At first, Kimber Smith’s paintings seem to be all about color, unadorned primaries held in a few simple shapes, evoking a modern lineage from Matisse to Color Field painting. Smith (1922-1981) was well aware of this impression, but also quick to challenge it. In a 1975 interview for the French magazine Art Press, he told Stanislas Ivankow, “Structure interests me. . . it holds things together. I am often called a colorist, which is maybe true, but I couldn’t care less about color: I take two or three tubes, sometimes the fullest ones. . . there it’s green, but it could have been black. . . that red could equally have been black. Color really isn’t important for me.”
To build the structure that interested him, Smith relied on a condensed lexicon of forms: circles, arcs, triangles, lozenges, zigzagging lines, rectangles. His paintings of the 1960s and 1970s generally feature three or four different types of shapes, stacked or placed side by side, almost never overlapping. The numbers of colors are similarly limited; acrylics taken straight from the tube, applied with washes. Even when working on large canvases, Smith has a strikingly casual technique: color is brushed on lightly, enough to indicate a shape and color but no more; areas of primed canvas between forms remain untouched; circles are left incomplete. It’s as if the artist is treating his canvas like a sketchbook page or a preparatory gouache.
But in fact, Smith was anything but casual about his paintings. Deeply struck by the Italian primitives (Cimabue, Fra Angelico), religious icons, and the mythic art of Oceania, he believed his paintings to possess a spiritual power. At the same time, they were often linked to the everyday world around him: roses growing in a garden, a piano played by one of his sons, a cathedral seen during a summer in Brittany. In the last years of his life as he battled cancer, his encounters with medical technologies (such as cobalt treatments) also found their way into his paintings.
Smith emerged as an artist not in his native U.S. but in France, where he lived for most of the 1950s and 1960s. A close friend of Shirley Jaffe and Sam Francis (Smith, Jaffe and Francis were featured in an important three-artist show at the Centre Culturel Américain in Paris in 1958), he was taken with the spontaneous energy of Abstract Expressionism, but the alphabet of shapes he developed, his highly personal geometric sign system, took him into new and different territory. So did his willingness to tolerate what looked to some like unfinished paintings.
Despite the fact that Kimber Smith lived and worked in France and the U.S., serious appreciation of his work has been largely confined to Switzerland (the Kunstmuseum Winterthur mounted a major survey in 2004). At a moment when a younger generation of painters is discovering the virtues of the unfinished, what I have elsewhere termed “provisionality,” it is easy to imagine Smith’s joyfully alla prima, deceptively casual-looking canvases finding a much larger audience.