For My People
The late Vincent Smith’s painting For My People (1965) depicts the kind of rooms where collective knowledge of injustice mobilized into a movement—in this case, a street corner in front of a pawn shop and bar. An orange-haired Malcolm X orates with such passion that his right arm slices outward as a hard horizontal line. Drawing its name from this painting, Smith’s exhibition “For My People” contains 16 oil paintings from between 1954 and 1972, each depicting Black life in New York City, from jazz clubs on weekday nights to the burgeoning Civil Rights movement.
The influences of Smith’s studies and his philosophical forebears—African masks encountered on trips, the artists Paul Cézanne, Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence, the writer James Baldwin—bare their marks here. In Fire and Brimstone (1968), a preacher with a distinctly blocky body reminiscent of Lawrence meets the thick, marshy marks characteristic of Smith. The shadow cast over the forehead and nose bridge of Girl with Flower (1972) recalls the elegant cuts of, for instance, a Doei ancestor mask.
Nevertheless, Smith painted in a class of his own. Light takes on a strange quality in these paintings, sometimes scintillating through color roughened by sand, cloth and collage. Expanses of rouged color, like a slice of flayed skin or dim static, recall the experience of peering into a dark room, the slight shards of light ricocheting off one’s irises. They give way to amazingly unusual compositions. In Apple Pies for the Kids (1971), a small figure is almost hidden by a table beneath two barred windows. Taken as a whole, the vignette resembles a giant, gaping, hungry face—a mask of its own. —Lisa Yin Zhang
Vincent Smith, Girl with Flower, 1972. Oil, sand and collage on canvas 36 x 48 inches