Rani Singh

Left: Cover of Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular (2010). Right: Harry Smith.

Harry Smith: The Avant-Garde in the American Vernacular celebrates Smith’s wide-ranging oeuvre and is available this month from Getty Publications. Here, Rani Singh, director of the Harry Smith Archives, discusses the book’s inception and Smith’s significance to the field. On January 28, the Hammer Museum will host a launch party with Patti Smith.

HARRY SMITH EMPHASIZED seeing the mundane in a creative light and would regularly ask people, “Have you been creative today?” Essentially, his search for synthesizing world cultures was what his artmaking and lifetime achievements were all about.

Although Smith was primarily known as a filmmaker and the producer of the Anthology of American Folk Music, his myriad collections of string figures, Seminole patchwork quilts, and tarot cards, as well as his involvement in peyote rituals and his art and painting practices, had not been looked at together. It is quite possible that people in the film world had no idea of his other endeavors and vice versa. So the Getty Research Institute thought that it would be a good idea to bring all these disciplines together for a symposium, which we did in 2001 and 2002.

The book brings together these disparate arenas of Smith’s life. It comprises reworked essays from the symposia, and we also commissioned additional texts and, most important, had a wealth of primary sources: interviews with Smith, full documentation of his presentations, and a lot of never-before-seen archival materials. We also had the ability to make scans of his 16-mm and 35-mm films, which is pretty astonishing because it gives us the opportunity to see each frame individually, and those frames are works of art unto themselves.

To celebrate the book, we’re holding events in New York, Portland, Oregon, and Seattle. Patti Smith was an old and dear friend of Smith’s. She knew him when she was living with Robert Mapplethorpe at the Chelsea Hotel, and they spent a lot of time together. The new book speaks at length about that era. (Funnily enough, there’s an exhibition at the DOX Center for Contemporary Art in Prague on the Chelsea Hotel that reconstitutes Smith, Mapplethorpe, and Warhol’s rooms there.) I hope that the book reflects Smith’s search for melding multiple disciplines and approaches, a worldview that synthesizes different cultures and ways of doing things.

I was Harry’s assistant from 1988 until his death in November 1991, and when he passed away I started the Harry Smith Archives as a nonprofit and attempted to locate, collect, preserve, and present his materials, which, due to his irascible nature and peripatetic lifestyle, were essentially all around the globe. Smith lived a very bohemian life, to put it mildly. When I’d visit him, his stuff would be all chockablock––it was really an incredible experience. Whether he was staying at the Chelsea Hotel, at the Breslin Hotel, at Naropa Institute, or in a room in Allen Ginsberg’s apartment in the Lower East Side, it was always an experience. He would have a Seminole patchwork hanging up or a frozen bird in the freezer or a film project in the works and stacks and stacks of books. The room usually had a unique odor, a mix of marijuana and Salem 100 cigarettes and whatever kind of beer or cheap vodka was on sale that week. It was all very heady.