This essay originally appeared in the catalog
"The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward" (2002)
“I keep trying to inspire people but whether
this compensates for my sins, I don’t know.”
Limojon Saint-Didier's The Aphorisms of Urbigerus, Paris c. 1688
Peggy Biderman and Harry Smith, Chelsea Hotel, circa 1970
Harry Smith, undated drawing, ink on napkin
In the ten years since his death, Harry Smith’s (1923–1991) work and reputation have emerged from near obscurity to unforeseen cultural eminence. Painter, filmmaker, folklorist, anthropologist, and occult practitioner, Smith’s multi–faceted work has been the subject of two Getty Research Institute symposiums, in 2001 and 2002. (1) In 1997 the Smithsonian/Folkways reissue of Smith’s seminal Anthology of American Folk Music (1952) (six CDs with extensive notes) became an unexpected best–seller, and reawakened an interest in the traditions of American folk music among young listeners and musicians that nearly equalled its initial impact in the 1950s and early ‘60s. A wide—ranging oral biography, a chapbook of early biography, and a volume of selected interviews with Smith have also recently appeared. (2) During his lifetime Smith was known primarily in the underground film scene for his meticulously hand—painted and animated films (as well as for his bizarre and sometimes disruptive behavoir at their screenings). But his visual art—which he valued most highly—has remained hitherto unseen.
The present exhibition is a first step in presenting the visual art of Harry Smith to the general public. In so doing, I have chosen to place his work in the context of two artists for whom Smith is a crucial link to a wide and uncannily similar set of concerns. The painters Philip Taaffe and Fred Tomaselli have separately explored a great many of the themes central to Smith’s aesthetic: an examination of the nineteenth century metaphysical origins of abstract art that began with German Idealism and the concept of the Sublime, and extended to the practices of spiritualism and Theosophy; a renewed interest in
the nineteenth–century botanical and zoological illustrations of Karl Blossfeldt and Ernst Haeckel, whose depictions of idealized forms and generative growth exerted a crucial influence on the early practitioners of abstraction; an engagement with folk art and traditional music as repository of vital forms and primordial impulses; a familiarity with the symbolic languages of medieval and Renaissance magic and cosmology; a search for connected cultural patterns in diverse anthropologies; and an abiding interest in the visual evocations of trance states as induced by psychoactive plants and neurostimulants—to name just a few of the more pronounced subjects in the work of these three artists. It is ironic that these concerns, which so effectively marginalized Smith as a visual artist in New York in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, are now the very subjects that make his aesthetic so prescient, and his work so appealing to younger artists.
Smith's Anthology, Folways, 1952
Woody Guthrie, c 1940s
Harry Smith recording Lummi tribe, c 1938. Photo by Bill Holm
American folklorist Francis
James Child (1825-1896)
Harry Smith was born in Portland, Oregon, in 1923. As Rani Singh has noted, “Both parents were Theosophists, who exposed him to a variety of pantheistic ideas, which persisted in his fascination with unorthodox spirituality and comparative religion and philosophy. By the age of 15, Harry had spent time recording many songs and rituals of the Lummi and Samish peoples and was compiling a dictionary of several Puget Sound dialects. He later became proficient in Kiowa sign language and spoken Kwakiutl. In addition to developing a system of notating traditional dance, he also amassed an important collection of Northwest Coast artifacts, the first of a number of museological endeavors that occupied Smith throughout his life.” (3) A remarkable photograph exists of Smith, still in his early teens, engineering a recording session inside a sweat lodge, surrounded by the elders of the Lummi reservation. Smith later studied anthropology at the University of Washington in Bellingham for five semesters between 1943 and 1944.
Smith’s fascination with notational systems, and his lifelong investigations into the correspondences between sound, movement, and images, originated in the method he devised for transcribing Native American dance. He observed how the graphic marks corresponded not only to the dance patterns but to the music as well. “In an effort to write down dances, I developed certain techniques of transcription.
Then I got interested in the designs in relation to music. That’s where it started from,” Smith told P. Adam Sitney in 1965. “Diagramming the pictures was so interesting that I then started to be interested in music in relation to existence.” (4) Smith’s soon he began to amass a vast collection of recorded music of all types, including American Indian, Japanese, and American folk music.
On a brief visit to Berkeley in 1943 Smith attended a Woody Guthrie concert (where he smoked marijuana for the first time). Shortly after he began to focus his record collecting solely on the American folk traditions of blues, ballads, country, and Cajun music. The disappearance of the popular market for this music, combined with large–scale melting down of records for shellac during the war effort, made this activity a race against time. Smith often bought out entire recordshop inventories. This was one of the few periods in his life when Smith enjoyed financial security. He held a lucrative job at the Seattle Boeing aircraft factory, where because of his diminutive size he was able to crawl through the narrow spaces in planes to install electrical wiring.
Through careful selling and trading, eventually Smith’s collection of 78 r.p.m. recordings covered the entire range of American traditional music. Smith’s farsightedness in assembling such a collection is all the more commendable when one considers that much of the music he was collecting was in many cases only fifteen or twenty years old.
When World War II ended and Smith was released from his job at the aircraft factory, and traveled south to Berkeley, attracted by political and intellectual atmosphere of the university. During the Berkeley years Smith lived on public relief. He listed his occupation as “decoy duck painter,” since the government unemployment agency was required to locate jobs in one’s professional field. The small apartment Smith occupied (in exchange for yard work) was by chance downstairs from Dr. Bertrand Bronson, the pre–eminent scholar in ethnomusicology at Stanford University, and the leading expert on Francis J. Child (1825–96), the Boston–born ballad hunter whose five volumes of American ballads remains the definitive work on the subject. In Bronson, Smith met his match—not only in record collecting but in systemization: Bronson had pioneered a pre–computerized concordance of Child’s ballads using an ingenious method of mechanically sorted punch cards. (5) Although Smith often expressed regret that he did not take greater advantage of Bronson’s knowledge, Bronson’s methods clearly influenced Smith’s scientific approach to folk music, (particularly later in life when Smith’s approach focused almost entirely on phonetic and linguistic analysis). Their friendship ended badly after Harry connived Bronson’s wife to trade him some of the Doctor’s records while he was away on a ballad–hunting expedition.
