into a colored element of its own right (as in the group of delicate little black and white works.) For the two works [WG# 12538] (1962) and [WG# 12540] (1961), Polk Smith flipped the support surface, so that the colored side of the paper is on the verso, and the unpainted white side of the paper is on the front, making the rip come through as finely structured, fluctuating line of color. And for the glorious late works Cherokee Sunrise and Cherokee Sunset from 1964, the only works in the entire series with titles, the artist uses the positive and negative form of a torn-out flower shape to make two related collages. Cherokee Sunrise consists of a flower-like shape torn from a white piece of paper and applied to a bright yellow background. Cherokee Sunset shows the left over parts of the original white sheet of paper applied to a bright red surface, revealing the flowery shape as a red void set against the white border.
The Torn Paper Drawings evoke many references, most immediately maybe Henry Matisse’s late paper cutouts and collages, which were shown in New York at Pierre Matisse’s gallery in 1949. It is tempting to think that Polk Smith would have seen them there, and given their vibrancy and sheer exuberance of color and shapes, especially when combined with such economy of means, they must be considered as important predecessors to this series. But Polk Smith’s drawings reduce the figurative impulses in Matisse’s works to the essential questions of line and color, and only in rare cases do they register as recognizable shapes or figures. And ultimately, they venture into a different set of questions, concerned with process, repetition, and reduction; subjects, in short, that are identified with the contemporary forms and methods of minimalism and process art. As such, even if they are only a small and humble part of Polk Smith’s overall production, the Torn Paper Drawings seem perfectly poised at the threshold between two major moments in American post-war art, color field painting and Minimal art.
- Christian Rattemeyer, 2007