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The Cosmic American: Harry Smith's Alchemical Art

The Cosmic American: Harry Smith's Alchemical Art

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Published by William Rauscher
An enigmatic beatnik polyglot, Harry Smith influenced a generation of musicians and filmmakers with his folk anthology and radical cinema experiments.
An enigmatic beatnik polyglot, Harry Smith influenced a generation of musicians and filmmakers with his folk anthology and radical cinema experiments.

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Categories:Topics, Art & Design
Published by: William Rauscher on Dec 06, 2011
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05/13/2014

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The Cosmic American: Harry Smith’s Alchemical ArtWilliam RauscherOriginally published in ArtUS
So convinced was Harry Smith of the kinship between dreams and film that heonce stated the ideal response of the viewer to his films was to fall asleep. HarrySmith,
Heaven and Earth Magic.
Film still, 1957.
 
 
Review:
Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular 
, ed. AndrewPerchuk and Rani Singh (Los Angeles: Getty Research Institute, 2010)As any outlaw-country fan will tell you, "cosmic American music" was GramParsons' term for the hybrid of country, gospel and hard-living rock that he forgedin the sixties, first with the Byrds, then the Flying Burrito Brothers, then solo,before launching the career of singer Emmylou Harris and mysteriously dying inthe California desert at age 26. What Gram exactly meant by ‘cosmic’ is still upfor grabs, but by the sound of things the term was clearly de-coupled frompsychedelic connotations. Instead, the word seemed to mark a relation to artistictradition – Parsons applied the term as well to “Exile on Main Street” by hisfriends the Rolling Stones, an album which eschewed studio polish for apenetrating foray into the backroads of American musical history. We might thinkof Parson's idea of cosmic practice, as operating within a particular vernacular,often associated with folk or popular culture, in order to adorn its elements withan allegorical, at times even mythic, degree of signification.Yet the twentieth-century’s original cosmic American wasn't Parsons, arguably,but Harry Smith. What Parsons and the Stones were to American music, Smithwas to Americana as a whole, including music, ritual practice, folk and outsiderart, pop culture and the urban landscape. Furthermore, it’s perhaps Parson’sunderstanding of cosmic Americana that can facilitate an understanding ofSmith’s maddeningly diverse output. The very title of a new scholarly volume onSmith would seem to support this:
Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular 
. By turns an ethnographer, collector, painter, filmmaker andKabbalist, Smith’s interdisciplinarity reached such an extreme that often peoplewho knew him in one context weren't aware of his other endeavors. This waspoignantly evident at Smith’s funeral in 1991, where folk music collectors mingledwith experimental filmmakers, religious scholars and members of the OrdoTempli Orientis, the Crowleyite sect in which Smith was an ordained Gnosticbishop.Harry Smith’s body of work included not only the groundbreaking six-albumAnthology of American Folk Music and his highly-influential experimental films,but a myriad of paintings and drawings, many lost to oblivion, as well as a host ofunusual collections, such as Seminole textiles and Ukranian Easter Eggs. Smithalso maintained the only existing collection of string figures, and an extensivelyannotated paper airplane collection posthumously donated to the Smithsonian.Furthermore, as cohorts like Allen Ginsberg attest, Smith tape-recorded virtuallyeverything, documenting peyote rituals, sticking a mic out of the window to getstreet sounds at various times of the day, even recording death rattles at theFranciscan flophouse on the Bowery. Smith's obsessive zeal for recording,together with his visionary capacity for synaesthetic relations between
 
disciplines, produced a labyrinthine oeuvre of collections, works, insights andimages.Assembled from texts delivered by music, film and American studies scholars atsymposia held by the Getty Institute in 2001-2002 and co-edited by Rani Singh,Smith's onetime assistant,
Harry Smith 
attempts for the first time to contextualizeSmith’s work and thought in an academic context, drawing connections to theavant-garde tradition, as well as emphasizing the contiguity of Smith’s modernistrelation to folk art with that of Fluxus, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg andAndy Warhol, and exploring tangential connections to everyone from MelanieKlein to Bertolt Brecht and John Keats. It’s a necessary volume not only for itsscholarly apparatus but because a large part of Smith’s corpus remains out ofprint, as do the only two other volumes on his work,
American Magus 
and
Think of the Self Speaking 
. Given its goal of historicizing, evaluating and above allattempting to produce meaning from Smith’s work, however, the Getty volumenecessarily sacrifices a certain oral richness that abounds in the other two books:
American Magus 
relies on a kind of idiosyncratic folk history of Smith offered byhis most intimate friends, including Allen Ginsberg and Robert Frank, while theinterviews that comprise
Think of the Self Speaking 
present Smith as his ownbest/worst representative, engaged in shaggy-dog tangents, deliriouslyassociative ramblings and tall-tale provocations.Commentators variously employ labels like "aesthetic anthropology" or"ethnographic modernism" in order to describe processes Smith developed inwhich taxonomic and scientific operations are governed by artistic predilection.The underlying aim of such processes was to locate correspondences,synchronicities, rhythms, cycles and patterns that supposedly indextranshistorical structures. Smith’s stridently modernist emphasis on suchstructures permitted profound epistemological and artistic traffic betweenseemingly unrelated fields. Having decided that "books are an especially badway of recording information,"
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Smith set out to transmit these structures throughpainting, film and music compilations. As a result his works often reflect asemiotic intensity that one commentator sees as prefiguring internet culture,insofar as they express “a highly annotated reality where diverse subjects arelinked in unexpected ways."
2
 The reliance on structures to produce such interdisciplinary traffic marks one ofthe more significant registers of alchemy in Smith’s work. A lifelong student of theKabbala, Smith’s early films display a strong interest in the structuraltransmutation of sound into image, and his master work
Heaven and Earth Magic 
 depicts a dense cosmos of relentless alchemical transformation. Smith’s pathtowards alchemy, we’re told, supposedly began with a paternal injunction:Smith’s father, a Freemason and Theosophist, sent his son at a young age towork the blacksmith’s equipment in the family basement with the order to

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