Hughie Lee-Smith's Boy with Tire incorporates the artist's signature imagery: introspective, solitary figures in desolate city- or seascapes that convey an overwhelming sense of isolation and psychological tension. Also present are the artist's recurrent themes of urban decay, alienation, and theatrical performance. Like much of Lee-Smith's work, Boy with Tire is a surrealist-inflected study in existential malaise as well as a reflection of the artist's lifelong attempts to fashion his own unique artistic and personal identity through a heightened engagement with diverse art historical precedents.

Born in Eustis, Florida, in 1915, Lee-Smith moved during childhood to live with his grandmother in Atlanta, attending carnivals that would later become a central component of his paintings. At the age of ten, he moved to Cleveland, taking classes at the Cleveland Museum of Art and the Cleveland School of Art (now the Cleveland Institute of Art). In the 1930s, he taught, designed stage sets, and co-founded an interracial dance group at Karamu House, considered the oldest African American theater.[1] He produced social realist-styled paintings and prints with a patriotic theme while employed by the Works Progress Administration (WPA) in Ohio during the Depression and served in the Navy during World War II. In 1953, he received a B.S. in art education from Wayne State University in Detroit. He moved to New York in 1958 and taught at the Art Students League in Manhattan. In 1963, he was elected an associate member of the National Academy of Design in Manhattan, the second African American to be named, and became a full member in 1967.[2]

Boy with Tire engages with Lee-Smith's frequent references to urban decay as a theme. In 1988, responding to questions from an elementary school art appreciation class in Rosebush, Michigan, Lee discussed Boy with Tire, noting that "There are boys and girls all over our country who do not have nice clothes to wear and live in tumbledown neighborhoods. Nevertheless, these unfortunate children find ways to 'have fun' despite ugly surroundings. The young lad in my painting found rolling an old, cast-off automobile tire could be great fun! So the tire became his 'toy' -- became his friend."[3] Lee-Smith's remarks call forth another theme in his work, that of loneliness and isolation. As Leslie King-Hammond has written, "Memories of his upbringing as an only child certainly informed Lee-Smith's images of solitude and play."[4] In Boy with Tire, this overwhelming sense of disconnect is amplified by a curled length of severed telephone wire in the foreground at right.

Lee-Smith's works have often been viewed as self-portraits, although the figures are often of indeterminate race or ethnicity.[5] It might be relevant here to ask whether his use of masks or the masquerade might reflect the idea of identity as a mask, an inference supported by his references to masquerade and the frequent use of balloons, carousels, and mannequins. Such an assertion leads to an additional theme in his work, the use of theatrical references or the carnivalesque. His earlier experiences in set designs at Karamu House have certainly figured into these scenes filled with meticulously placed framed pictures, curtains, mannequins, and classicizing architectural structures that function as props. They populate these scenes yet somehow heighten the tone of emptiness in these environments.

Still, another layer of meaning in Boy with Tire might be found in Lee-Smith's extensive studies of art history. This painting, along with other works by Lee-Smith, shares affinities with Family of Saltimbanques (1905) by Pablo Picasso (1881-1973), the best-known work from that artist's Rose Period, with its routed, pastel hues and isolated figures set within a sparse landscape. Picasso's roaming circus acrobats evince a rootless, unsettled quality that might also be applied to Lee-Smith's somber men, women, and children. Their sinuous and elongated bodies are rendered in the manner of the sculptor, painter, and printmaker Alberto Giacometti (1901-66). Such a connection would certainly be apt because of the Swiss artist's references to existential distress borne from the tragic loss of human lives during World War II and his characterization of modern life as unfulfilling and increasingly devoid of meaning.[6]

Boy with Tire is, in large part, a play on compositional design that constitutes a well-crafted study in rhythm, repetition, balance, implied line, and directional forces. The rudimentary tire forms the centerpiece, its significance underscored by the work's title as well as its curved form, a counter to the sharp angles found on the buildings and fence. Also of importance is the enigmatic shadow that expands in the foreground at the boy's right. In light of these elements, the work must be considered in relation to a well-known painting by Giorgio de Chirico (1888-1978), Mystery and Melancholy of the Street (1914), in which a young girl runs across a deserted public square with a stick and hoop towards an ominous shadow around the corner. In addition to the circular symmetry between Lee-Smith's tire and de Chirico's hoop, Mystery and Melancholy also shares other key elements with Boy with Tire, including distorted spatial configurations, elongated forms, and a psychological exploration of childhood memories that were critical to surrealist theory.

In the year that Boy with Tire was completed, Lee-Smith was engaged in extensive studies of de Chirico's work. He produced a series of paintings of slender youths running or striding along train tracks and in empty squares, armed with cast-away playthings like tires and wooden rods that evoked warrior shields, swords, or spears. Such objects endowed these young boys, in an America marked by urban disarray and race- and class-based inequities, with confident, heroic qualities that evoked the idealized warrior-athletes of ancient Greece. In all of these ways, Boy with Tire and other works by Lee-Smith from this period must be considered as far more than mere commentary on urban poverty in America. They must also be placed in context with the work of other early- to mid-twentieth-century artists whose works employed psychoanalytical examination to ask larger, philosophical questions about meaning, existence, and human capability in modern life.

-Beuchamp-Byrd, Mora J. Bulletin of the DIA 86, no. 1/4 (2012): 34-35.





[1] The Cleveland-based Karamu House was founded in 1915. By the 1930s, after receiving Works Progress Administration (WPA) funding, Karamu House gained increasing visibility and African American artists were hired as teachers. Lee-Smith taught painting and drawing classes there for a year. See L. King-Hammond, Hughie Lee-Smith, David C. Driskell Series of African American Art, vol. VIII (San Francisco, 2010), 15.


[2] The first member was the renowned nineteenth-century African American painter Henry O. Tanner (q.v.).


[3] Note from H. Lee-Smith to the children in Mrs. Barnes's class, May 1, 1988, the Estate of Hughie Lee-Smith, collection of L. King-Hammond. See King-Hammond 2010.


[4] King-Hammond 2010, 30.


[5] According to King-Hammond (Ibid., 1), "Lee-Smith loved a paradox. . . .Among some African American schools of thought, Lee-Smith's work may not have been 'black' enough-socially, culturally, or visibly. Are the subjects of his paintings even black? It's often hard to tell, and deliberately so. Certainly he spoke as an African American when, through his chosen medium, he interrogated the existential condition of black people in a society dominated by whites. But Lee-Smith worked long and hard to articulate even larger, still more complex questions concerning identity, humanity, and man's relationship to all things in the cosmos."


[6] Giacometti also considered his sculptures to be shadows of human forms, and thus elongated and distorted.
Artist Hughie Lee-Smith, American, 1915-1999
Title
  • Boy with Tire
Date 1952
Medium oil on pressed wood panel
Dimensions Framed: 27 13/16 x 36 3/4 x 2 1/2 in. (70.6 x 93.4 x 6.4 cm)
Canvas: 23 3/4 x 32 1/2 in. (60.3 x 82.6 cm)
Credit Line Gift of Dr. S. B. Milton, Dr. James A. Owen, Dr. B. F. Seabrooks and Dr. A. E. Thomas, Jr.
Accession Number 53.59
Department African American Art
Not On View
Signed Signed, upper left: Lee-Smith
Inscriptions Signed and dated in white, upper left: Lee-Smith | '52
1953-present, gift to the Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit, Michigan, USA)
Arts and Crafts in Detroit. Exh. cat., Detroit Institute of Arts. Detroit, 1976, p. 235, no. 308.

Beuchamp-Byrd, Mora J. Bulletin of the DIA 86, no. 1/4 (2012): 34-35.