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Getty acquires archive of the American artist, musicologist, experimental filmmaker and collector Harry Smith
Harry Smith at Allen Ginsberg’s Kitchen Table, New York City, 16 June 1988, 1988. Allen Ginsberg.© Allen Ginsberg LLC.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Getty Research Institute announced the acquisition of the archive of the American artist, musicologist, experimental filmmaker and collector, Harry Everett Smith (1923–1991). The wide-ranging archive traces his creative output through original films, artworks, detailed notes and sketches for his film Mahagonny, audio recordings of sounds he collected in various locations, as well as unusual items that formed part of his personal collections. It was donated to the GRI by the Harry Smith Archives, a non-profit created shortly after Smith’s death to preserve his legacy.

“Harry Smith has long been the subject of serious scholarship in disciplines as diverse as musicology, film studies, anthropology, and art history,” said Thomas W. Gaehtgens, director of the Getty Research Institute. “Many distinct archives already in the GRI’s collection dovetail with Smith’s unique, multi-disciplinary practice and we anticipate that these materials will be immensely valuable to scholars in many different fields.”

Harry Smith is perhaps best known for his Anthology of American Folk Music which was released in 1952 and based on his early work collecting recordings of early American folk and blues music. However, he spent his life immersed in a range of creative and intellectual pursuits including filmmaking, painting and mixed media art often inspired by alchemy and the occult, and a nearly obsessive practice of collecting unusual objects.

“For the first time, scholars specializing in one aspect of Smith’s complex oeuvre will be able to connect it with his related practices and passions,” said Nancy Perloff, associate curator of Modern and Contemporary Collections at the Getty Research Institute. “For example, film specialists will have access to Smith’s manuscripts, which served as important source material for his films. Moreover, Smith’s personal collections were an integral part of his artistic process and experimentation. Researchers working with the archive will now be able to study them and to draw connections between Smith’s methods of classification and documentation in collecting and his art-making practice.”

Born in Portland, Oregon in 1923, Smith was raised in Washington state, in Pacific Northwest Coast Indian territory. His mother taught on the Lummi Nation Reservation in the 1920s and 30s, and he became fascinated with Native American Culture. By age 15 he recorded songs and rituals of the Lummi, Salish and Swinomish people and compiled a dictionary of Puget Sound dialects. This was the beginning of a lifelong interest in documenting the art and language of diverse cultures on audio, film, and canvas.

In the 1940s Smith found a like-minded, creative community in the Beat artist and writers of the San Francisco Bay area. He also began making films around this time. His early films consist of “batiked abstractions” in which he hand-painted each frame on 35mm film stock using stencils, cutouts, tape, petroleum jelly, paint and color dyes. Strongly influenced by jazz, his films of the early 1950s were also abstract but were conceived of as studies in response to the improvisational structures of jazz music.

Between 1957 and 1962 Smith combined projected film, advertisements, religious texts, and colored filters and animated collages from old catalogues into films such as No. 11: Mirror Animations (ca. 1957) and No. 12: Heaven and Earth Magic. In the 1960s, his work incorporated live-action photography. And in 1970 Smith, who had moved to New York by then, began work on his final and most well-known film work, No. 18 Mahagonny, a four-screen projection based on the 1930 opera by Weill and Brecht, Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny. Considered Smith’s magnum opus, the film was shot from 1970 to 1972 and then edited for eight years leading up to its premiere at the Anthology Film Archives in New York in 1980.

Film represents a major portion of Smith’s visual production but it closely related to his painting practice with its emphasis on blurring the boundaries of the medium as well as non-objective geometric shapes. He also inventively created abstract drawings using a typewriter. Several examples of these works are in the archive.

Harry Smith was an avid, methodical collector throughout his life. In addition to Pacific Northwest Indian artifacts and early American folk music, Smith collected objects such as pop-up books, audio recordings, periodicals, tarot cards, folk crafts and gourds. Among Smith’s unusual collections were string figures, for which he was considered the world’s leading authority. He compiled notes and bibliographies about string figure practitioners around the world, and persevered and mounted specific designs on poster board.

The Harry Smith Papers includes many of Smith’s collections as well as his writings on film projects and ethnography, documents related to his early interest in Pacific Northwest Indians, a complete collection of his most significant films, audio tapes, ephemera and manuscripts. It also includes items such as tarot cards, pop-up books, and eggshells that he had in his possession when he died. Additionally there are selected art works and films by Smith that were assembled after his death, and biographical research materials compiled by friends and colleagues, including founding members of the Harry Smith Archives. Photographs of Smith taken by friends and colleagues, including the poet Allen Ginsberg, and videos of Smith-related events at UCLA and the Getty further document his life and legacy.

In April 2001, The Research Institute held a major symposium at the Getty devoted to Smith, bringing together a large number of experts on his work, accompanied by screenings of restored versions of his films and performances to showcase the continued vibrancy of his musical legacy. In 2010 the Getty published Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular, edited by Andrew Perchuk, deputy director of the GRI and Rani Singh, senior research associate at the Getty Research Institute as well as the Director of the Harry Smith Archives (an independent non-profit organization).

This extensive archive must be cataloged, processed, and conserved by experts at the GRI. It will then be made available to researchers on site and digitized for online research.

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