They Made Him Gray: The Whitney Museum Dims Artist and Mystic Harry Smith

Harry Smith, "Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: The Art of Harry Smith" (installation view), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October 4, 2023-January 28, 2024. Andy Warhol, "Screen Test: Harry Smith [ST314]," 1964. Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

When you first walk into Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: The Art of Harry Smith at the Whitney Museum, you’re greeted by Andy Warhol’s black-and-white film portrait of Smith, whose long fingers are pulling threads into cat’s cradle formations, his eyes eerily magnified by his large glasses. Cat’s cradle patterns, made by looping lengths of string into geometric shapes, are linked to various spiritual practices and storytelling traditions; upon his death, Smith left behind an unfinished, thousand-page manuscript on the subject. The relationships between games, chance, and divination weave throughout his life’s work. In his various roles as occultist, music historian, filmmaker, artist, paper-airplane and painted-egg collector, cat’s cradle researcher, alchemist in residence, and consecrated Gnostic bishop, Harry Smith was relentless in his search for patterns and parallels. He moved between drawing, recording, painting, and filmmaking, all while using divination and automatic techniques to rearrange his chaotic revelations into art. “I tried as much as possible to make the whole thing automatic, the production automatic rather than any kind of logical process,” he said in a 1965 interview with Film Culture Reader, explaining that because everything has a cosmic rhythm, he didn’t need to impose his own. Smith would edit his films live and then throw them under buses, torch his paintings, drop his poems out of windows, eventually destroying most of his work. He was notoriously elliptical and obnoxious during formal interviews and changed biographical details constantly. The patterns he uncovered don’t help us to find a soothing, intellectual cosmic order. In his work, patterns, textures, colors, mediums, and methods constantly rearrange themselves, annihilating and creating other orders. The effect brings us to the furthest edges of our awareness, pulling us beyond intellectual knowledge toward the irrational, intuitive, emotional parts of ourselves that might be more at home with mystery. His work invites us to contemplate the shifting conditions of life by plunging in and joining the dance.

Harry Smith, Ko Ko [Jazz Painting], c. 1949–51. Lightbox projection from 35mm slide of lost original painting. Estate of Jordan Belson.

Smith was hostile to the rigidity of art galleries, museums, and institutional learning, saying, “I received my original education in my mother’s womb and found that other scholastic organizations were inferior.” It’s not that he was indifferent to learning, or to tradition—he was a zealous student of occult arts and traditional crafts. People who practice magic are typically distrusted within institutions and can be mistrustful of them in turn. As Silvia Federici says in her book Caliban and the Witch (Autonomedia, 2004), “The very existence of magical beliefs was a source of social insubordination.” How can you control people whose work and methods come from invisible and unpredictable sources? “Magic kills industry,” complained Francis Bacon, the English statesman and philosopher who has been called “the father of empiricism.” The wariness is mutual: while magic is maligned by the purveyors of industry, those who practice magic balk at the constraints and cruelties of industrialized culture as well as the capitalistic rationale that underpins it. Museums and galleries, built as they are with corporate money, are structurally ill-equipped to hold the disruptive power of a mystic like Smith. I was reminded of this at the Whitney Museum’s exhibition.

Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: The Art of Harry Smith (installation view), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October 4, 2023-January 28, 2024. Harry Smith, Film No.18: Mahagonny, 1970–80 (restored 2002). Photograph by Ron Amstutz

Fragments of a Faith Forgotten is Smith’s first solo show, organized more than thirty years after his death. I paused at the wall text at its entrance feeling a little dubious. Art institutions generally evade talking about mysticism directly. The vast majority of modern-art discourse intentionally distances art from a past steeped in spiritual purpose and positions contemporary art as an intellectual pursuit, as if the two qualities are contradictory. Sally Promey, a historian of religious visual culture, writes that, within the “secularization theory of modernity” embraced by many twentieth-century art historians and critics, “‘modern religion’ was an oxymoron.” Mystics trouble prevailing paradigms of authorship, individuality, and “style” by insisting that other energies are involved in the making of art and allowing faith to take the place of rational explanations for its existence. An August 2023 New York Times article, dramatically titled “After the Sudden Heralding of Hilma af Klint, Questions and Court Fight,” cited historians who call into question the authorship of Hilma af Klint’s paintings, suggesting that other members of her spiritualist circle made some of the work. But what about the spirits? Af Klint explicitly stated that spirits directed her paintings, made them using her hands. If you read her writings, af Klint barely claims authorship at all.

In the wall text, Harry Smith is described as a “radical nonconformist” who was “keenly attuned to changing technology,” embracing “whatever was new and of the moment.” But in an interview, he said in 1969, “I would prefer to see this technological thing knocked out, because all the things I’m interested in, like singing, poetry, painting, and stuff, can all be done without this large number of can openers, eggbeaters, Empire State Buildings, and things.” Furthermore, most of his subject matter concerns myths and traditional crafts, not industrialized innovations. The text mentions that he had an “interest in … ancient traditions, metaphysics, spiritualism,” among other things, but neglects to state that he was an initiate of mystical orders and that spirituality was the catalyst for all his work, creating the architecture that underpins its vast permutations. After reading this, I began to think Harry Smith was right to avoid museums.

