Hassel Smith was active as a painter from the late 1930s to the late 1990s. His diverse oeuvre spans the seeming contradictions of abstraction/ figuration and expressionism/ hardedge. Yet the continuum of his praxis conforms readily to the dialectical progression of thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Though infatuated by vaudeville, employing painterly equivalents of slapstick and caprice with deft effect, Smith was confirmedly anti-nihilistic and a visual thinker of clear purpose and incisive instinct. In appreciating the art of Hassel Smith one may grasp the principle of contradiction as a catalyst for renewal, perceiving within the flow of contrasting methods and concerns both the freedom and the disciplined energy of an artist for whom: "In art there are many problems, yet art itself is never a problem."
Smith attended Northwestern University during the mid-1930s, pursuing an active social life amid the bars and dance halls of Chicago while studying both widely and brilliantly. Absorbing the influences of the World’s Fair and the great historical collections of painting to be seen in mid-30s Chicago, as well as the appearance of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo (under the direction of Massine—which made a lifelong impression), Smith sidelined his passion for chemistry to major in art history, winning a graduate scholarship to Princeton for the fall of 1936. But a decision to follow summer classes in drawing and printmaking at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco, prior to assuming the Princeton scholarship for a Master’s in art history, proved fateful. The influence of his tutor, Maurice Sterne, did not merely encourage a radical change in the focus of Smith’s life, it helped determine the kind of artist that Smith would become.