Harry Smith recording Lummi tribe, c 1938. Photo by Bill Holm
The art of the Pacific Northwest tribes, with graceful curvilinear forms and symbolic elements organized into unit structures, was an early and lasting influence on Smith’s artistic sensibility. (The glyph would be one of Smith’s favored motifs throughout his life, and the subject of enormous research.) His parent’s occult leanings also played a part in the formation of his aesthetics: as a child Smith frequently played in the attic among magic lanterns and Masonic paraphernalia, and as a teenager he spent hours in the public library poring over C. G. Jung’s study on the mandala. But it was his discovery of Wassily Kandinsky (1866–1944) and his books On the Spiritual in Art and Point and Line to Plane which proved a revelation (Smith favored the latter volume for its more practical approach). Through texts and illustrations, Kandinsky examined the interrelationship between painting, music, sacred geometry, and natural growth patterns, graphically expressed in terms of rhythm, dynamics, and tonal equivalents between color and sound. It became a bible for Smith, and in years later whenever
a young person asked him for advice on painting he invariably recommended this book. (6)
Harry Smith in Jimbo's Bop City, c. 1952
The principles of abstract art as enunciated by the pioneers of abstraction, Kandinsky, Mondrian, and Kupka—all Theosophists—had an effect on Smith tantamount to a religious conversion. Abstract art became the one activity capable of uniting all of Smith’s diversified interests. And to these interests was a now crucial element was added to the mix: be–bop.
Chromatic (using all twelve notes of the scale), as opposed to diatonic (the western “classical” seven–note scale), be–bop offered a staggering array of harmonic complexities and improvisational freedom. In the music of Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Charlie Parker, Smith found a revolutionary music which unlike his other interests was a contemporary expression of his own generation—an aesthetic of the now.
In Point and Line to Plane, Kandinsky demonstrates in point and line the graphic interpretation of the opening themes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Smith applied this method literally to be–bop compositions. Photographs preserve evidence of numerous remarkable paintings and murals composed according to his invented systems of notational equivalence. For visitors he would put on a Dizzy Gillespie record and point out how each note had its equivalent in each mark. The idea of correspondence between music and painting certainly did not originate with Smith, as he was well aware. Unique to Smith, however, was the degree of precision in executing a one–to–one correspondence when combined with an unparalleled aesthetic freedom that ensued from the combination of jazz and abstract painting (to say nothing of marijuana).
Rudolf Bauer, Red Staff, 1937. Oil on canvas
51 1/2 by 51 3/4 in. 130.8 by 131.4 cm
Smith always felt more comfortable with black culture and society, and in 1946 he moved to San Francisco’s Fillmore District. He rented a tiny room above a soul food restaurant which had a small backroom that served as an afterhours jazz club named Jimbo’s Bop City. Smith’s closest friend during this period was a remarkable artist, Jordan Belson. The similarities in their interests were uncanny. Also a bebop enthusiast, he shared Smith’s interest in psychedelics and Eastern religions. As a painter and graphic artist, Belson was influenced by Kandinsky, and even more by the work of Rudolf Bauer (1889–1953). Belson described their relationship as “a friendly rivalry.”
Harry Smith, Zodiac drawing,
colored pencil, watercolor and
acrylic enamel on bristol board.
14 1/2 x 14 3/4 inches (37 x 38 cm)
Harry Smith, Zodiac drawing,
colored pencil, watercolor and
acrylic enamel on bristol board.
14 1/2 x 14 3/4 inches (37 x 38 cm)
To non–objective painting and be–bop a third element was added in 1946: experimental film, and the combination of the three would be stamped upon Smith’s life like an emblematic trinity. In 1946 Smith and Belson attended the San Francisco Museum of Art’s Art in Cinema series, (7) where they saw for the first time the abstract films of Oskar Fischinger, Norman McLaren and the Whitney Brothers, as well as a wide assortment of avant–garde works. Shortly thereafter
both artist began making films, Smith painting directly on blank 35mm film stock, Belson painting on long scrolls of paper. To Belson’s thinking, painted or animated film became the most dynamic way to unlock “the energy concealed invisibly within forms” (8) For the next half dozen years Belson and Smith together would explore (and explode) the possibilities of non–objective art.
The Art in Cinema series became an annual event and the following year Smith became a volunteer to the festival. He was sent to Los Angeles to enlist the further support of Oskar Fischinger (1900–1967). Since the early 1930s Fischinger had been making abstract films set to jazz and classical music, sometimes involving multiple projections; he was also a student of Buddhism and Hinduism, and had developed elaborate procedures involving chance operations in his works. His works were shown by Moholy Nagy at the Bauhaus, where they were greatly admired by Kandinsky. Fischinger left Germany in 1933 and settled in Los Angeles in 1936. “In more than fifty films, and in a lifelong career as a painter, Fischinger pursued what he alternately called ‘visual music,’ or ‘optical poetry.’” (9) Here was a living connection to Kandinsky and so much else that Smith admired, and throughout his life Smith remained devoted to Fischinger’s work.
Using concentrated dyes and a variety of techniques (including resist, batik, masking, and spray painting) Smith began the meticulous and laborious process of hand painted films. When viewed in good prints and proper projection, the visual impact of these films are remarkable; unfortunately because they fall within the unusual genre of hand painted film and are seldom shown, their importance as a genuine contribution to the vocabulary of abstract art is overlooked.
“I had a really great illumination the first time I heard Dizzy Gillespie play. I had gone there very high, and I literally saw all kinds of colored flashes. It was at that point that I realized music could be put to my films. My films had been made before then, but I had always shown them silently.” (10) Having been raised a Theosophist, Smith was aware of the remarkable illustrations to C.W. Leadbeater’s and Annie Besant’s “Thought–Forms,” (1895) which contained a series of paintings based on the music of Bach, Mozart, and Scriabin; these Smith always considered the first non–objective paintings. (11) Discussions of the correspondence between color and sound figure prominently in the works of philosophers and scientists from Pythagoras to Isaac Newton, and ultimately can be traced back to the ancient Indian notion that vibratory emanations such as color or sound are products of the original Creation. In editing his hand–painted films of this period, Smith used the time–based factor of film to synchronize visual and aural patterns to bodily rhythms of respiration and pulsation. The intent was to create a work of art that would affect the entire physiological being, not unlike a drug.
While often using novel techniques, Smith always created his art in a dialogue with ancient traditions. One conversation with the past that engaged Smith throughout the 1950s involved synesthesia (Greek syn = together/union; aisthesia = perception/sensation), the principle of correspondences between sense perceptions such as colors, sounds, and smells. Although the principle was first suggested by Pythagoras and examined by Aristotle, and later pursued in a more scientific light by Liebniz and Isaac Newton, the concept has always found its truest expression in the visions of poets and painters. Synesthesia also figures prominently in the drug experience, when conditioned pathways that normally separate sensory experiences often dissolve. The use of opium and hashish inspired Charles Baudelaire to compose his poem “Correspondences,” where “perfumes, colors, and sounds respond to one another.” Arthur Rimbaud famously equated vowels with colors, and Paul Cézanne (who seems to have been genuinely synesthetic) often stated that his desire to transfer the sense of touch to sight (the haptic) lay at the root of his painting. But it was the invention of color sound film that made this theory a reality, and Smith richly mined these cross–associations.