Harry Smith, Manteca [Jazz Painting], c. 1948–49. Lightbox projection from 35mm slide of lost original painting. Estate of Jordan Belson.

Harry Smith was born in 1923 and spent his early years in Washington state. Smith’s parents were Theosophists, teaching young Harry about mysticism, art, and folk music. In his twenties, Smith lived in San Francisco, where he began collecting hillbilly music, jazz, and blues records. He made abstract paintings and animations that were synesthetic renderings of patterns and colors he saw in the music. In 1950, when he was 27, he received a Guggenheim grant to complete an abstract film. He used the money to fund a move to New York City, where he went to absorb live jazz. When the funds ran out, Smith tried to sell his enormous record collection to Moe Asch, president of Folkways Records. Asch had another idea: he suggested that Smith use his collection to edit a multivolume anthology of American folk music. This became The Anthology of American Folk Music (1952) and catalyzed the folk scene in New York City; Bob Dylan would end up covering close to twenty songs from the compilation.

Smith continued pursuing mysticism, filmmaking, painting, collecting, and recording sounds in the ensuing decades but earned almost nothing. He lived at the Hotel Chelsea from 1968 to 1977 in arrears with the rent until he was kicked out, and spent some years hopping from hotel to hotel, balking at commissions and art sales that might have sustained him. Allen Ginsberg took him into his East Village apartment in the 1980s, where Smith continued to work on his films and recordings, supposedly living on a diet of raw eggs, vodka, and amphetamines. In 1988, after Ginsberg’s therapist urged him to put physical distance between himself and Smith’s antics, Ginsberg arranged for Smith to teach shamanism at Naropa Institute in Boulder. Ginsberg, who was paying all of Smith’s expenses, quickly realized Smith was using all his money to buy alcohol instead of food, and hired Naropa student Rani Singh to look after him (Singh, now an author and art curator, has since been dedicated to preserving Smith’s legacy, and was one of the three guest curators of the Whitney exhibition). Smith later returned to New York, ending up for a time at Francis House, a home for derelicts on the Bowery. While there, he continued recording, taping the “the dying coughs and prayers of impoverished sick people in adjacent cubicles,” as Ginsberg would later recall. In November 1991, Smith suffered a heart attack at the Hotel Chelsea, dying in the arms of the poet Paola Igliori, who was making a documentary about him called American Magus. She describes him chanting “I’m dying” over and over again until there was silence. At his memorial service at St. Mark’s Church in the East Village, Smith’s branch of the Ordo Templi Orientis honored him with a Gnostic Mass. Though his friends were many and famous, he quickly drifted into obscurity. None of my friends had heard of him when I mentioned wanting to see his posthumous exhibition at the Whitney.

Harry Smith, Film No. 11: Mirror Animations, c. 1957 (film still). 16mm film, color, sound; 3:35 min. Sound from The Thelonious Monk Quartet, B-side of Misterioso (Blue Note, 1949), 78 pm. (Courtesy Blue Note under license from Universal Music Enterprises). Courtesy of Anthology Film Archives, New York. © Anthology Film Archives.

At the start of the exhibition, behind the monitor playing Andy Warhol’s screen test of Smith, there is a colossal gray contraption stuck to the wall. I ask a security guard, who turned out to be a huge Harry Smith fan, what it was. He explains that Smith always wanted to project his 1980 Mahagonny film series onto a boxing ring, and that this was a boxing ring mounted onto a wall. There was no film projected onto it, so Harry Smith’s wish still had not been granted. When I ask why it was gray, he tells me that Carol Bove, who helped organize the show, made big gray props for the exhibit. He points to a giant gray Rubin’s vase in the next room that Bove made, but he couldn’t say why it was there. The entire exhibition space is coated in drab gray paint that matches Bove’s sculptural contributions, making the galleries look like an eerie Nickelodeon TV set with all the color sucked out of it. The gray doesn’t disappear; it takes up room with its dull, sludgy hue. It’s somehow vivid in its mutedness.

Presumably, the Warhol film, the boxing ring, and the Mahagonny projection adjacent to the entrance were chosen to introduce the exhibition so you connect to Smith through the famous people he knew. Mahagonny, a fantasia of flashing images spread across four quadrants on a single screen, was filmed in the Hotel Chelsea and features Patti Smith, Allen Ginsberg, Jonas Mekas, and Lotte Lenya. The film was shot from 1970 to 1972 and edited over the next eight years. The Kurt Weill opera Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny (1930), from which it is adapted, is transformed by Smith into a numerological and symbolic system—the images are somehow divided into the categories of portraits, animation, symbols, and nature to form the palindrome P. A. S. A. N. A. S. A. P. Viewing this, you can’t detect this esoteric code. What you see are both moving and static images of people, places, collages, and sculptures in the quadrant formation. Sometimes the images double, triple, and mirror one another; sometimes they don’t. As with all of Harry Smith’s films, the beauty and the rhythm of the constellation of images keep you transfixed even if the logic that arranged them is unclear.

Smith’s astonishing hour-long film Heaven and Earth Magic is projected onto a smaller screen wedged into a corner. The film is composed of a dense collage of Victorian illustrations that move at a fast clip through relentless alchemical transformation. It is difficult to watch for very long because the exhibition space gets crowded here. Just beside the film, there is a line of gray cubicles, and inside each one, slides of Smith’s lost jazz paintings are projected in light boxes next to headphones with speakers playing jazz. The effect is murky; it’s difficult to focus on any one thing. If you continue along the row of gray cubicles featuring Smith’s jazz paintings, you run into another line of gray cubicles. Inside each one, a gray wall contains a salon-style grouping of video screens and paintings organized by decade, from the 1930s through the 1970s. Watching them, I have the feeling that I am looking at a display of specimens in an airport—the cubicles have the same blend of sterility and chaos.

In a cubicle featuring work from the 1960s, one of my favorite films of Smith’s, Oz: The Tin Woodman’s Dream (1967), is wedged between his spectacular pen-and-ink drawings of occult symbols. The Tin Woodman is illuminated in beautiful jewel tones against a black backdrop, framed by lightbulbs that pulse. He chops down a tree that begins to shapeshift into different objects. He finally grabs his longed-for heart from the corner of the screen before traveling to the Emerald City. I’m moved every time he grabs his own heart and embarks on his adventure. It’s a beautiful rendering of an initiation, as the Tin Woodman gives spiritual authority to himself instead of waiting for the Wizard of Oz to grant it to him. In another cubicle, a beautiful bright painting from Smith’s Enochian Tablet series (about 1979)—which combines the sixteenth-century magician John Dee’s angelic alphabet with the colors and patterns attributed to it by the Victorian occult group the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn—is stuck to the back of a cubicle with no explanation of the meaning or method behind the series. It feels like an erasure of Smith’s training in occultism.

Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: The Art of Harry Smith (installation view), Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, October 4, 2023-January 28, 2024. Photograph by Ron Amstutz.

Wearing stereoscopic glasses provided by the museum, I stoop down to look at some stereoscopic drawings made by Smith, and I understood what was going wrong­­: through one eye you take in Smith’s poetic and magical figurations, and through the other you take in the corporate machinations of a big-money museum that tries to stuff his wild vision into gray, chronological cubicles. Somehow this combination makes Smith, as artist and mystic, hazy. Nowhere is this more obvious than when you enter a sleek sunroom at the end of the exhibition that overlooks the $70 million dollar Hudson River Park waterfront development. Harry Smith’s folk-record collection plays over speakers, and you sit on gray couches to flip through plastic binders full of Smith ephemera. The clash of class and concept in this room is painful. Smith began collecting early recordings of American music in the 1940s. During World War II, when hordes of records were melted down so the shellac could be used for the war effort, Smith saved tens of thousands of recordings of music innovated by enslaved, indentured, and impoverished people in America from total obscurity. And here that music is playing in a room overlooking a park designed to inflate property values with no mention of the histories of the musicians. Witnessing these corporate museums and their developer partners drive up real estate prices by showcasing the creative labor of people who were largely unpaid for it is excruciating. All the more so because it hits close to home: my partner, myself, and three of my closest friends were all (separately) illegally evicted from our apartments this past year so rents could be raised—all of us artists, none of us able to make the forty-times-rent income requirement that landlords demand in New York City. The prismatic legacy of Harry Smith’s output has challenged multiple generations to use their creativity and inherent magic to invent the world anew, and the Whitney exhibition demonstrates the dull, extractive logic that prevents corporate arts institutions from supporting the lives and works of artists who disrupt these logic systems and make their own.

Writing about his work for the Film-Makers’ Cooperative, Smith said, “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 made me gray.” Is this why the exhibition was painted that color? I wondered, as I exited the show, if we could show Harry Smith’s work so that the breath and prismatic heart of his vision could be made clear. Could an exhibition, through its very design, trace the myths hidden in cat’s cradle formations and show a metaphysics of interrelatedness? If we want to show the rhythms of a mystic’s mind, we have to relinquish the culture of individualism and autonomy that are the hallmarks of capitalism—and these corporate art spaces designed to rank, exclude, and individuate—and make new shapes. If we want to remember Smith’s faiths, we have to let them move us.

Writing about this exhibition was difficult, probably for the same reasons it was difficult to curate. I wanted my words for Smith to loop in strange formations of shape and color like his films, but I was worried about “making sense.” I’m so glad that Harry Smith showed up at the Whitney because he showed us its constraints so spectacularly and, in doing so, he showed me my own. I can see his Cheshire Cat smile widening as so many of us who love his work struggle to explain it.

1 Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *