Harry Smith, Mythologist

Paper from presentation by William Moritz at Getty Research Institute's Harry Smith Symposium, 2001. Notes added by CVM.


I'm very happy that Harry Smith is being celebrated by a prestigious seminar at a major museum -- a seminar that should place him -- most correctly -- among the 'major artists' of our era. But at the same time I feel a little chilled and shocked, remembering the first time I met Harry, at the Chelsea Hotel in 1961, when he was clearly a pariah, reviled and mocked by seemingly everyone. The Chelsea management had turned off the elevator close to his room because they said he had used it too much. He was penniless, and hadn't anything to eat. When I gave him a little money to buy some food, he hurried off to buy a book he had wanted for some time. I felt like his brother or son: I too would have bought a record or book before paying the rent or eating. Fortunately, though, I never fell into the desperate poverty and alienation that Harry suffered. California winters are kinder that the frost-bite of New York.


Harry Smith was a Mythologist in two senses. He had an encyclopedic knowledge of the mythologies of many cultures from antiquity to the present day, including their cult practices, their sacred texts, their symbolisms, their music and their magic. He gorged his living quarters with grimoires and anthropological studies which he practically knew by heart. But he was also the mythologer of his own personal legend. Was he, as a boy, initiated into sacred rites of the native American tribes of the Pacific North-West? Who knows, and why should we care, since he was so knowledgeable about them?

He had a small, fragile body, but he was capable of feats of considerable strength and agility. When I was driving to Canada with Elfriede Fischinger for a Fischinger retrospective there [1], we stopped in New York and I took her to visit Harry whom she had not seen since 1946. His room at the Chelsea Hotel was crowded from floor to ceiling with boxes and stacks of books, artworks, periodicals, records, figurines and many other things, so that one could hardly get around much. I had visited him twice before, so I knew what to expect, but Elfriede was flabbergasted, and then thrilled at the dozens of curious and priceless things that kept emerging from the seeming chaos (which Harry, however, seemed to know down to the last scrap, and could retrieve any particular item with relative ease). He spoke glowingly of how inspirational Oskar had been to him, and said it must be nice for her to have his legacy so well preserved. Elfriede told him frankly how many things -- films, paintings and papers -- had not been properly preserved yet. "Well, something should be done about that!" Harry proclaimed, and disappeared for a moment into his "archive." He emerged shortly with a few magic paraphernalia and a live chicken, and proceeded to perform a ritual, chanting, dancing around, and finally sacrificing the chicken to use its blood to mark symbols on various objects, including Elfriede's hand. "Now," he said in conclusion, "you should not be having so much financial worry, and most of your precious things will be taken care of in the next few years." Indeed, within a few years the Frankfurt Filmmuseum paid a substantial amount of money to acquire a representative cross-section of Oskar's works (films, paintings, animation drawings, photographs, documents, etc.) which were archivally preserved in Germany [2], and Elfriede used her fee to preserve more of Oskar's works in Los Angeles. She also received several grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and other foundations that contributed to the restoration and preservation of more of Oskar's things. Harry's magic seemed to have worked.

I knew Harry would enjoy seeing Elfriede because some years before, when I was preparing a Fischinger text for Film Culture magazine, Harry had given me a lovely testimonial about Oskar:

You can tell how much I admire Fischinger: the only film of mine that I ever gave a real title to was "Homage to Oskar Fischinger" [Film No. 5, in the current scheme of things]. I learned concentration from him -- visiting his home and seeing how he could sit serenely in that small house, crawling with what seemed like a dozen children, and still painting those stunning pictures. That great film Motion Painting makes the process seem deceptively simple -- and it was simple for him: the images really did just flow from his brush, never a ruler or compass, all free-hand -- but you can't see all the obstacles he had to overcome in order to even work at all. SOmething so wonderful happened in that film, and in those paintings, something so much better than all the Pollocks and other stuff that the museums fight to get hold of. Did anyone ever fight to save Fischinger's things? [3]

In many interviews and statements Harry created a mythological version of his own life and works. He claimed to have made his first film in 1939, but that was not just a lie, but rather a strategy to prove that he had not followed or copied filmmakers like Norman McLaren and Len Lye who had been making films painted directly on the film surface since the 1930s. Harry shouldn't have worried about that, since his own films have a style and intricacy quite different from the Lye and McLaren works. However, government sponsorship made the McLaren and Lye films widely available, well publicized and well known. Harry was on his own, often with only one or two prints of any given film.

In fact, Harry had seen McLaren and Lye (Colour Box in 1948) and Fischinger and Whitney films before he made his first painted films, since Harry boasted that he had seen every one of the Art in Cinema screenings, even the repetitions. Harry was a painting student in San Francisco (and friend of another painting student Jordan Belson) when the brothers Frank and Jack Stauffacher and Richard Foster in 1946 began preparing a film series, Art in Cinema, which would be screened at the San Francisco Museum of Art for the next seven years. The screenings included most of the classic avant-garde experimental films [many of them available then through the Museum of Modern Art in New York] as well as new experimental works from around the world. Belson and Smith volunteered to help out with the project (in exchange, of course, for free tickets to all the screenings), and as luck would have it, Harry was sent to Los Angeles to convince Oskar Fischinger and the Whitney brothers that they should come to San Francisco to screen a program of their films. [4] Harry was amazed by the brilliance of Fischinger's new film Motion Painting as well as the dozens of canvases that had preceded it. He had mixed feelings about the Whitney brothers' Five Film Exercises: No. 1 and No. 5, which John Whitney had made, seemed more mechanical to him, but No. 2 & 3, and No. 4, which James had made impressed him by their musical values. No. 4 particularly, Harry said, contained all the anguish and terror of World War II, and managed to survive... [In fact James Whitney was a pacifist, and had been drafted into alternative service as a technical draftsman and illustrator at Cal Tech, where he rendered hundreds of drawings of secret experimental military machinery which he knew nothing about -- but after the A-bomb was used on Japan, he felt a horrible guilt that perhaps he had contributed unwittingly to this holocaust]. [5]

Both Fischinger and the Whitneys did go to San Francisco for an Art in Cinema screening.

Harry wanted to extend his painting into this exciting new medium of film, but he lacked the equipment and technical skills and the significant amount of money that processing and making of copies in a laboratory could cost. The angel that enabled him was a photographer named Hy Hirsh, who had been a cinematographer at Columbia Studios in the 1930s but now worked free-lance with still photography (official photographer for artworks at the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco, and many fashion and commercial shoots, which sometimes took him to exotic locales like Jamaica, Amsterdam, Paris and Morocco). Hirsh also made his own experimental films, often abstract ones. Hirsh was what the French call a "bricoleur": someone who can make everything himself. He built his own optical printer so that he could create "special effects" for his films. And he generously taught filmmaking skills and loaned his own equipment to a whole generation of Bay area filmmakers, including James Broughton, Sidney Peterson, Jordan Belson and Harry Smith.

While Jordan Belson first experimented with painting hundreds of sequential images on long scrolls, Harry opted for shooting geometrical and abstract shapes that occured in everyday city situations, which he shot in black-and-white, but then could "colorize" with filters hand-held during the projections. The first of these films, titled Fast Track, was screened at Art in Cinema on October 24, 1947. It was listed as 10 minutes, with sound in the program. The second of these (probably the current No. 4) appeared on October 31, 1949, listed as Film No. 6 in black-and-white, with no reference to sound.

