“Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: The Art of Harry Smith”: or how a multifaceted artist influenced peers in America…

The Whitney Museum of American Art- Floor 5 / Wednesday January 17th, 2024

Welcome back friends!

Yay!

Welcome this week, to another original, non conformist, multimedia art exhibition around the work, this week, of just one, hyper talented, multidimensional, and yet, fairly unknown 20th century, avant-garde, American artist: Harry Smith (1923–1991).

Wow!

Who was Harry Smith?

Smith was an unusual, eccentric, quirky, multifaceted American artist, who grew up in the West, lived mostly in California, and later in New York.

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Smith expressed himself through various mediums: he was a painter, a filmmaker, a folklorist, a musicologist, as well as an avid collector of artefacts (string figures, paper airplanes, patchwork pieces).

Wow.

And during his lifetime, Smith befriended many other illustrious artists and musicians, along the way.

Wow.

And this small, yet highly original, multimedia “Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: The Art of Harry Smith” exhibition, showcases a few of Smith’s art and collections, and his lifelong need to share his “treasures” with a wide audience.

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Untitled, c, 1952. Watercolor and ink on paper by Harry Smith(1923-1991)

This exhibition is co-organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University. A version of the project will open in July 2024.

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The exhibition is curated by artist Carol Bove; Dan Byers,The John R. and Barbara Robinson Director of the Carpenter Center for Visual Arts, Rani Singh, Director of Harry Smith Archives, Elisabeth Sussman, Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art with Kelly Long, Senior Curatorial Assistant, and Mc Clain Groff, Curatorial Project Assistant, at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

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And as a prelude to this wonderful exhibition, let’s discuss first, Smith’s passion for American Folk music, which he started collecting, early on.

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Smith amassed and compiled a huge and incredible amount of recordings, gathered in various communities in America, from the 1920s and 1930s, and titled his collection: “The Anthology of American Folk Music”.

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This compilation/collection was first published in 1952, and quickly became “cult-like” among musicians, and inspired famous artists, from Bob Dylan, to the Grateful Dead, among many others.

Wow.

What a comprehensive collection of records including ballads, social music and songs!

Wow.

I will now, showcase 7 other pieces from this “Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: the Art of Harry Smith” multimedia art exhibition, that especially drew my attention.

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First, we discover out west, in the Pacific Northwest, the beginning of Smith’s wide array of interests, as a teenager: a passionate curiosity grows around native culture ancient traditions, metaphysics, spiritualism, folk art, abstract art, anthropology, and folk music.

Wow.

  1. “Harry Smith recording a Lummi ceremony” c. 1942-by K.S. Brown (1897-1972)

We see in this gelatin silver print, how young, Smith was, as a “hobbyist”, interested in viewing, listening, learning, and recording, native culture.

Wow.

His mother worked as a teacher on the Lummi (Lhaq’temish) reservation, which probably influenced Smith.

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Then, we get a taste of the rest of his works: his intellectual, artistic (murals, paintings, card making etc…), drug induced at times, and technology driven, pursuits (recordings, light box projections, film making).

Wow.

And interestingly, these works were produced first on the West coast (California), and eventually, back East (New York).

Wow.

In 1945, Smith first moved to San Francisco’s Fillmore District, which had emerged as a center of African American life and culture, and later, in the 50’s, moved to Berkeley.

In San Francisco, Smith developed important friendships with influential Jazz musicians, and became a “regular” patron at jazz clubs, including San Francisco’s important nightclub Jimbo’s Bop City, where he painted large abstract murals on the walls.

Wow.

He also painted a series of visually and musically abstract paintings, reminiscent to me, visually, of iconic Russian painter and pioneer of Abstract art, Kandinsky (1866-1944).

These visually abstract paintings were also musical in spirit, symbolically, as they intended to represent as well, music made from new recordings, by American Jazz saxophonist, Charlie Parker “Bird” (1920-1955) and illustrious Beebop jazz trumpeter, “Dizzy” Gillespie (1917-1993).

Wow.

Now lost, the paintings can only be seen on color slides.

Wow.

Let’s now take a look, at one example of these wild, abstract and musical paintings by Smith, with this “Algo Bueno” painting:

2. “Algo Bueno” (Jazz painting) c. 1948-49, by Harry Smith (1923–1991). Lightbox projection from 35mm slide of lost painting illustration of Dizzie Gillepsie and his orchestra, Algo Bueno/ Ool -Ya-Koo, B-side (RCA Victor 20-3186, 1948), 78 rpm.

So intense, vibrant, and an unusual depiction of jazz music, which we could also listen to, on a retro- looking “telephone” handset in the museum, as one admires the work.

Wow and yay!

Let’s now take a look at Smith’s growing interest as well, in experimental cinema and avant-garde art, in California, and later, in New York.

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With Film No. 11: “Mirror animations” c. 1957, set to music from the Thelonious Monk Quartet, we can see visually, the influence of German and French Avant-garde artists Max Ernst (1891-1976) or Jean Cocteau (1889-1963), both key pioneers of the Dada, Surrealist movements.

Wow.

Let’s take a look at a still from this film.

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3. Still from Film No. 11: “Mirror animations” c. 1957, by Harry Smith (1923–1991), set to music from the Thelonious Monk Quartet, B-side of Misterioso (Blue Note, 1949), 78 rpm.

So symbolic, abstract, mysterious, and yet, beautiful and inspiring, and once again, multi-sensorial with the musical accompaniment.

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4. With Film No.15 “Untitled animation of Seminole patchwork patterns”, c. 1965-66, following a trip to Florida in 1964, during which, Smith conducted ethnographic research on the Seminole Tribe, Smith collected more than 1 300 Seminole patchwork pieces, produced to create clothing or quilts.

Wow.

These “pieces” were later donated to the Smithsonian Institution in 1974.

Wow.

And Smith’s film emphasizes apparently the indigenous community’s strong independent spirit to maintain their own traditions.

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Let’s now, take a peek at 3 stills from this film No. 15, and admire the weaving and patterns chosen:

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Still 1 from Film No.15 “Untitled animation of Seminole patchwork patterns”, c. 1965-66, by Harry Smith (1923–1991). 16 mm film transferred to digital video, color, silent, 10 min.

Still 2 from Film No.15 “Untitled animation of Seminole patchwork patterns”, c. 1965-66, by Harry Smith. 16 mm film transferred to digital video, color, silent, 10 min.

Still 3 from Film No.15 “Untitled animation of Seminole patchwork patterns”, c. 1965-66, by Harry Smith (1923–1991). 16 mm film transferred to digital video, color, silent, 10 min.

And now, let’s take a quick look first, at a quirky, simple, low tech art piece by Smith, whose meaning is not entirely easy to understand (in my opinion).

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With “Folded paper airplanes” c. 1967 and 1978, Graphite and printed ink on paper, we get a sense of Smith’s joyful, childlike, and yet, perhaps cynical disposition, (in my opinion), regarding technologically advanced means of aerial transportation.

Oh boy.

I like to imagine that in the 60′ and 70’s, more and more Americans chose airplane transportation to travel long distances, which also, at times, in that era, were not always as safe as they generally are now, and still crashed once in a while.

Oh boy.

5. “Folded paper airplanes” c. 1967 and 1978, by Harry Smith (1923–1991). Graphite and printed ink on paper.

Who knows why these folded paper airplanes meant to Smith?

Fun to imagine whatever we like.

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With “Untitled zodiac”, c. 1974. Acrylic, gouache, ink, and colored pencil on paper, the psychedelic influences of the 70’s, as well as interest in spirituality and astrology at large, can be observed on this work by Smith.

Wow.

Why?

Because the zodiac is a diagram used by astrologers to represent the positions of the planets and the stars. Divided into twelve sections, each of which has its own name and symbol. The zodiac was and still is (for some), used to try to calculate the influence of the planets on people’s lives.

Oh boy.

Enjoy.

6. “Untitled zodiac”, c. 1974 by Harry Smith (1923–1991). Acrylic, gouache, ink, and colored pencil on paper.

And interestingly, Smith’s diagram is simplified to a condensed 6 sections painting.

Who knows why?

Again, being able to interpret the work ourselves, is fun!

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Finally, with Film No. 18 “Mahogonny” (1970-1980), Smith adapted in four screens, a 1930 opera, “Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny” (“Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”), from German-born and American composer, Kurt Weill (1900-1950), and influential German playwrite, Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956).

And Smith’s film No. 18, as the 1930 opera, is a political satire, set in an imaginary American city, that chooses indulgence over lawfulness, and eventually, self destructs.

Oh boy.

Smith shot the film in New York, in the Chelsea Hotel mostly, where Smith lived from 1968 to 1977, and features avant-garde American figures, such as “Beat generation” poet, Allen Ginsberg (1926-1997), film maker, “Godfather of American avant-garde cinema”, academic at NYU and MIT, and first film critic for The Village Voice, Jonas Mekas (1922-2019), and musician, singer, songwriter, poet, painter, author and influential pioneer of the New York City punk rock movement, Patti Smith (b. 1946).

Wow.

In addition to these “celebrities”, famous New York landmarks can be recognized in the film.

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And interestingly, the film pairs the opera’s score with four categories of images: people, animation, symbols and nature, all of which, Smith found, “universally accessible”.

Wow.

It took him 2 years to shoot it (from 1970 to 1972) and another 8 to edit the film.

Here are 2 stills of this Film No. 18:

Enjoy!

Still 1 from Film No. 18 “Mahogonny” (1970-1980) by Harry Smith (1923–1991).

Still 2 from Film No. 18 “Mahogonny” (1970-1980) by Harry Smith (1923–1991).

And as I was watching ever evolving surreal and complex images from Film No. 18, while listening to the 1930 German Weill opera, about this imaginary American city, to me, this important Smith film (No.18) illustrated plenty of elements of Smith’s eclectic, rich, and imaginative artistic and real world.

What a hoot!

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So, to sum up my feelings, about the Whitney’s “Fragment of Forgotten Faith: the Art of Harry Smith”, multimedia exhibition, admired last Wednesday, in great company: what a fascinating, multifaceted and important 20th century American artist, Smith was, influencing illustrious peers in the music, film making, and avant-garde art worlds.

Wow.

Just awesome.

Not to be missed!

Until next time friends.

Yay!

Soft…

Fluttering…

Sunny…

Joyful…

Happy…

Loving…

Eternal butterflies 😊