Kimber Smith at Cheim & Read

Kimber Smith, UNTITLED 1975. Acrylic on canvas, 20 x 14 inches. All images courtesy Cheim & Read

Kimber Smith: Paintings 1965-1980

Cheim & Read

March 5 - May 2, 2020


The lyric painter Kimber Smith died over 30 years ago. But the paintings up in this very good show at Cheim & Read’s new space look like they were done yesterday; their bright colors and fragmented, improvisatory air relate to ongoing directions in informal abstraction in New York. There is some work in art that is so stylistically closed as to discourage completely its continuation in the paintings of other artists, but Smith provides an open window for work of the future--look at the efforts of Mary Heilmann, whose giddy, colorful art echoes Smith’s work without copying it at all. Smith lived in the Hamptons in eastern Long Island, so there he must have noted the painterly style established by people like Pollock a generation before. Yet his own paintings are neither dramatic nor rhetorical, being instead joyous abstraction. 

Kimber Smith, KUP'S WHITE DIAMOND, 1970. Acrylic on canvas, 94 x 65 1/4 inches

Smith’s audience can see this immediately in the show. Kup’s White Diamond (1970), one of the most ambitious paintings in the exhibition, is mostly red, with diamond shapes abounding, some partial and some complete. The red takes up almost all of the background, with yellow diamond outlines framing a centrally placed white one, not completely filled by the white alone. Blue accents occur, in the form of shortish stripes and triangles, while the lower right of the painting is infused with a deep mauve. Interestingly, this painting is more geometric than most of Kimber’s art. It is hugely successful. Zday (1979 is much simpler, consisting of vertical but also angled yellow and red stripes that form something like the simple image of a house on the left, while on the right we see a black geometric image, whose head is joined by a short horizontal to a thickish stripe, itself joined again to a thinner stripe that runs down the lower right. The openness of this work, indeed of most of Smith’s work, could be occasioned by the flat, open landscape of eastern Long Island.  

Kimber Smith, TILT, 1980. Acrylic on canvas, 68 x 64 inches

Tilt (1980), painted shortly before the artist died, consists of three sets of abstraction: in the middle, four loosely worked triangles, yellow and red, which alternate while building a column; on the left, a series of blue flourishes, with two blue triangles on top, defined by a thin red line that zigzags across their boundaries; and on the right, green lines and splotches, outlined on the outer edge by a slender, regularly curving stripe. This painting, as happens with most of Smith’s efforts, allows the white of the background to play an important role. It would be easy to see his oeuvre as a series of unfinished works, but that is not the point. Instead, it makes sense to view the pieces as engagements with an esthetic defined by the partial, which suggests a greater completedness. 

Kimber Smith, M.G.S. 1974. Acrylic on canvas, 65 1/2 x 53 inches

What does the fragmentation imply if we want to enter into the meaning of the paintings? It may mean that they are ephemeral in ways that refuse melodramatic ambition in favor of improvised joy. An untitled work from 1975 consists of a yellow, rectangular frame, filled within by blue horizontal passage nearly touching each other. These are crowned by three yellow spheres, connected to each other by a ragged, angular blue strip. An acrylic work, it has the lighter weight of a watercolor. Smith offers us an uninterrupted view of a painting process that is inherently pleasing and enjoyable. His easy hand is memorable not only for its quick alignments, but also for an upbeat feeling for color that, now, acts as a memorial for a simpler, perhaps happier time. WM


Jonathan Goodman

Jonathan Goodman is a writer in New York who has written for Artcritical, Artery and the Brooklyn Rail among other publications. 


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