Contributed by Jonathan Stevenson / When the Minimalists were casting paintings as nothing more than value-free objects in the world and the Pop Artists were knocking them off their elitist pedestal, Vincent Smith (1929-2003) was stalwartly maintaining his belief in the form as a conveyor of social reality and, beyond that, an instrument of political assertion. With great substantive range and technical facility, he invested his throat-grabbingly expressionistic paintings of the urban vistas and signature characters of Harlem and Brooklyn — sixteen now on display at Alexandre Gallery on the Lower East Side — with the brimming emotion of the African American nation. He made the work in this exhibition between 1954 and 1972, so the varied subject-matter is perhaps expected. More remarkable is the potent through-line of his vision.
Three paintings from Smith’s Saturday Night in Harlem series, made in 1954 and 1955, acknowledge the jazzy content of the Harlem Renaissance — two bustling street scenes and a laid-back pool hall — and perhaps African culture. But the backdrops and figures are notably subdued, as if to suggest that the party must soon end. By the mid-sixties, as the civil rights protests crested, veiled cultural commentary gave way to more direct concern and exhortation, then to muted despair. In Easter Sunday (1965), a thin shard of light ekes through to a worshipper alongside a darkened church. For My People (1965) — which provides the show’s title — presents a Black speaker behind a makeshift podium in the middle of the sidewalk, pointing the way as pedestrians mill. The preacher in Fire and Brimstone (1968) seems inert and hapless.
Arguably, the show’s thematic core consists of several paintings from the late sixties and early seventies. Anchoring this set is the haunting Martin Luther King, painted in the year following his death, in which a black hand reaches upward towards a glimmer of yellow light opposite his vague image. Washing over all these pieces is a tactilely applied red, the oil paint mixed with sand, that proximately depicts bleak urban structures that trap Smith’s subjects: King’s follower, soul brothers, a faceless Vietnam vet scarcely more than a rictus, world-weary building supers, a guy blandly into his look, pies baked for children, the sun itself. Metaphorically, Smith’s scarlet ether scans as a dense and pervasive forcefield, forbidding to breach and escape. In the sardonic On a Sunny Day, not a single photon is evident, only a dusty red facade of windows and fire escapes. Welcome to my world, he is saying, not rueful so much as declarative. Though connecting the red to violence experienced and anticipated is probably overreaching, it’s hard to resist.
The show is curated and hung with clear but unassuming purpose. The plain relevance of Smith’s paintings spans generations. They fit nicely with the work of rough contemporaries like Jacob Lawrence and Charles White, somewhat younger artists like Barkley Hendricks and Kerry James Marshall, and rising young painters such as Jordan Casteel, Jennifer Packer, and Henry Taylor. Gone almost twenty years, Smith would applaud the increased currency of Black artists today. But he would undoubtedly lament the fact that his larger social message of hope deferred resonates now as much as it ever has.
“Vincent Smith: For My People,” Alexandre Gallery, 291 Grand Street, LES, New York, NY, Through February 26.