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The Juggler #1
Hughie Lee-Smith (American, 1915–1999)
Height x width: 32 x 24 in. (81.3 x 61 cm)
Medium or Technique
Oil on canvas
John Axelrod Gallery (Gallery 326)
The Juggler #1 exemplifies Lee-Smith’s most recognized and discussed paintings of the mid-1960s, which are characterized by their mysterious atmosphere and ambiguity and often feature isolated figures within a bleak, decaying landscape. Here, three figures appear on a crumbling concrete jetty at the edge of the water. They do not interact; in fact, they each look in different directions, oblivious to the others’ presence. Strong lighting obliterates the finer details of their faces, leaving masklike voids. The shadows resulting from the harsh glare seem to indicate that these people may not exist within the same moment—compare the angle of the shadows coming from the front two figures and the pole. One might wonder if there are two women wearing the same bathing suit, or two images of the same woman.
The title invites further speculation, since none of the figures in the scene can be identified as a juggler. The central male figure, who balances in his hand a rod that parallels the ribbon-bedecked pole, is not actually juggling. Yet with one hand behind his back and one leg raised, there is something acrobatic about him, as if he were lifted, mid-march, from a parade. Coupled with the waving ribbon, his pose evokes an air of the carnivalesque, though tempered by an anticlimactic sense of disappointment. The motif may be autobiographical: as a child, Lee-Smith was fascinated by a traveling amusement show that appeared annually in a field in front of his home. His stern grandmother forbade him from attending the festivities, believing it immoral. “It was the denial of the pleasure of ever attending that carnival … that established in my unconscious a life-long fascination with carnival life,” he reported towards the end of his life. 
“I am sincerely trying to get at something invisible and almost impossible to express,” Lee-Smith said of his paintings of the 1960s.  A meticulous technician, Lee-Smith was adept at blending figurative realism and surrealism, imbuing his scenes with a solidity and believability even as he sought the unseen. “I think my paintings have to do with an invisible life—a reality on a different level.”  He approached this invisible life by creating metaphysical set pieces like The Juggler #1. Filled with mystery and haunting melancholy, they are all the more uncanny because they appear to be grounded in a sense of stark reality that is generated by Lee-Smith’s careful rendering and tight compositions.
Lee-Smith’s unsettling scenes are visual expressions of his sense of personal and professional alienation—he explicitly linked his career struggles and his sense of loneliness to race. “In my case,” Lee-Smith told an interviewer, “aloneness, I think, has stemmed from the fact that I’m black… . The condition of the artist is already one of aloneness … being one of a group of outcasts in a society makes my sensitivity to the condition of aloneness much sharper.”  While deeply resonant with the experiences of African Americans, Lee-Smith’s works transcend race to address widely shared anxieties about existence and isolation.
1. Hughie Lee-Smith, quoted in Virginia Spottswood Simon, “Qualities of Loneliness and Light,” International Review of African American Art 16, no. 1 (1999): 4.
2. Hughie Lee-Smith, quoted in Carol Wald, “The Metaphysical World of Hughie Lee-Smith,” American Artist 42 (October 1978): 49.
4. Ibid., 101.
Signed in oil, lower left
About 1964, the artist. Private collection, N. Y. October 7, 2008, African-American Fine Art Sale #2156, Swann Galleries, New York, lot 40, to the MFA. (Accession Date: December 17, 2008)
A. Shuman Collection—Abraham Shuman Fund and Sophie M. Friedman Fund
Art © Estate of Hughie Lee-Smith/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY