Harry Smith, Alchemist & Professional "Bum"

story © Michael Betancourt, June 24, 2011 all rights reserved.


Harry Everett Smith (1923 – 1991) was a film maker who, like Len Lye, had other interests than film.

Both men were in New York during the 1950s and remained mostly apart from the experimental film making community there; however, this separation is where their similarities end. Lye did regard himself as an artist, while Smith did not; he regarded himself as an anthropologist, which he had studied in collage before dropping out. His peers recognized him as an artist, and that career stretched across several distinct and otherwise largely unrelated fields: musicology, anthropology, art and film making all were impacted by his work. His influence on postwar American culture was considerable, if at the same time, indirect and unknown to a wide audience.

However, in spite of his careful observation and recognized work as an anthropologist with the Native American tribes in the Pacific Northwest, Smith was at the same time a notoriously unreliable source of information about his own life. The various myths he created and encouraged about his childhood and life before 1946 do little to render his claims about when he began making his abstract films credible. Over the course of many years he claimed, as his biographer Darrin Daniel has noted, variously: to be the mystic Aleister Crowley’s illegitimate son; that his mother was the “missing” Romanov Czarina, Anastasia; and that he smoked marijuana for the first time with Woodie Guthrie in the back of the Sun studios in Memphis, Tennessee—none of which were true.

All his false biographical claims share a certain self-aggrandizing feature; when considered in this context, his claim that he began making his abstract films in 1939—which would be when he was 16 years old—a statement accepted by the historian P. Adams Sitney without question, is highly suspect. These dates appear in his 1965 description for the Filmmaker’s Cooperative Catalogue, published by the distribution company formed in New York:

My cinematic excreta is of four varieties:—batiked abstractions made directly on film between 1939 and 1946; optically printed non-objective studies composed around 1950; semi-realistic animated collages made as part of my alchemical labors of 1957 to 1962; and chronologically superimposed photographs of actualities formed since the latter year. All these works have been organized in specific patterns derived from the interlocking beats of the respiration, the heart and the EEG Alpha component and should be observed together in order, or not at all, for they are valuable works, works that will live forever—they have made me gray.
[“Smith, Harry” in Film-Makers’ Cooperative Catalogue, no. 3, (New York: 1965) p. 57.]

Hyperbolie is a good characterization of this description; while it was essentially advertizing the rental of his films, at the same time, this is a peculiar description: in the progression of his films from geometric, abstract patterns through to hallucinatory photography—coupled with the instruction to see them all, in order—implies their organization along the same halucinatory progression from abrstract films to distorted, realist shapes and people noted by Heinrich Kluver’s study of hallucination in 1932. What such an organization implies is a calculating series of choices meant to place Smith’s films in a separate category from the other works distributed by the Filmmaker’s Co-op, suggesting the hyperbolie is not part of a sales pitch, but should be seen as another example of the same self-aggrandizement as the other myths he circulated about his origins; given the clear synaesthetic dimensions of abstraction so apparent in the first Art in Cinema series, and the close relationships produced in his own later works—both paintings and films—his claims become even less credible.

The unreliability of Harry Smith’s dates for his films is reinforced by Jordan Belson, (1926 – ), a fellow filmmaker who met Smith in 1946. He includes in his account of the batik process used to make the hand-colored films a brief discussion of what Smith’s small apartment was like before he began working on the films. (While it is conceivable that Belson might be lying about when Smith started work on these films, from a historical perspective, one must question: why would Belson do so, especially in a book meant to celebrate Smith’s accomplishments? On the other hand, Smith is already known to be a myth-maker and unreliable source of information.) This suggests that Smith began making his hand painted films after seeing the synaesthetic films by Fischinger, the Whitneys and the European avant-garde screened at the Art in Cinema series in 1946. The extended range of their more probable dates, 1946 – 1950 collectively, recognizes the process of revision and editing, as well as the time required to make these films. While they are not silent—always being shown with a musical accompaniment—their organization is basically asynchronous. His elaborate process of coloring both sides of the film strip employed a number of spray and speckling techniques that apparently made a mess of his home; as Belson’s description makes clear, the variety of techniques worked to hide the hand-applied nature of Smith’s color:

He would have the clean film, with a thin coat of emulsion on it so that it would hold they dye, and a lot of colored inks, and with a mouth atomizer—artists use for spraying fixative on their drawings. He used it for painting, which was a good trick. … He would block out certain areas of the frame with pressure-sensitive tape, gummed labels that were cut in circles or squares and things of that sort, and stick them onto the film. And then he would spray the ink on it, the parts that were not covered, so it would soak up the color and texture. And then he would spread petroleum jelly all over the film. Then remove the tape and that would allow him to spray another color there, inside the areas that had been previously covered, without affecting the areas that had the jelly on it.
[Jordan Belson, in ed. Paola Igliori, Harry Smith: American Magus, (New York: Inanout Press, 1996) pp. 19-29.]

Belson’s description is illustrative: it reads almost precisely as an inversion of the techniques created by Len Lye in 1934 for the production of A Colour Box. Where Lye’s films used templates that he could overspray and repeat, with color only being applied through the openings of his stencils, Smith’s films used objects—stickers, cut outs, etc.—that would cover different parts of the film strip, thus preventing different areas from being colored. Where Lye’s process resulted in colored shapes on screen, Smith’s produced empty spaces surrounded by color—the shapes seen on screen are the negative areas not filled by painting; this difference produced dramatically different results.

The three hand painted films Smith made were done over several years: no. 1, also called A Strange Dream, (1946), no. 2, or Message from the Sun, (1946-48), and no. 3, also known as Interwoven, (1947-49); the titles to these films were provided by Jonas Mekas, (1922 – ), Village Voice film critic, filmmaker and promoter of Harry Smith’s work—Smith used numbers to identify his films. In a letter to Hilla von Rebay, director of the Guggenheim Musuem of Non-Objective Art, Smith explained his decision:

Originally they were not titled, and I still feel that giving them specific titles is destructive because it tensions them to specific emotions, and for these particular films are as out of place as a chemest (sic) naming his experiments according to the colour they produce, rather than the purpose.
[Rani Singh, “Harry Smith: An Ethnographic Modernist in America,” in Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular, (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Trust, 2010) p. 34]

Whether they are titled or not, these are not random abstract patterns, nor are they simply decorative geometric forms arranged on film. The specific relationships they establish with their original Jazz accompaniment, as well as the syncopation and orchestration of movement and formal similarity to other abstract art of the 1940s reveals the extent to which these films belong to a visionary tradition in experimental cinema, a connection further demonstrated by their descriptions:

(no. 1) Hand-drawn animation of dirty shapes—the history of the geologic period reduced to orgasm length. (Approx. 5 min.)

(no. 2) Batiked animation, etc., etc. The animation either takes place inside the Sun, or in Zurich, Switzerland. (Approx. 10 min.)

(no. 3) Batiked animation made of dead squares, the most complex hand-drawn film imaginable. (Approx. 5 min.)
[“Smith, Harry” in Film-Makers’ Cooperative Catalogue, no. 3, (New York: 1965) p. 57.]

Their descriptions are both playful and fantastic, collectively drawing from Surrealist fantasy to produce an “explanation” that echoes Allen Ginsberg’s poetry; Smith’s listed durations, if correct, are considerably longer than the versions now in circulation. These films were exhibited in later Art in Cinema programs, and reflect a systematic engagement with the process of abstract animation, working from within the tradition defined by both Fischinger and the Whitney brothers. Initially synchronized to Dizzy Gillespie’s Jazz music, the motion and counterpoint of the animations following and visualizing the syncopation of Gillespie’s trumpet. His paintings followed an even closer connection to Jazz by developing compositions based on a note-by-note translation of musical to graphic form.

Smith developed close relationships with the other abstract and avant-garde filmmakers in California, both in San Francisco, where he lived, and in Los Angeles. It was through these connections that he met the Baroness Hilla von Rebay, director of the Museum of Non-Objective Art (MoNOA), who was a major patron of abstract film makers, providing financial support for the production of their films. In 1951, Smith used his grant from the the Solomon Guggenheim Foundation (that funded MoNOA) to move to New York, the other “center” for experimental film in the United States. However, there was only minimal awareness of what was happening in California, since the west and east coast of the United States developed in the isolation Jacobs saw as the primary feature of American experimental film; this may be part of the reason Mary Ellen Bute only screened one film at the 1946 Art in Cinema series.

Even though he worked steadily on film through the 1950s, he remained unknown to the other film makers then clustering in New York. Instead of becoming closely involved with the filmmakers collecting there during the 1950s, Smith contacted Moses Asch, president of Folkways, a record label specializing in folk music, about selling the company his extensive collection of American vernacular music. Instead, Asch hired Smith to curate a six album anthology in three volumes. During the 1950s, the revival of vernacular or folk music was part of a general reappraisal of naive, and “outsider” art by Modernists. The collection, composed of recordings released between 1927 and 1932, and containing 84 tracks, helped create the folk music revival of the 1950s and 60s. Smith’s distance from the rest of New York’s film avant-garde reflected his decision to live, as curator Andrew Perchuk described, as an “angry bum”:

The bum was a figure much in the popular imagination during Smith’s depression-era childhood, very distinct from the homeless of our own era. ... He interacted with and frequently used, those he needed to carry off a particular project, and he never seems to have been especially grateful or particularly sorry when he did things like pawn a borrowed camers. And if the avant-garde was parasitic on th bourgeoisie, tied by that umbilical cord of gold, Smith was parasitic off the avant-garde and bohemia alike, as Cohen decried: “You’ve bothered me, my friends, and others in the sense that you don’t accept the fact that you have to earn money to be a fruitful part of society.” Part of their displeasure was no doubt that Smith’s angru bum caricatured bohemia ideas—“art as life,” “life as art”—just as bohemia caricatured the bourgeoisie.
[Andrew Perchuk, “Struggle and Structure,” in Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular, (Los Angeles: The J. Paul Getty Trust, 2010) p 6-7.]

Smith’s position as an outsider to the art and experimental worlds in New York changed when he met the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg in 1960; it was through Ginsberg that Jonas Mekas became aware of Smith’s films and began to program and promotion them as part of the New American Cinema. This confrontational position—the parasitic dimensions of the “angry bum”—brings the various mythic stories Smith into focus as part of his position on the margin of both the avant-garde in New York and as an outsider to the typical organization of American society: the various untrue stories, and grandiose claims transformed Smith from the vagrant to the displaced aristocrat, a tactic for excusing (and allowing) the behaviors Perchuk identified.

Copyright © Michael Betancourt  June 24, 2011  all rights reserved.

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