In the late 1940s, Belson had begun corresponding with Hilla Rebay (1860–1967). (15) Rebay was a Theosophist and follower of Rudolf Steiner, and founded the Museum of Non–Objective Painting in New York, the forerunner to the Guggenheim Museum. In 1948 Smith and Belson met Rebay at San Francisco airport, and drove fist to Belson’s studio in Berekeley, and later visted Smith’s room above Jimbo’s Bop City. Smith played Dizzy Gillespie records and gave his demonstration. Hilla Rebay responded by sending him books and slides of non–objective works, and provided him with a stipend of thirty dollards a month.
By 1950 Smith was was showing his films to live jazz, usually in Jimbo’s Bop City, although he also brought jazz musicians to play at his screening at the San Francisco Museum of Art that same year. In creating a total environment of color, sound, and light, Smith partaking in a tradition which had been alive since the late Renaissance. Film historian William Moritz has carefully traced the fascinating history of color organs and keyboards (12) The painter Giuseppe Achimboldo (1530–1593) used his knowledge of hydraulic mechanisms to present harpsichord recitals with corresponding colors for every note played. ) A figure of great importance to Smith was the Jesuit Athanasius Kircher (1602–1680), “Master of a Hundred Arts,” who devised automated hydraulic organs that may have been combined in performances with projections from his Magic Lantern. From the Ocular Harpsichord (1735) to the myriad versions of the Colored Organ in the twentieth century, such inventions have attracted composers from Telemann to Scriabin. Oskar Fischinger himself invented a color organ known as the Lumigraph, which is preserved in Franfurt and still performed on occasion.
Harry Smith book cover design for Aleister Crowley’s Holy Books of Thelema (Samuel Weiser, 1983)
Throughout his life, psuedo–scientific ideas laden with occult overtones fueled Smith’s works in every medium. He relished the rich lode of symbol and metaphor they supplied. His relation to these ideas was ambivalent. Sometimes he fell into highly delusional and destructive involvements with these ideas, at other times he used them with great humor and insight, and at
still other times he dismissed them altogether as foolishness. There is no question he spent years in pursuit of occult knowledge, and in later life accepted the appointment as a bishop in the Gnostic Catholic Church of the Ordo Templi Orientis, a magic society founded by Aleister Crowley. (13) But many of his public remarks on occult matters fall into the category of ‘sage denial,’ where he eschews mystical obfuscation. “The thing you must understand is that these are not real laws, they’re imaginary laws,” he once told me, pointing to a book on necromancy.
In Smith’s final assessment of the interrelationship between color and sound he was unidealistic: “I wanted to find out if there was any correspondence between certain color patterns and certain sounds. It’s a natural obsession not only with me, but with Sir Isaac Newton or [William] Ostwald. They all try that business. It turns out to be a complete fantasy. There is no one–for–one correspondence between color and sound.” (19) This realization seemed to close the book on his decade–long preoccupation between color and sound and the pure plastic properties of non–objective art. While losing none of their characteristic visual resplendence and precision, his films and paintings from the ensuing New York years would become increasingly involved in the analogical and metaphorical systems of associations embedded in occult sciences.
In 1951 Smith left the West Coast for New York. He gave three reasons for his departure: to hear jazz at Birdland, to make contact with his prospective patron, Hilla Rebay, and to meet Marcel Duchamp (it is not known if the latter ever occurred). Passing through the Ozarks en route, he visited George Andrews, a medical doctor who was writing a book on flying saucers.(16) Andrews gave Harry the name of a rabbi from Safad (Upper Galillee] who taught the kabala on New York’s Lower East Side. The web of connectedness that Smith had been weaving for more than a decade convinced him of the position of the kabala as the fundament of these concerns. Originally a complicated system of Biblical exegesis based on the symbolic relationship between numbers and the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, down through the centuries the kabala became a wildly metaphoric catch–all for mystics and occult philosophers who have claimed it as the basis for everything from Egyptian hieroglyphs to the tarot. Harry arrived at the rabbi’s door carrying a staff, a seal, and American Indian feathers. (17) He was greeted by the rabbi’s grandson, Lionel Ziprin, a poet, fine art printer, and a jazz fan, thus beginning another chapter.
Smith (of Irish ancestry) studied kabala with the eighty–year–old Reb Naftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia, student of Reb Shimon Bar Yocha. The rabbi spoke no English and Harry did not speak Yiddish or Hebrew so it is difficult to know exactly of what these studies consisted, although artistically Harry became deeply involved with the Tree of Life, the symbolic diagram of Man and the Cosmos based on the ten “Sefirot,” or creative forces. After three years Harry asked the rabbi for permission to show him his films, and the rabbi agreed. Afterward the rabbi remarked in Yiddish to his grandson, “That man is from another planet.”
Harry had shipped his record collection to New York. One day he turned up at the offices of Moses Asch at Folkways Records hoping to sell the collection. Asch found Harry to be “the closest I guess to Woody Guthrie as a character,” and quickly realized not only the musicological value of these recordings but also the wealth of knowledge Smith could impart about them. “Harry Smith collected vast information,” Asch recalled. “In addition to that, he is an intellect. He understood the content of records. He knew their relationship to folk music, their relationship to English literature, and their relationship to the world.” (18)
Moses Asch suggested Harry compile an anthology, and in 1952 Folkways Records released three two–record boxed sets (33 r.p.m.) titled Anthology of American Folk Music (Volume One: Ballads; Volume Two: Social Music; Volume Three: Songs). The cover of the Anthology reproduced a (date) alchemical engraving by Theodore de Bry of the Celestial Monochord, from Robert Fludd’s Philosphia sacra (1626). The engraving was reproduced on each volume in colors corresponding to the elements: blue (air), red (fire), and green (water). The accompanying booklets were a strange collage of vintage record labels, photographs of blues musicians, popular advertisements of patent medicine, occult symbols, and a set of liner notes describing each song in Smith’s inimical blend of erudition and bizarre wit. Smith was twenty–nine years old.
