Black Over Red exemplifies the two major themes that dominated Leon Polk Smith’s artistic oeuvre, those of color and shape. With its bold placement of deep black juxtaposed next to saturated red, the painting details a visually engaging perspective and a harmonious space in the form of abstraction. The use of a shaped canvas is also characteristic of his signature style, as Smith himself was inspired by the interrelationship between positive and negative space, and how to deliver a convincing space with as few elements as possible. This has caused him to be viewed in the tradition of the De Stijl artists such as Piet Mondrian, who Smith claimed was his “great influence” (C. Ratcliff, B. K. Rapaport, A. C. Danto, and J. A. Farmer, Leon Polk Smith: American Painter, New York, 1996, p. 15).
Smith was born in Oklahoma and grew up among the Choctaw and Chickasaw American Indian tribes. He strived to retain his cultural identity through his abstract paintings, which were often inspired by the landscapes of the American Southwest and the sense of space that it evokes. As art critic Arthur Danto puts it, “our sense of geometry comes from the nature of space constructed as human habitat” (A. Dantop, quoted in C. Ratcliff et al., ibid. p. 19). In this case, Smith’s paintings are both Native and European in ancestry and his interest in abstraction and geometry developed through the way space can be distorted and multidimensional but without any use of traditional methods like shading and perspective.
Leon Polk Smith was influential to many later American abstract painters including Ellsworth Kelly, who shared his interest in seeking abstraction from nature. Smith does not create his abstract forms, instead, he transports them from fleeting glimpses of everyday life and turns them into pieces of art. His canvas then becomes the place where the transformation takes place, “my canvases are something like a magnetic field, and they have to be alive all over; how far will the forces that are established by this division of color carry? And with a large painting using only two areas, this has to be felt very keenly so that the forces will carry across the canvas to the edge of the opposite side, with an aliveness that makes each part of the canvas tremendously sensitive and responsive to every other part” (L. P. Smith, quoted in “A Conversation Between Leon Polk Smith and d’Arcy Hayman: The Paintings of Leon Polk Smith,” Art and Architecture, Autumn-Winter 1964).