PAUL K. SMITH
"Untitled Abstract", ca. 1920 | 21.75”x28” - oil on canvas
Paul K. Smith employed the same geometric forms he used to picture Colorado mining towns in creating this abstract painting, which is another example of his personal style. He framed the angular shapes with a green edge to contain the overall abstract pattern.
“Miner’s House at Victor, Colorado", ca. 1945 | 22x29 - oil on canvas
In this painting of a typical miner’s house in the old mining town of Victor, Colorado, Paul K. Smith uses vibrant colors and geometric forms to transform the ordinary town into an electric and eclectic place to live. The palette of complementary colors of red and green creates a visual sensation. His energetic style was personal and easily distinguishable from other artists of the era.
Smith studied commercial art and design at the St. Louis School of Fine Art for two years beginning in 1915. His studies were interrupted by World War I during which he served as a corporal in the U.S. Army. After the war he returned to the School of Fine Art and also studied at the Washington University School of Fine Arts in St. Louis with Fred G. Carpenter, himself a student of Jean-Paul Laurens at the Colarossi Academy in Paris. Carpenter was known as a marvelous colorist who “thought every inch of a painting should be fascinating…and should be as interesting close up as from a distance.” His approach is reflected in many of Smith’s paintings, both representational and abstract in style, done later in Colorado.
In 1921 Smith relocated to Denver where he studied for two years at the Denver Academy of Fine and Applied Arts, formerly located in Brinton Terrace on 18th Street in Denver’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. His teacher was John E. Thompson, another important influence as a pioneer of modernism in Denver. The Academy hired Smith as an instructor in 1923 and that same year the Denver Art Museum included his work for the first time in its 29th annual juried exhibition. He later had two solo shows at the museum, which added his work to its Anne Evans Collection. In 1959 the museum reproduced Houses at Victor, for its Western Heritage Exhibition catalog.
In 1928 he witnessed the Articles of Incorporation of the Denver Artists Guild, comprising most of the city’s professional artists. He also belonged to the American Artists Professional League, also organized in 1928 by fifteen members of the Salmagundi Club in New York to protect artists’ interest and promote traditional American art. He was one of some two dozen Colorado artists designated to participate in the Public Works of Art Program (PWAP, 1933-34), the first federally-sponsored program for artists during the Great Depression.
Around 1928 Smith became the “Hermit of Stuart Street,” and remained a life-long bachelor. One painting, View from My Window, depicts his immediate neighborhood. Living for more than thirty years at 1039 Stuart Street in West Denver, he gave up creature comforts that most people take for granted to have the freedom to devote his life to the pursuit of art. In the first twenty-five years of his career, his paintings focused on the Colorado landscape and its mining towns with their decaying buildings as relics of the past.
Miner’s House at Victor, Colorado illustrates the description of his work in this genre as described by Denver artist and art writer, Arneill Downs, “The jewel-like shapes and colors the artist uses give the most decrepit objects style. The decaying buildings of ghost towns, grouped together on canvas, glow like a patchwork quilt.” Smith described his technique as “I start lean and finish fat.” He worked first with turpentine as a medium and ended up with pure pigment put on with a palette knife. In addition to Colorado scenes, he did still lifes and images in the 1940s from Mexico and New Mexico.
While painting the Colorado mining towns he gathered old pieces of iron and glass, door handles, hinges off ancient stoves and other similar subjects which he elegantly termed his “objects trouvé” and incorporated into his still lifes. Over the easel in his studio in the late 1950s hung several doll’s arms, a little bluebird, some old faucet handles and a sign reading “masterpiece.”
By the early 1950s, he adopted a largely non-representational style, initially including referential abstraction in which human faces and figures were partially visible. However, much of his work during that decade was completely non-referential, emphasizing design that transformed his paintings into a “mosaic of abstract pattern.” He developed it from the patchwork quilt effect of his Colorado mining town images whose buildings he tightly grouped at various angles. For his non-representational canvases he likewise adapted the jeweled palette and scumbled surfaces from his earlier work, as exemplified by two untitled abstracts: one rendered predominately in gray, green and brown with squares and rectangles set in a frame, and the other with a variety of geometric shapes resembling a welded wall sculpture hung on a red background.
As noted in Smith’s artist statement in the 70th Western Annual at the Denver Art Museum in 1963, he did not predetermine the style of any particular piece. “There are times during the painting process,” he noted, “that the painting on the easel could eventually be either abstract or subjective. I sometimes start to do a painting of a still life or landscape and end up abstract…My interest in painting has to do with color, composition, balance, and self-expression.”
His willingness to work in a non-representational style predisposed him to become one of the founding members in 1948 of the 15 Colorado Artists, a supportive professional artists’ association active in Denver until the 1970s and dedicated to pursuing the progressive ideas emerging on the national art scene in the decades after World War II. In so doing the organization made an important contribution to the city’s cultural landscape. The Denver Art Museum recognized the “15” with an inaugural exhibition in December 1948 that included Smith’s Miner’s House at Victor, Colorado. Membership in the group, which changed over the years, was by invitation only. It mounted its own shows, also participating in the juried annuals of the Denver Art Museum. Smith likewise continued to exhibit with the Denver Artists Guild from which the “15” seceded, preferring to maintain his strong friendships there.
His achievements were succinctly described by Otto Karl Bach, Director of the Denver Art Museum (1944-1974):
Paul Smith’s work has evolved gradually from a deep investigation of dilapidated elements of his surroundings. It is a little consequence that these motivating sources may be partially rediscovered in his work, but it is important that one discovers the splendid new forms and glowing fusions of color into which they have been transformed.
The artist’s work is certainly part of the international abstractionist movement of our day. However, it has nothing in common with the superficial and fashionable elements of abstractionism which some painters assume and discard as if they were articles of clothing. Each of his works bears the strong stamp of his personality and vision and has been wrought from his own experiences. His transmutation of derelict objects into colorful abstractions is not leger-de-main, but it is the sum total of years of sensitive and creative reflection and work.
Solo Exhibitions: Denver Art Museum (1945, 1952); “Artist of the Month,” May D & F Department Store, Denver (c. 1957); Saks Gallery, Denver (1958).
Group Exhibitions: “Annual Exhibition,” Denver Art Museum (1923-1956); Denver Artists Guild, Denver (1934-prize, 1935-45, 1969-prize); Kansas City Art Institute (11938-39); Joslyn Museum, Omaha, Nebraska (1939, 1943-45); California Palace of the Legion of Honor, San Francisco (1946); Springville Museum of Art, Utah (1946); “Artists West of the Mississippi,” Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center (1949); 15 Colorado Artists, Denver (1948-1965); Gilpin County Art Association, Central City, Colorado (1949, 1952, 1958, 1960, 1964-award, 1972); “Denver Metropolitan Exhibits,” Denver Art Museum (Mulvane Art Center, Topeka, Kansas (1956, 1964); Lever House, New York City (1964); Blossom Festival, Canon City, Colorado (1969-award); “Coloradoans of Vision,” History Colorado, Denver (1978-79); “15 Colorado Artists: Breaking with Tradition,” Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver (2011).
Museum Collections: Smithsonian American Art Museum; Mobile Museum of Art, Alabama; Heyburn Alumni Art Collection, Heyburn, Idaho; Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center; Denver Art Museum; History Colorado-Denver; Denver Public Library Western Art Collection; Kirkland Museum of Fine & Decorative Art, Denver.