From today’s perspective of fifty years, the importance of Smith’s anthology can be assessed. It spurred the folk revival of the 1950s, and dispersed ballad hunters with tape recorders throughout the South, re–discovering and re–recording many of these same musicians who’d originally ecorded in the 1920s. Five songs recorded for Bob Dylan’s first album were drawn from the Anthology, and Jerry Garcia once noted that he learned to play the guitar from listening to the records at 16 r.p.m. In a decade when folk music was often hopelessly sentimentalized, Smith’s Anthology was a snapshot of “the old weird America,” in Greil Marcus’ words. (19) “The Anthology was our Bible,” folksinger Dave Van Ronk wrote in 1991. “We all knew every song on it, including the ones we hated. They say that in the 19th century British Parliament, when a member would begin to quote a classical author in Latin the entire House would rise in a body and finish the quote along with him. It was like that.” (22) When Harry Smith received hisGrammy award for lifetime achievement in the final year of his life his acceptance speech was succinct: “I’m glad to say that my dreams came true. I saw America changed through music.” It was a change that he, among others, intiated,
The preparations that went into making these recordings and the elaborate booklets which accompanied them proved one more example of the inverse economic principle which haunted Smith throughout his life, whereby the greater the labor expended on a project, the less the monetary return. “To produce a Folkways album,” Smith told an interviewer in 1983, “anybody that makes one spends thousands of dollars to make it and is given hundreds of dollars in exchange.” (24) Moe Asch at Folkways records soon found his way onto Harry’s list of people he could bedevil for financial support, although Asch seems to have been one of the few who understood the expensive nature of the medium of film: “All his life he needed money. He got it from the Guggenheims, or he got it from me or from others. He always needed money because he was always experimenting in the movies. He is quite a well–known movie creator. That’s an expensive thing to work with.” (25)
The release of the Anthology resulted in an almost an equally wide influence which is not often remarked upon. After he completing the Anthology, Smith donated the remainder of his record collection to the New York Public Library. Folklorists Ralph Rinzler and Mike Seeger (who along with John Cohen formed the folk trio the Greenbriar Boys) convinced the music librarian to allow them to catalogue the collection. Every evening for a month they would secretly take home a dozen or so records, tape record them, and bring them back the following day. These outtakes from the Anthology were then copied and traded, and within a year were widely disseminated across the country by budding folk musicians. John Cohen recalls that in the 1950s he and his colleagues constantly tried to meet Harry, always unsuccessfully. All they knew was what Moses Asch told them: Harry was a small hunchbacked man with gray ponytail and beard who had no fixed address. Many people suspected that no such person existed.
The Anthology initiated a lifelong working relationship between Smith and Folkways. The next release was Talmudic Legends and Liturgical Songs (1954; later privately released as 15–LP set) by Rabbi Naftali Zvi Margolies Abulafia. Moses Asch had little hope for the commercial potential of the album, but he did not realize the Rabbi had almost three thousand followers, and nearly every one of them purchased a copy. To Asch’s amazement, the record sold a thousand copies in the first week of its release. Other Smith titles for Folkways included The Kiowa Peyote Meeting
( 1964, three LP set); The Village Fugs (1965); Allen Ginsberg, First Blues: Rags, Ballads and Harmonium Songs (recorded ca. 1970–72; released 1981); as well as many other recordings which never saw eventual release, including volumes on Kiowa love songs, American shape–note singing, political ballads and broadsides by Phil Ochs, and the poetry of Gregory Corso.
In the early years in New York, Smith collaborated with Lionel Ziprin at Ziprin’s fine art printing workshop, designing holiday greeting cards (Bruce Conner was another artist briefly employed by the firm). According to Ziprin, Smith spent almost fifty thousand dollars over several years to develop a number of three–dimension greeting cards. It has been written that the cards never worked properly, but this is not true, since copies survive. To view the cards properly simply took greater effort than greeting card customers would devote when making a purchase.
Mostly Smith spent his days at various New York libraries, copying out alchemical manuscripts and studying occult philosophy. Because of his remarkable knowledge of hermeticism he became rather well known in New York occult circles, mainly from haunting the bookstores of the legendary Samuel Weiser, Mary Gorham’s Gateway, the Theosophical Society, and various Jewish bookshops
specializing in the kabala. He was also a familiar character in jazz clubs, where he would order a glass of milk and sit in the corner with his sketchbook. But for the most part Smith maintained a solitary existence during the 1950s. His involvement in the occult increased his paranoia and isolation, and he had not yet begun to drink—which in the 1960s resulted in a far more sociable profile, but would come close to destroying his health.
By the end of the 1950s Smith marshalled his creative forces to create one of the true masterpieces of independent film. Number 12 (Heaven and Earth Magic Feature) (1959–61) was a black–and–white animated film that was colorized by Smith during screenings, using a variety of filters in combination with slide projections. In stark white images against a black background, the narrative unfolds through a vast array of images and symbols which Smith spent years cutting out and indexing, largely acquired from used book and print dealers along Fourth Avenue (the same source used by Joseph Cornell). Key influences on this work were the collages of Max Ernst, and the surrealist game of the Exquisite Corpse.
During the making of Number 12, Smith disrupted his sleep cycle such that he would not sleep for more than two hours at a spell. In this way he was able to enter into and emerge from the oeneric state and thereby carry over into the film the information received in the dream. The result was a kind of meta–symbolism, as Smith once observed: “If you go in at a very deep level and find out what a person really dreams, it’s sort of like the symbols of the symbols.” (21) Smith devised an ingenious animation stand out of the bed in his small room: when he wasn’t sleeping the mattress was removed, lights were mounted on the four bedposts, and the camera was set on a rail above. So convinced was Smith of the kinship between dreams and film that he once stated the ideal response of the viewer to his magnum opus in film, Mahagony, was to fall asleep.
A chance meeting in 1960 with Allen Ginsberg at the Five Spot jazz club would finally nudge Smith out obscurity. After slowly gaining Smith’s trust, he purchased a print of a reel from Smith’s work–in–progress, Number 12 (Heaven and Earth Magic Feature). Ginsberg showed the film to an astounded Jonas Mekas—poet, filmmaker, and Director of the Filmmaker’s Cooperative. This began the makings of a social, economic, and financial support system that would eventually bring Smith to the public eye. Mekas slowly secured prints and negatives of Harry’s films and by the early 1960s these works entered the repertory of the Anthology Film Archives, establishing Smith’s reputation as an underground filmmaker. It also put him in touch with other filmmakers, including Shirley Clarke, who later suggested that Smith take a studio in the Chelsea Hotel, thinking it would prove a sympathetic environment.
Untitled gouache and crayon on colored paper, Miami c. 1972. approx. 10 x 8 ins
Just prior to Smith’s move to the Chelsea Hotel a tragic and decisive event occurred. Smith left New York for Oklahoma in 1964 to spend the better part of a year with the Kiowa Indians, and participate in and record their rituals, including the highly secretive peyote ritual. While he was away he neglected to pay rent on his small apartment on East 77th Street and the landlord evicted him, disposing of everything in the apartment. Virtually Smith’s entire artistic output was destroyed in this one act. Only prints of certain of his films survived because they were in the hands of other people. When Smith returned to discover what had taken place, he spent several panicked weeks searching unsuccessfully through the garbage dumps of New Jersey. He began to drink heavily and later that year suffered a nervous breakdown.
