By Mara Goldwyn
There’s something fitting about the unrecorded image of Harry Smith (1923-1991) foraging around Fresh Kills Landfill in Staten Island looking for his own artwork. By 1964, after he had failed to pay the rent on his E. 75th St. apartment, his landlord had trashed a good chunk of his oeuvre—including paintings that had been years in the making. He had no recourse but to try and recover them, unsuccessfully, from the 2200 acre dump.
It seems though, despite the fact that this wasn’t the first or the last time he would be kicked out of whatever temporary hovel he inhabited, he was forever living among mountains of junk. His collecting—which included Seminole textiles, Ukrainian eggs, paper airplanes, string figures, parakeets, ambient sounds and obscure folk records—has been posthumously estimated to be just as important a work of art as his painting or film.
And, of course, reverence for the independent collector is fashionable nowadays. Have you noticed how everything is an “eclectic” “Cabinet of Curiosities”? A Wunderkammer? How selectively reviving forgotten artists or personalities is considered an artistic activity in itself (See: Network Awesome)? But while in the 20th century the act of “collecting” was demoted from a pastime of the aristocracy (assembling Renaissance paintings) to the whim of whomever (say, buying Hummel figurines), in the 21st century the vogue is democratized “curating”. The smearing of disciplines is a given, and the supreme subjectivity of the “curator” is king..
It’s the natural byproduct of our age of immaterial work and cultural capital accumulation: Taste, when properly harnessed and exploited, is about the only thing in the culture industry you can make money with any more. In fact, the 1950 Anthology of American Folk Music, reissued in 1997 by the Smithsonian, was basically Smith’s painstakingly “curated” record collection. The Anthology has been credited with influencing the likes of Bob Dylan, and is venerated by more than a generation of musicians from Elvis Costello to Lou Reed – yet Smith didn’t get to see much of the dough that came from being such an “influential figure for several generations of underground artists”. In his moment, Smith was, as Greil Markus and others put it, a bum.
Famously destitute, in and out of flophouses and surviving on an a combination of milk mixed with beer, Smith lived from loan to never-repaid loan, and alienated even his most faithful supporters by pawning borrowed cameras and flying off the hook when confronted for repayment. He was a scraggly, gnome-like “archetypal Bohemian trickster figure” who sometimes associated with Kenneth Anger, Allen Ginsburg and Andy Warhol, but mostly hung out in rented rooms at the Chelsea Hotel or elsewhere with an index card that said “Do Not Disturb” on the door. At one point he apparently took Ginsburg up to his room, got him high and then tried to sell him “Heaven and Earth” (included here – a work of 60 minutes that took years to make) for $100.
"Harry Smith, painter, archivist, anthropologist, film-maker & hermetic alchemist, his last week at Breslin Hotel Manhattan January 12, 1985, transforming milk into milk." - Allen Ginsberg, Photo by Allen Ginsberg, Courtesy of Allen Ginsberg Trust and Fahey Klein Gallery, Los Angeles
But he was still a genius. P. Adam Sitney and Jonas Mekas, founders of the Anthology Film Archives, were ardent admirers, and it was a grant from the Museum of Non-Objective Art (now the Guggenheim), administered by Hella Rebay, that got him to New York from his native West Coast in the first place. The “Early Abstractions” here were assembled and named by Mekas.
His rendering of such techniques as batik-ing and painting directly on film was considered some of the most remarkable in avant-garde film history, and he has also been lauded for incorporating the tenets of his expansive world view into films that were narrative-less and abstract. He was an amateur anthropologist, musicologist, mystic, “magus”, mythologist, bibliophile, linguist, Alchemist. Every physical curio and snippet of knowledge was collected in hopes of “synthesizing universal patterns into a unified theory of culture”… if not exactly intentionally. He once said he was “inspired by the occult, but mainly by looking in the water”.
Then, as is evident especially in these “Early Abstractions”, everything was unified in an “automatic” trance. Though his process was often illogical, irrational, he realized that “something was directing it, that it wasn’t arbitrary, and that there is some kind of what you might call God.”
"Harry Smith on Second Avenue" ca. 1988, Photo by Brian Graham, Courtesy the photographer
Critics have likened his process to alchemical transmutation. That is, he recognized the potential in base materials and elevated them to a higher sphere. Lead would become gold; a combination of Come-Clean gum dots, Vaseline and paint on raw film would become a stunning work of art. Though he mostly considered himself a painter, his “Cinematic Excreta”, as he called it, were “organized in specific patterns derived from the interlocking beats of the respiration, the heart and the EeG Alpha component and should be observed together or not at all.”
Smith’s obsessive collecting and automatic “excreta” influenced the cult of personal curating ubiquitous today, but were not beset by the same consumerist cynicism. Everything in his reach was fodder for his creations, and the goal, if we can call it that, was spiritual enlightenment. These films—when gathered together and considered with all the other carefully chosen bits and pieces of knowledge that make up Smith’s lifework—are a Philosopher’s Stone renowned in the practice of alchemy: an elixir of life.