Hughie Lee-Smith (1915-99) was a prominent African-American painter of the twentieth century whose work dealt not only with the problems and circumstance of marginalized communities but also the anomie and alienation often found in post-WW2 America (as in 1953’s The Piper, pictured above).
Raised in Cleveland, Lee-Smith (pictured above in a 1964 self-portrait) did much of his early work in the Detroit area. While he moved around the country as he became more successful and well-known, his most famous work commemorates a specific kind of Midwestern milieu I’ve found often lacking in my own art history gleanings. Just as Thomas Hart Benton’s paintings evoke the eerie, vacant oppression of the Midwest’s western borders, Lee-Smith turns the streetscapes and vistas of the nascent Rust Belt into his own unique world (as in 1952’s Boy With Tire).
I first learned about his work through the Detroit Institute of Arts, wherein several of his paintings hang (including most of the ones featured in this thread). They’re a highlight whenever I visit (I’ll be going again next weekend!) in a fitting showcase, as Lee-Smith studied there for some time. Seeing these renditions of quiet, near-deserted city streets and forlorn downtown rooftops, so immediately familiar from the world outside those walls, really centers both place and experience. His work’s scattered just as properly throughout the Midwest; I was pleased to run across 1957’s The Spectators (below) at the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts on my visit there last month.
Atop the quality and relevance of his work, his painting’s a much-needed reminder of the rich and complex diversity of a region too often written off as something of a cultural backwater, even today.
Happy Day Thread!