Then Harry began painting directly on the film strip, thus avoiding the cost of extra negatives and prints, except, of course that Hy Hirsh had to help with optical printing to ensure that the delicate painted film-strip was not scraped or scratched during the lab's printing process. On May 12, 1950, Art in Cinema screened the premiere of four painted films by Harry Smith. They were titled Strange Dream, Message from the Sun, Interwoven and Circular Tensions and the program notes that each one of the hundreds of painted film frames is a work of art. The films were accompanied by a live jazz band consisting of Atlee Chapman on trombone and bass-trumpet; Henry Noyd on trumpet; Kermit Scott on tenor sax; Robert Warren on bass; Warren Thompson on drums; and Stanly Willis on piano. It is easy to recognize these as the four films currently numbered 1, 2, 3 and 4. Harry told me that he was jazz-crazy at that time, particularly for Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonius Monk, and insisted that he had synchronized the first three painted films to jazz performances by Dizzy Gillespie: Guarachi Guaro, Algo Bueno and Manteca. He said that Hy Hirsh had recorded live performances of Gillespie's band doing these three pieces, and Harry had carefully synchronized the images to the recorded tape. But he was not able to afford the cost of transfering the tape to an optical soundtrack and then making the more-expensive sound release prints. Hence the live jazz accompaniment at the Art in Cinema premiere. Harry also screened the films with live jazz performances at Bop City nightclub in San Francisco. In the 1970s I found a pirate LP called "Dizzy Gillespie Live in Sweden." I played it for Harry and he insisted it was the same as the tape that Hy Hirsh had given him in the late 1940s. Subsequently the same Gillespie performance was released on cd as "Gillespie Live in Paris."

Later in 1950 Harry received a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation, and after several months of working on new films to fulfill the terms of his stipend, Harry traveled to New York, where he would spend most of the rest of his life. The Baroness Hilla von Rebay was the curator of the Guggenheim Museum of Non-Objective Art, and supervised the artists with creative grants. Harry presented her with three films that he had prepared. Homage to Oskar Fischinger (who had recommended him for the grant) which used materials from the Fast Track film colorized by Hy Hirsh to recall Fischinger's Circles; a 3-D film that would require the viewer to wear special glasses with one red and one green lens in order to experience strange "supernatural" depth and anti-depth phenomena among moving geometrical shapes, and a brilliant film Color Study which was shot live from the screen during a performance at the Guggenheim Museum, in which Harry used several slide projectors and film projectors simultaneously to create complex layered imagery. This film is now called Film No. 7.

That constitutes the accurate details of Harry Smith's early California films. The various things he may have said or written about them later, giving them different dates, different titles and numbers, etc. as I said before were not meant to be fraudulent. Harry wanted his films to be a Great Work in the mystical Alchemical sense. With or without the special numerology, they certainly are a Great Work.


Notes by CVM:

Typescript in William Moritz Collection at Center for Visual Music.

Harry Smith's Films No. 1, 2 and 3 restored with the Gillespie tracks are in the Collection of Center for Visual Music

[1] Probably refers to 1976 trip to Ottawa.

[2] Since that time, some of the paintings and artwork have been conserved. The selection of films sold by Elfriede were only 16mm screening prints (with limited rights), not 35mm prints, originals or preservation material, thus not suitable to be preserved as Moritz describes.

[3] This testimonial by Smith was not printed in Moritz's 1974 Film Culture essay on Fischinger, but it was printed in Moritz's 2004 critical biography of Fischinger, Optical Poetry.

[4] This has since been found to be incorrect. Fischinger had agreed to a screening of his films in the early stages of Art in Cinema's organization, well before Smith became involved or travelled to Los Angeles. Fischinger's arrangements were directly with the festival's organizers, as evidenced by existing correspondence. A letter to Fischinger asking if he'll spare time to meet a young filmmaker fan (Harry Smith) can be found in Scott MacDonald's Art in Cinema book.

[5] No evidence has been found to support this statement, the accuracy of which has been questioned. John Whitney, Jr. maintains that James did not work at Cal Tech.

A very slightly revised version of this talk was published in Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular (Getty Publications, 2010).

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