Untitled gouache and crayon on colored paper, Miami c. 1972. approx. 10 x 8 ins
Smith slowly began to pull his life together, and in 1965 at the suggestion of Shirley Clark, who occupied the penthouse, he moved into the Chelsea Hotel. In the unorthodox environment of the hotel—run by a management and staff who doted on him—Smith began to thrive. Residents included Virgil Tompson, Gregory Corso, Arthur Miller, Leonard Cohen, Arthur C. Clark, William Burroughs, Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe; visiting rock bands who played the Fillmore often stayed at the hotel and gave impromptu concerts on the roof, including the Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead. Smith befriended many of these people and tortured others, and eventually the fabled Room 731, and the tiny bespectacled and now grey–bearded visionary who inhabited it, became a point of creative convergence.
There is a photograph of Harry Smith, aged fifteen, sitting in a Lummi Indian sweat lodge, at the controls of a wireless recorder. It is a remarkable image that freezes Smith in a setting that he would live his life attempting to recreate: a tribal group where every person had a role and valued place, living in harmony with the environment and doing no harm; a culture rich in song and dance and works of art where shared values and meanings were not divorced from everyday life; and a society that placed at its center the honored and respected figure of the shaman. It was a social model that Smith lived his entire life in search of, and one which he most closely achieved in the 1960s, in part through a culture that he himself helped create, from the reservations of the Puget Sound to the lightshows of the San Francisco Renaissance to the Anthology of American Folk Music. The Chelsea Hotel was the tribe and he was the shaman.
Harry Smith, untitled pen and ink drawings (detail), c 1975
Harry Smith, untitled ink drawing, n. d.
As a high school student on a weekend visit in 1974, I met Harry at the Chelsea a time when the hotel had not yet taken on the expensive élan of its later years. At ten dollars a night for an enormous room, I found it listed in “New York on Twenty Dollars A Day.” Sitting in the lobby late one afternoon, Harry approached me. I had seen him passing in and out of the lobby several times that day. Gnome–like, with grey and white hair and beard, he had sensitive blue eyes that peered out from behind enormous spectacles. He wore thrift shop clothes in combinations of plaids and stripes that did not remotely match. The most distinctive feature about him was the way he smelled: a not unpleasant mixture of tobacco, incense, marijuana, and Miller High Life beer. He ambled up to me in the lobby and struck up a friendly conversation. After several minutes he extended an invitation to visit him later, in his high nasal pitch, a slight twang to a voice that was erudite, sardonic, and inveigling by turns: “Just remember, I’m in Room 731. That’s seven planets, three alchemical principles, and one god,” emphasising the last two words by holding up a crooked index finger. Later that afternoon I decided to take him up on his invitation. Fortunately I first called up from the lobby on the house phone, as I later learned this was de rigeur, and anyone who violated this rule, even unwittingly, would find themselves the brunt of an extraordinary outburst of anger that would literally push them backwards into the hallway.
Untitled gouache and crayon on colored paper, Miami c. 1972. approx. 10 x 8 ins
His room was a bit like stepping into a nineteenth century cabinet of curiosities. The most prominent feature was the endless number of books and records, meticulously arranged on grey steel shelving, eight feet high by sixteen feet long, arranged in rows that formed narrow corridors within the room itself. The records were arranged not by subject or artist but by the label they were released on, since Harry did not so much collect records as entire record labels. On his shelves stood the complete catalogues of Bluebird, Riverside, Vocalion, Smithsonsian, UNESCO, Folkways, Das Alte Werke, and so on. There was an alarming discrepancy between this meticulous order and the general squalor of the rest of the room. Sitting there one idle afternoon I estimated there were almost thirty thousand records in this room. After smoking a joint Harry would stand with arms folded in front of the collection and sigh in his familiar whine, with mock exasperation, “There’s nothing to listen to!”
Hanging out with Harry mostly consisted of smoking pot and listening to records. In those years the records one listened to most were: 1.) Kurt Weil’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogany (Lotte Lenya); 2.) Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde (especially when psychedelics were being consumed); and 3.) a tie between the throat songs of the Eskimos, and a recording of frogs croaking—both Folkways lps. The cardinal rule in listening to records with Harry was NO TALKING. Absolutely none, whatsoever, until the record was finished. Hanging out with Harry was always characterized by a mixture of pleasure and fear. Several of his visitors were unstable, armed and dangerous, and Harry’s anger could and clear a room. A gouache that took three painstaking weeks to complete might be torn up in a flash. There were always his sudden mood swings, and, of course, his drinking.
Untitled gouache and crayon on colored paper, Miami c. 1972. approx. 10 x 8 ins
His books were arranged by height, a curious system of organization and one I’d never seen before. When I asked Harry about this he explained that it took up less space, and in any case he always remember a book by the height of its spine. But one was never allowed to touch the books or records—or anything else in the room for that matter. I would often stand in front of the shelves (and later when he trusted me more, venture down one of the tiny corridors of shelving) to peruse the spines: volumes on Theosophy, Eliphas Levi, the Elizabethan astrologer John Dee, Athanasius Kircher, alchemists Robert Fludd
Harry Smith, Enochian Tablet, c. 1979, watercolor, gouache,
ink, acrylic and enamel on board, 31 x 31 in (79 x 79 cm)
Diagrams on graph paper, n.d.
Collage elements for Mahagony, c. 1970
from the Black Book: Poetry, Autobiography and Alchemical Writings (1987). 157 pages, handwritten. Unpublished. Collection of Raymond Foye
Posters for film No. 20: Fragments of a Faith Forgotten (1981). 35 mm widescreen. Designed & hand colored by Harry Smith
Study for film No. 20 poster (detail).
and Raymond Llull; the complete British Journal of Psychic Research; Smithsonian journals on folklore and American Indian studies; the Oxford English Dictionary; expensive art books on Eskimos, Tibetan tankas, and ornithology. All were bookmarked with yellow slips of paper and extensively notated in pencil in the back. Occasionally Harry would take a book off the shelf to illustrate a point, and there was never a reference in any of the thousands of books that Harry could not cite, or explain its significance in relation to numerous other subjects.
Out of reach wrapped in plastic on a top shelf, was the Uher tape recorder that Harry had used for so many of his field recordings. Reel to reel tapes, carefully labelled, were also stacked on the top shelves, with the more important ones stored in the dresser drawers. If he were editing a Folkways record or movie soundtrack, he would always remove the tape from the recorder whenever he left the room, so if thieves stole the recorder they would not also get the tape. The dresser drawers also contained a museum quality collection of Seminole garments which he one day displayed for me, carefully unwrapping each folded piece from its tissue. Sitting on top of the bureau were more books, and a comprehensive collection of Tarot decks (Italian Renaissance, Roumanian Gypsy, The Golden Dawn, etc.,), including a deck which Harry himself had designed. There was also a collection of Ukranian hand–painted Easter eggs, stacks of string–figures mounted on black cardboard, and the remnants of a collection of paper airplanes which Harry began picking up off the streets in the 1950s, when skyscraper windows could still be opened and bored office workers would sail gliders through the canyons of New York. During Smith’s lifetime both the Seminole garments and paper airlines found their way into the collection of the Smithsonian. (The irony of the name of that Institution was never lost on Harry.)
Folding card tables were indispensable to Harry’s work, and as a project extended in scope more card tables were added. Index cards were used extensively, to classify and sort data. Charts and diagrams were assembled for every project, whether the making of a film, a painting, or a Folkways recording. These diagrams, often drawn on graph paper and frequently color–coded using felt tip markers, represented the underlying structure, sequence, or plan of the work in progress, and were usually expressed in terms of numbers. In the case of particularly ambitious works, such as the film Number 18 (“Mahagony”), these charts eventually filled the entire room. This always represented for me one of the great paradoxes of Harry Smith; on the one hand seldom was there an artist so devoted to the practise of the derangement of the senses to tap into the unconscious and automatist sources for inspiration, while on the other hand seldom has any artist sought to organize those experiences through such hyper–rational systems as these blueprints represented. Perhaps one was a corrective to the other, as indeed much of Smith’s work is poised between formal rigor and lyrical exuberance.
Throughout his life Smith was a great student of children’s literature. He often filmed and tape recorded children’s games and songs, and made a careful record of hopscotch boards and other chalk–drawn diagrams whenever he encountered them. (His love of Pieter Bruegel the Elder had much to do with the Flemish painter’s eye for folklore and children’s games.) The collected works of Lewis Carroll always occupied a central place in his library, and Smith no doubt sympathized with Carroll’s author, the Reverend C.L. Dodgson: deacon of the church, graphic artist, photographer, member of the British Society for Psychical Research, and Oxford mathematics don who frustrated his colleagues by being more interested in logic as a game than as a means for testing reasoning. (Like Dodgson, Harry’s sexuality was ambiguous, although most considered him a non–practising homosexual.)
In the latter part of the 1960s Smith devoted several years to the making of the film Number 16, also known as Oz: The Tin Woodsman’s Dream (1967). Shot in the thirty–five millimeter, only fourteen minutes survive of the intended feature length film. As the title indicates, Number 16 is based on L. Frank Baum’s children’s classic, with several notable transpositions, as Smith explained to film historian P. Adam Sitney: “What I was really trying to do was to convert Oz into a Buddhistic image like a mandala. I can’t even remember what those lands were. One of them was ‘Heironymus Bosch Land.’ All of Bosch’s paintings were carefully dissected. Another one was ‘Microscopia,’ taken from the books of [Ernst] Haeckel, who was the Viennese biological artist and very wonderful. The things he made are just marvelous. He picked out every possible grotesque object there was.” (27)
Number 16 is the apogee of Smith’s method of mining images from art, science, religion, natural history, and anthropology, to create a work where images and symbols by juxtaposition are divested of their ostensible meanings and then reinvested with the borrowed meanings of their symbolic counterparts. It was a mental game that Smith enjoyed playing, but it was also a profound and imaginative meditation on the interrelated forms of nature and art, as only Smith could envisage. As artistic method, it is the epitome of a post modernist approach, where associations are formed not on external aspects but through a subtext of encoded meanings. Not to mistake this for an up–to–date aesthetic, we should keep in mind it is the principle that animated hermetic philosophy for nearly a thousand years.
Editing diagram by Harry Smith, n.d.
When a film was completed it was not always a final matter. Smith used screenings to reconfigure the experience of viewing the films. Jazz soundtracks in the 1950s gave way to the Beatles in the 1960s. Projection techniques using shaped screens, colored gels, painted glass slides, etc., would be improvised in the theater, usually drunkenly and disorganized and with mixed results. Often at screenings viewers would be yelling at an obstreperous figure in the back of the theater to shut up, without realizing it was Smith himself creating the disturbance.
Throughout Smith’s career, the paintings and films informed one another. In terms of physical effort expended, one provided a respite from the other. An animated film involves twenty–four exposure per second, or 1,440 exposures (image aspects) per minute. “I can’t believe I had the energy to do all that,” Smith remarked later in life. In the making of his final film, Mahagony, (1970–80), Smith was still engaged in the obsessively constructed work (as we know from endless indexed subject cards and editing charts), but the meticulousness of the earlier films gives way to a lyrical sweep. Mahagony is a work of spontaneous energy and propulsive force. It is shot largely in live action, though it does contain roughly animated sequences which reprise many of his favored techniques: time–lapsed photography, sand and clay animation, stop–frame, painting on glass, “live” animation of three dimensional constructions. These sequences are carried out with the gestural economy of an ageing master. Frequently Smith’s assistant Peggy Biderman was unable to get her fingers out of the frame before Smith tripped the shutter, and on occasion disembodied fingers intrude on the imagery. Smith was delighted with this effect and left them in.
Untitled gouache on black paper, circa 1975
Shot in 1970–72 and edited between 1972–80, the film’s length—two hours and twenty–one minutes—and the fact that it required a four screen simultaneous projection, made the cost of completing the film prohibitive. Final funding was eventually provided through Henry Geldzahler, who as New York City’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, committed ten thousand dollars in discretionary funds to its completion, a courageous move considering the risks involved in channeling taxpayer’s dollars to such a famously unreliable figure. Geldzahler gave Smith a six month deadline to deliver the film. Smith met his deadline to the day.
Although exclusively urban in those days, Smith always spent a great deal of time in Central Park, and it was the abundance of nature imagery in Mahagony that most surprised me when I first saw the film. But Harry never forgot that nature is the great teacher and the creator, the ultimate artist. Once sitting on a park bench in Washington Square as the orange glow of a sunset illuminated a cherry tree in full bloom. Harry said something that risks the mundane, but it was one of the few remarks I ever recall him saying with unabashed heartfelt sincerity: “No work of art can ever be this great.”
Procession of Twelve. Six ink drawings, n.d. (detail)
When a film was completed it was not always a final matter. Smith used screenings to reconfigure the experience of viewing the films. Jazz soundtracks in the 1950s gave way to the Beatles in the 1960s. Projection techniques using shaped screens, colored gels, painted glass slides, etc., would be improvised in the theater, sometimes drunkenly and disorganized and with mixed results. Often at screenings viewers would be yelling at an obstreperous figure in the back of the theater to shut up, without realizing it was Smith himself creating the disturbance.
