Beautiful Grit: Vincent Smith’s Uncompromising Vision

The Brooklyn-born painter depicted his city, though he rarely saw anyone who looked like him on the walls of its museums


This is how the gallery bio for a 1970 solo show begins: “Vincent Smith was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1929. After a few years of work at various jobs, he decided to become a painter.” The artist’s laconic take on his own life leaves out some salient details: He was a child of immigrants from Barbados, and although a good student, he dropped out of high school (some say because he wanted to spend more time sketching than studying) and went to work on the Lackawanna Railroad. Next, he served a hitch in the Army, where he was stationed down South. Many years later, he told an interviewer, “This traveling was a real revelation for me, to experience the conditions under which our people had to live.”

In 1952, Smith was back in New York working at the Post Office when a friend took him to the Museum of Modern Art, where he encountered the paintings of Paul Cézanne. Decades later, he recalled, “For a year afterward I haunted the libraries reading everything I could get my hands on about art, literature, philosophy, religion, existentialism—you name it—I touched on it somewhere. That same year I resigned from the Post Office and decided to be a professional artist.” In 1953, he began taking classes at the Art Students League, studying under Reginald Marsh, a painter who reveled in the hurly-burly of city crowds—roisterers at Coney Island, hobos congregating on the Bowery, and other urban scenes. Similarly, the energy of the streets would infuse Smith’s work throughout his half-century career. (Smith died in 2003.)

He continued to study paintings in the museums, and was constantly struck by how rarely he saw anyone who looked like him on the walls, although he was meeting other Black artists in New York. “We were a strange group because people didn’t know what to make of us,” he said many years later, reminiscing about the 1950s. “They were used to Black musicians and performers, but the visual arts were sacred territory. Most people I came in contact with never knew a Black painter nor had they hardly ever heard of one. At that time Jacob Lawrence and Charlie White were the only known Black artists. Beauford Delaney was known, but only in the Village. But we hung out and hung in—in lofts, ballrooms, and in cold water flats.… We’d also drop in at the Whitney Museum and at the Hans Hoffman School, both of which used to be on West 8th Street. The abstract painters hung out in the Cedar Bar, but we preferred the Five Spot Cafe as that’s where they played jazz every night.”

Jazz is an enduring theme in Smith’s work, even when no one is singing and no musical instruments are in sight. In Pool Room (1954), one of the paintings currently on view in the Alexandre Gallery’s exhibition For My People, red dots of paint representing billiard balls pop with the syncopation of a drummer working a high hat slightly behind the beat, while white sleeves and shirts stretch and curve like a louche melody and the background’s predominate dark browns and blacks ring in harmony with ochre light coming in the windows.

Although it was painted a year before Smith met Jacob Lawrence (1917–2000) on a crowded train from Manhattan to Brooklyn, Pool Room feels strongly influenced by the older painter’s 1940-41 “Migration” series, which was well-known in part through Fortune magazine’s publishing 26 of the 60 painted panels that make up the series. Sponsored by the New Deal–era Works Progress Administration, Lawrence’s images narrate the movement of large numbers of African Americans from the rural South to the industrial North in the post–World War I era. Lawrence’s figures are simplified into lithe angles and arcs, while buildings, trains, and busses are rendered as interlocking vibrantly hued geometries. Smith, like Lawrence, had little need for exaggeration or hype, finding in the implacable struggle of existence—especially for those who are dealt an unfair hand—something vital and beautiful.

As he matured, Smith kept his forms stark but began endowing them with telling details. In the roughly three-by-four-foot canvas Saturday Night in Harlem (1955), a border of red rough bricks (or maybe they’re asphalt shingles) provides a proscenium framing a lively street tableau. A painter can be spied in the lower right corner, nail heads along the edges of the stretched canvases he is carrying lining up for a right-angle turn into the shirt buttons and bow tie of the dandy behind him. Some women have headscarves that drape in serrated triangles or enclose smooth ovals; children hold hands and form a pyramid that points to a black cross on a red ground sliced diagonally by zigzagging stairs, the entrance to a storefront church. A smaller piece from the “Harlem” series, titled simply Street Scene, pulls in closer, juxtaposing the billowing white curve of a nun’s habit against the wedge of a man’s shirtfront, a blood-red sky with a dark crescent moon as surreal as one of George Herriman’s Krazy Kat comic-strip panels.

Although Smith bucked the trend of pure abstraction that dominated the art world in his youth (and did the same with the pop and conceptual movements of later decades), he brought formal dynamism to every composition. Check out the near-sculptural cleft between the two figures in The Soul Brothers (1969). The pair of heads lean in conspiratorially, locking together like puzzle pieces, eyes secretive slits, grimacing grills for teeth. Is one whispering calumnies about the woman in the window? Are they rivals? Or protectors of virtue? This is the painter as playwright, as raconteur. Which isn’t especially surprising, considering that in the late 1980s the artist hosted a show on New York’s Pacifica Radio station, WBAI: “Vincent Smith Dialogues with Contemporary Artists.”

What, one might wonder, would be the discussion around Smith’s four-foot-high canvas Ritual Man (1972)? With a cinched tie and loud sports jacket, the protagonist presides a little above center, surrounded by concentric rectangles of slathered paint the color of smoldering embers and dried blood. He casts a side-eye out of the frame and is flanked by orange drips that coagulate into chickens’ feet—maybe sentinels to protect him from whatever unseen entity is approaching from offstage. Easter Sunday (1965) is divided by a slash of yellow that illuminates a bouquet of flowers held by a figure in the foreground and forms a spine connecting blood-orange sky and a multi-hued checkerboard of stained glass in the background. The vibe is one of renewal tempered by the sharp edges of lives lived close to the bone.

Similarly, a bright ray of yellow cuts catty-corner across Martin Luther King (1969), but the mood here is much weightier. At a distance one can discern the boldest element, in the lower right corner—a black handprint riven by cracks as if stamped into dried mud. Up close, a photo of Martin Luther King Jr.’s coffin in a wagon pulled by two mules comes into focus in the upper left. This shift in scale conjures a vision of the hand of God molding man from clay only to cast him upon the vicissitudes of history. Smith often leavened his paints with sand, and here the surface feels essential, grit as the base material of existence. There is a profound aura to this canvas that has perhaps gained resonance through the fact that the dead cannot defend themselves from demagogues—because it happens every year. This time, it was Senator Marco Rubio, of Florida. He tweeted, “‘When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir.’ Dr. Martin Luther King (1963).” Perhaps the GOP lawmaker was just promoting ideas about capitalism’s beneficence, but of course he was also using Twitter’s vast limitations to eviscerate the true meaning of the quote, part of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Here are the lines that Rubio bowdlerized:

In a sense we’ve come to our nation’s capital to cash a check.

When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men—yes, black men as well as white men—would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check, a check which has come back marked insufficient funds.

But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt.

We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.

The stirring image of “great vaults of opportunity” brings to the mind’s eye a young Black man wandering under the high ceilings and luminous skylights of the city’s museums, at that moment of unbounded cultural promise when New York found itself the art capital of the world. Smith, through grit, determination, and humanity, made this town his own.  ❖

Vincent Smith: For My People
Alexandre Gallery
291 Grand Street
Through February 26

R.C. Baker has been writing about art, politics, popular culture, and sports for the Village Voice since 1994.