Arrived in Winnipeg, Manitoba, from England in 1934, Gordon Smith studied at the Winnipeg School of Art under Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald. He enlisted in World War II, serving in London where he developed an interest in contemporary art. Following the war, Smith returned to Canada, settling in Vancouver and studying at the Vancouver School of Art, now the Emily Carr University of Art and Design. In 1951, Smith spent the summer at the California School of Fine Art in San Francisco where he took classes with Elmer Bischoff. Studying in the United States gave Smith invaluable first-hand experience with American painters; setting himself apart from most other Vancouver painters who only experienced the work by American artists second-hand.
Early in his career, Smith found himself interested in a wide variety of subject material, especially objects that featured layers of horizontal and vertical lines, like trees and scaffolding. Through symmetrical designs coupled with weather patterns, Smith used an impressionistic style to convey the passage of time in his paintings. His painting, “Structure with Red Sun”, from 1955 won first prize at the First Biennial of Canadian Painting at the National Gallery of Canada. Smith’s work can be compared to Roger Hilton’s lattice work paintings from the early 1950s as they have a shared palette of browns, ochres, and oranges. Although Smith was knowledgeable about the global art scene, there is no evidence that he had direct contact with Hilton.
Throughout the 1950s Smith’s paintings were widely celebrated particularly “Red Painting” (1957) featuring lily-pads. However, in the late 1950s, Smith denounced the English influences of Modernism found throughout his oeuvre, particularly landscapes. Abruptly in the mid-1960s, Smith changed his style to hard edge abstraction and had a newfound interest in colour theory from reading Johannes Itten and Josef Albers and visiting the Molinari exhibition at the Vancouver Art Gallery. Other Vancouver-based artists, such as Roy Kiyooka and Gary Lee-Nova, had taken up hard-edge abstraction at the same time as Smith. Smith avoided pop references in his paintings, and instead focused on creating works in colour harmonies that used difficult colours, like purples, greens, and yellows. In the 1970s, Smith returned to painting semi-abstract paintings of the sea and shore near Vancouver.
Smith was named to the Order of Canada in 1996 and was named a Professor Emeritus at the University of British Columbia. In 2007, he received the Audain Prize for Lifetime Achievement in Visual Arts.
Smith passed away in Vancouver at the age of 100 in 2020.