Born in 1929, Vincent D. Smith was a Brooklyn native and innovative African-American artist. By the late 1950s, he incorporated various modern approaches into his figurative painting practice, including expressionism, collage, politically- and socially-conscious subject matter. Unfortunately, as with other New York figurative mid-century painters, Smith received little recognition in a New York art scene that was dominated by Abstract Expressionists.
Vincent D. Smith in the 1950s
Inspired by a Cezanne painting exhibition at MoMA, Smith quit a postal office job to become a full-time artist in 1952. Smith studied at the Art Students League in 1953 with Reginald Marsh, and took informal classes at the Brooklyn Museum Art School (BMAS). There he met the artist Walter Williams, who he would later share a New York studio with.
His early expressive paintings, like Street Scene from his 1954 Saturday Night in Harlem series, reflect an interest in German Expressionism, which Smith studied at the Brooklyn Museum. His paintings of nocturnal urban scenes also reflected what he experienced firsthand on the streets of Brooklyn, and the nightlife of the Village and Lower East Side. “During the day I painted and at night I went to the jazz clubs,” Smith told New York Amsterdam News. In 1955, Smith was awarded a scholarship to study that summer at the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine. That fall he received another scholarship to formally enroll in the BMAS. During that period, Smith connected with a group of other African-American artists working in New York that included Cliff Jackson, Sam Middleton, Earl Miller and Walter Williams.
Political Works of the 1960s
Smith’s painting further developed with his incorporation of collage elements in his later, more political 1960s works. Smith was certainly aware of Romare Bearden’s groundbreaking use of collage in 1964, and the artist collective Spiral Group, where Bearden’s turn to collage was encouraged. Vincent Smith’s 1965 painting The Voices Are Stilled, (First New York Office of C.O.R.E.), which sold for $21,600 in February 17, 2011 (a record at the time of sale), includes a street scene with the storefront office of the Congress of Racial Equality (or C.O.R.E.) This creative period coincides with Smith’s association with the Black Arts Movement of the late 1960s. Artists’ groups like Spiral responded to Civil Rights struggles, and artists participated in group exhibitions to support political organizations like C.O.R.E.
“My approach has always been very spontaneous and sort of inventive, instinctive, intuitive, I tend to refer to whatever I am doing as an orchestration. I may be working with seven or eight ingredients at the same time—oil and sand, dry pigment and collage and pebbles and dirt and so forth. To control all of these elements, all of these things have to work together in a certain way so that when the finished product is presented, it makes sense. When I hit, I’m like a conductor.”
Vincent D. Smith for American Visions.
Vincent D. Smith’s Technical Evolution
The figures in the 1968 paintings that are in our Fall 2019 auction are no longer painted, but also collaged, photographic images cut from newspapers or magazines. As evident in his nocturnal view of a brownstone, a tableaux with different scenes inside each window, Smith’s approach to painting is now multimedia.
Vincent D. Smith’s paintings engage many of the social issues of postwar America. He created a unique, expressive voice in addressing the conflict and culture found in urban African-American communities. His art follows in the steps of the social-realist art of Jacob Lawrence and Hughie Lee-Smith, but also has much in common with his contemporaries Benny Andrews and AfriCOBRA. Unlike these artists, his secondary auction market has yet to breakout. The April 5, 2018 sale of Attrition set Smith’s most recent auction record of $67,000, more than tripling the previous record of $21,600 for The Voices Art Stilled, (First New York Office of C.O.R.E.).