Throughout Smith’s career, the paintings and films informed one another. In terms of physical effort expended, one provided a respite from the other. An animated film involves twenty–four exposure per second, or 1,440 exposures (image aspects) per minute. “I can’t believe I had the energy to do all that,” he once said to me with genuine amazement. In the making of his final film, Mahagony, (1972–80), Smith was no longer interested in such obsessively
constructed work, but what we lose in meticulousness we gain in impulse. Shot in 1970–72 and edited between 1972–80, Mahagony is a work of spontaneous energy and propulsive force. It is shot largely in live action, though it does contain roughly animated sequences which reprise many of his favored techniques: time–lapsed photography, sand and clay animation, stop–frame, painting on glass, “live” animation of three dimensional constructions. These animated sequences are carried out with the gestural economy of an ageing master. Frequently Smith’s assistant Peggy Biderman was unable to get her fingers out of the frame before Smith tripped the shutter, and on accasion disembodied fingers intrude on the imagery. Smith was delighted with this effect and left them in.
Smith left the Chelsea Hotel in the late seventies after a tumultous several years when the idealism of the nineteen sixties gloriously crashed and burned aroud him. After three fires in his room, arrests and incarceration in prisons and mental institutions of numerous friends, the casting of numerous black magic curses and spells, and an armed robbery in which he was tied to a chair, slashed, and pistol whipped by a former assistant, Smith deided it was time to move on. Under great secrecy he moved to the Breslin Hotel on 28th Street and Broadway. At the Chelsea he left behind a seven–thousand–dollar hotel bill.
The Breslin Hotel was a depressing S.R.O. (single room occupancy) occupied by the indigent elderly, and welfare recipients. Smith seemed largely oblivious to his surroundings, but maintained cordial relations with neighbors and management. For many years he maintained a peaceful and productive life, concentrating on painting, editing Mahagony, and organizing further Folkways releases. At one point he was invited to lecture at the Southern Folklore Society at the University of Mississippi at Oxford. I remember his enthusiasm upon returning: in rural Mississippi he befriended and recorded a teenage musician who had rewritten numerous traditional folk songs with drug lyrics: “Froggie went a courtin’ and he did ride/with a bong and a bango by his side...” went one version. It was exactly the sort of thing Harry loved: an unsentimental update of a still evolving tradition.
Harry Smith with his Mahogany cinematographer Patrick Hulsey c. 1970.
“My movies are made as a kind of final gesture towards film.”
Mahagony’s length—two hours and twenty–one minutes—and the fact that it required a four screen simultaneous projection, made the cost of completing the film prohibitive. Final funding was eventually provided through Henry Geldzahler, who as New York City’s Commissioner of Cultural Affairs, committed ten thousand dollars in discretionary funds to its completion, a courageous move considering the risks involved in channeling taxpayer’s dollars to such a famously unreliable figure. Geldzahler gave Smith a six month deadline to deliver the film. Smith met his deadline to the day.
Mahagony premiered at Anthology Film Archives in New York, screened six times in two weeks in 1980 and not again until it was reconstruced in 2002. Smith introduced the film, and I still recall his strartled look standing in front of the packed house. He peered out at the crowd through his thick glasses, part incredulous and part suspicious. His speech as usual was punctuated with long pauses between thoughts: “Some of you I recognize, and some of you are in this film. And then there are all these people who I’ve never seen before...” Susan Sontag was sitting next to me. “That’s called audience,” she remarked under her breath. Smith then quoted in paraphrase the final paragraph of Claude Levi–Strauss’ The Origins of Table Manners, that when man’s time on earth comes to an end, as inevitably it must, it will be through a failure to recognize himself as one amongst many species.
Although exclusively urban in those days, Smith always spent a great deal of time in Central Park, and it was the abundance of nature imagery in Mahagony that most surprised me when I first saw the film. Smith never forgot that nature is the great teacher and the creator, the ultimate artist. Once sitting on a park bench in Washington Square as the orange glow of a sunset illuminated a cherry tree in full bloom. Harry said something that risks the mundane, but it was one of the few remarks I ever recall him saying with unabashed heartfelt sincerity: “No work of art can ever be this great.”
Allen Ginsberg’s kitchen, 437 East 12th Street, NYC. From left: Raymond Foye, AG, Yakov Rabinovich, Harry Smith. circa 1981
During his lifetime I often wondered if Harry’s artworks would survive him, not only because of the precariousness of his existence, but because he seemed so completely out of step with prevailing aesthetics. In 1983 I had the first intimation this might not be so was in 1983. Viewing Francesco Clemente’s first exhibition in New York, suddenly here was painting that was about metaphor, illuminated poetry, Eastern philosophy, the Western occult tradition; many of the works had actually been made at the Theosophical Society in Madras, where C.W. Leadbeater wrote many of his classic books. I visited the show with Harry, who was likewise taken by the work.
A year later, after I’d met Clemente, I brought Harry by the studio. It was quite late at night, and Harry’s eyesight was not good in any case. As I introduced Harry he gallantly strode across the studio to greet Francesco with hand outstretched, in the process walking across a vast stretched and painted canvas lying on the floor. Francesco was utterly calm and bemused, and mentioned that one of his children had already done that earlier that day. After we left the studio Harry remarked to me about the vast quantity of art supplies Francesco had in the studio. I later mentioned this to Francesco, who put together a large box of paints and materials for me to bring to Harry. Harry was delighted with the gift, not only for the materials (which he desperately needed), but because they came from Francesco Clemente, something he took great pleasure in telling others. People often enjoy recalling stories of Harry’s outrageous behavior (and there are many of them), but it was this sort of humility that I always found most characteristic of him.
“All ethnic music is Irish,” Harry once observed as we listened to a recording of African pygmy music. It was a typical Smith remark—epigrammatic, facetious, and true in some eccentric sense. For Smith, the imaginative convolutions of Celtic art and music was a model for how he sought to define the aesthetic experience. It is a quality commonly shared by Philip Taaffe, who has noted the shamanic overtones of much Celtic art, telling an interviewer in 1999: “I’m interested in inviting the possibility for ecstatic experience, for getting outside of stasis. My roots are from Ireland, and I suppose a subtext to my work must relate to those Celtic shamanistic traditions. The work is also about movement, or how we see in a constant series of glimpses. What do I want my art to accomplish? What do I expect it to be like as a physical encounter? I think the best thing one can hope for is to be able to enter into another world.” (27)
The Irish are sometimes called a mystical people, and aside from the hundreds of obscene lyrics Harry had memorized, his fondness for the Celtic tradition was most evident in his nostalgia for the creative heyday of Theosophy during the Irish Literary Renaissance of the 1890s, and in his love of the work of William Butler Yeats. Perhaps the most important artist of the twentieth century to have forged a new sensibility from the union of art and the occult, there is no question that Yeats could have never achieved the revolutionary potency of his poetic images were it not for the visions revealed to him by his occult practise. (28)
Much of Yeats’s fascination with the symbols of the occult (especially the tarot) lay in the complex layering of the image–components and the knotted Celtic intricacies of those meanings. As Richard Ellmann observed of Yeats, “The first fascination of symbolism was that it did not altogether disclose the secrets upon which its use depended.” Symbolism is the secret life of images, and from ancient times occult practice has been preoccupied with the prognosticate power of the image (the very word contains the root for magic, mage). For Smith the notion of the artist as magician stemmed from the artist’s ability to create images viable enough to have a life of their own.
In the interview that follows, Philip Taaffe and Fred Tomaselli discuss their coming of age as artists at a time when painting was discredited, and the image had been emptied of any content not strictly formal. Both artists describe their individual struggles to reinvent a viable aesthetic that could once again encompass allegory, symbol and metaphor. Interestingly, this was accomplished through ritual activity, myth, and a large degree of faith.
“I have always seen certain abstract paintings as tribal fetishes, or as having talismanic power,” Taaffe remarks. To view through the lens of ‘primitivism’ the purest products of modernism represented an inversion which, at the time, was often mistaken for derision. But this is exactly what the iconic objects of abstract painting had become. In identifying them as such Taaffe acknowledged their sacrosanct status, and their healing powers. However his attitude in handling these amulets was unsentimental, and this is where his attitude was misunderstood.
The notion of the painting as a portal into another dimension is fundamental to both Taaffe and Tomaselli. The function of the decorative in these works is primarily that of transport: to carry the viewer to another place. As in Islamic art, where the function of ornament is to induce in the viewer a state of meditative rapture, Taaffe and Tomaselli use the decorative inspire an awareness of the divine order behind the world of appearances. “My desire is for the work to become a transportive vehicle to take the viewer somewhere else. They can think about what it means later.”
A careful study of art history was critical for Tomaselli in finding his aesthetic. “I didn’t want to be just another East Village artist who looked to Warhol and then back to the present,” Tomaselli once told me. The highly polished panels of the painters of the Northern Renaissance became a compelling influence. There is a sense of fullness and plenitude in their view of nature which, like Tomaselli’s is almost mechanical in its abundance. The vast and almost cosmic space of Jan Van Eyck, so full of incident and detail, crafted in its particulars to a dizzying degree of verisimilitude, is another experience that Tomaselli often recreates. This heightened sense of vividness of the visual world—to such a degree that the viewer is transported to another dimension outside of ordinary time—is a subtext that much of the work in this exhibition addresses to one degree or another. It also characterizes the psychedelic experience, a subtext to much of the work in this exhibition, an influence which Tomaselli and Taaffe acknowledge but cautiously qualify.
Taaffe and Tomaselli also address the related topics of representation in art, and the depiction of nature, in a world where everything has become so highly mediated—including representation and nature. This was also the question that preoccupied Harry Smith in later years, and was the subject of his magnum opus, Mahagony. Clearly it remains unanswered, but the works and ideas proposed in this exhibition and catalogue attempt to address this question, using the great Imagination that was Harry Smith as guiding spirit.
There is no question that a great deal of mythologizing has grown up around Smith in the past decade. A cult figure in his own lifetime, the cult of personality that now surrounds him both celebrates and obscures. Duchamp once noted that when a work leaves the studio the artist relinquishes his or her hold on how the work will be seen and interpreted; and, moreover, all of those different interpretations will eventually constitute a work’s meaning. (This latter point was also Levi–Strauss’ definition of myth.) Something like this happened to Duchamp himself, and it is also becoming true for Smith. The wide range of interests pursued, collections formed, and media utilized, all make Smith an ideal mirror for our present moment, as we attempt to make sense out of the glut of information and juxtaposition of cultures. Smith himself was not above self–mythologizing and outright deceit, being a man of many facets and multiple personae. One might even say that Harry Smith was his greatest invention. But as much as I appreciate the fantasy and humor of his invented identities (and have consciously glossed over the more unkind and destructive aspects), Harry was a very real person who made very real works, and this catalogue and exhibition is offered as a presentation of some of those products (or “excretia” as he liked to call them), and hopefully will serve as a prelude to a more comprehensive survey that will follow.
When I was in San Francisco, I heard from a filmmaker, Jordan Belson, about a fabulous magician painter-filmaker, Harry Smith, who had been a student or descendant of Aleister Crowley, and had Crowley manuscripts. In 1960 I saw this old guy at the Five Spot in New York with black and white beard making little marks, listening to Thelonius Monk, and sort of notating something. From Belson’s description and from the concentration of his activity and his locale, I decided maybe that’s Harry Smith, so I went up and introdced myself. He said, yes, that was his name. I said, “Well, what are you doing there?” He said I’m trying to determine where Monk comes in on the beat–before or after, what are the recurrent syncopations, what is the pattern, the mathematical pattern of syncopations in his solos, and how they vary.” I said, “Why are you doing that?” he said, “Well, I’m keeping track of his time, because I’m using his music as background to films that I’m making, hand painting frame-by-frame, and collage drawing.”
So one thing led to another and we listened to Monk night after night. Then Harry invited me up to his studio. He had a crowded little apartment and the walls were covered with his paintings, which were these amazing cosmic monsters. He’d get me very high on grass, then turn on his little projector and show me these movies, which he had hand-painted, frame-by-frame, some abstract and then moving on into animated collage, then moving on to Tibetan imagery, and finally the Heaven and Earth movie, which was an hour and a half at the time. What he had done was set a lot of them, certain ones of them, short ones, to Misterioso. I saw that his point was that the actual frames moved in relation to the music–he had been calculating the frames to the Monk music.
It turns out he was a musicologist. he showed me this set of six records, The Anthology of American Folk Music, a three–box set he put out way back in 1952, which was on Folkways. He did ethnomusicology studies here in America. So this is now eight years later, and he had gotten into making these films and had already passed through the mixed–media projections. One day he offered to sell me a rather dark version of the rather long Heaven and Earth movie for one hundred dollars. Every time we’d go up there he’d get me high, then he’d ask me for money, because he was starving. Apparently he’d do that with everybody. I go to be scared of going up there because he’d get me tremblingly high on grass and show me these amazing movies. I’d be totally awed and intimidated by the universality of his genius in music and painting.
I took the Heaven and Earth movie?” I didn’t have any use for it, I didn’t have a projector, so I took it down to Jonas Mekas, whom I knew through Robert Frank. Mekas had never heard of him. He played the film and said, “Who is this Harry Smith? He’s an absolute genius.” That’s how Smith connected with the Film–Makers’ Co–op and Anthology Film Archives and became with Brakhage and Robert Frank and Warhol, one of the founding fathers of underground film and an influence on subsequent MTV.