"The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward: Harry Smith/Philip Taaffe/Fred Tomaselli": James Cohan Gallery, New York. (Reviews)

By Strauss, David Levi | Artforum International, January 2003 | Go to article overview

"The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward: Harry Smith/Philip Taaffe/Fred Tomaselli": James Cohan Gallery, New York. (Reviews)


Strauss, David Levi, Artforum International


Harry Smith (1923-91) is today remembered mostly as an avant-garde filmmaker and musicologist. During the 1940s, he made the first frame-by-frame hand-painted films in America, and his later works in cinema are widely accepted as masterpieces of alchemical collage animation, among them his film Mahagonny, 1970-80, a four-screen two-hour-and-twenty-one-minute epic based on the Brecht-Weil opera. Three of his many ethnographic collections (Smith called them "encyclopedias of design")--the Paper Airplane Collection, the Seminole Patchwork Quilt Collection, and the String Figures Collection--are now in the Smithsonian Institution. When Smithsonian Folkways released his Anthology of American Folk Music in 1952--compiling selected cuts from Smith's collection of rare 78 rpm recordings of American traditional music from the '20s and '30s--it inspired the folk revival and exerted a tremendous influence on American popular music from that point on. Accepting a Grammy for its rerelease just before he died, Smith said, "I'm glad to say that my dreams came true. I saw America changed through music."

But Smith himself always maintained that he was primarily a painter. In 1951 Hilla Rebay, curator of the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (now the Guggenheim) gave Smith the money to move from San Francisco and set him up in a studio in New York, where he made paintings influenced by Wassily Kandinsky and Franz Marc. Allen Ginsberg once described the paintings and drawings he saw filling every square inch of Smith's apartment on East Seventy-seventh Street as "formulaic triangulations or Pythagorean calculations ... very beautiful." Unfortunately, most of these got lost along the way. While Smith was in Oklahoma recording the peyote rituals of the Kiowa Indians in 1964, his landlord threw all of his work out into the street. Smith also pawned paintings when he needed money, gave others away in lieu of debt payments, and destroyed still others in fits of rage.

If "The Heavenly Tree Grows Downward" had done nothing more than bring some of Smith's extraordinary works back into view, this little show would have been worthwhile. But curator Raymond Foye achieved much more than that. Foye, who previously copublished Hanuman Books with Francesco Clemente and now publishes limited edition collaborations between painters and poets, was only seventeen when he first met Smith in 1974, and was living in the Chelsea Hotel when the artist-collector died there seventeen years later. As he got to know the whole of Smith's productions, Foye recognized correspondences between the artist's concerns and those of younger contemporary painters like Philip Taaffe and Fred Tomaselli. In this show, Foye combined Smith pieces dating from 1948 to 1980 with mostly new works by Taaffe and Tomaselli to show the strong visual links between them. Often responding directly to Smith's works, Taaffe and Tomaselli opened up new areas of exploration in their own. The effect was similar to listening t o three highly accomplished musicians jam.

The affinities among these three artists are both formal and conceptual. All three artists have roots in the metaphysical origins of modern abstract art. All three have an attraction to ancient techniques of picturemaking and a concern for pattern and design that is both pre- and postmodern. All three employ the neurological form-constants of visionary experience: tunnels, spirals, webs, and honeycombs (to which Smith added spheres). All three pay attention to rhythm in form-making, draw energy from the tensions between organic and geometric forms, and encourage synesthesia. …

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