BAIA BITS: Vincent DaCosta Smith


Little Moments Where Knowledge Meets Art
In 1952, a very talented worker walked away from his position at a New York post office. After all, the 33-year-old had just witnessed a Paul Cézanne exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art with a fellow artist, and the show had triggered him to devote the remainder of his life to his true passion, his art.

Fortunately, for the rest of us, painter, printmaker, and teacher, Vincent DaCosta Smith, did just that. Born in Brooklyn in 1929 to Bajan immigrants, Smith dabbled in art while attending high school, working parttime, and studying piano and the alto sax. At 17, he joined the army and traveled with his brigade before returning and taking up painting and printmaking. Smith was hired at a local post office at age 22 where he would befriend fellow artist, Tom Boutis, the one who would take him to the Cézanne exhibit a decade later.

After the pivotal exhibit, Smith studied at the Art Students League in 1953 and attended classes at the Brooklyn Museum Art School. At this time, his paintings were influenced by both German Expressionism and local urbanity, given the rich New York nightlife and jazz clubs surrounding him in his native Brooklyn and nearby in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village and Lower East Side. One product of this phase was Smith’s popular “Street Scene” from his 1954 Saturday Night in Harlem series. His work would soon earn him several scholarships, one to the prestigious Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture in Maine.

Vincent Smith. “Jonkonnu Festival,” enhanced lithograph

In the mid-1960s, after his years of figurative work had been marginalized by the New York art scene’s focus on abstract expressionism, Smith took the lead from Romare Bearden’s pioneering use of collage and painted “The Voices Are Stilled” which depicted a street scene with the storefront office of the Congress of Racial Equality (C.O.R.E.). Similar to Bearden and his prominent artist collective, Spiral, Smith engaged with the Black Arts Movement, using his art to advance the cause of civil rights and relevant political organizations like C.O.R.E.

Smith began teaching art in 1967 and, for decades, taught at the Whitney Museum’s Art Resource Center and at the Center for Art and Culture of Bedford Stuyvesant. His work was showcased in numerous solo and group exhibits and in the collections of many major museums up through his December 2003 death at age 74.

Of his work, Vincent DaCosta Smith once offered the following: “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.”

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