String Theory

“My true vocation is preparation for death.” That was the reply offered by polymath, scholar, filmmaker, archivist, and painter Harry Smith when asked what among his many pursuits he believed to be his “truest.” “For that day,” he continued, “I’ll lie on my bed and see my life go before my eyes.” If Smith’s declaration evokes the gnomic, ironic, dissolute, and fanciful, it also characterizes an artist who prized his own obscurity (and the obscurity of his myriad and often uncompleted endeavors) even within the more rarefied cultural circles of the postwar decades. The underground’s underground bard, Smith became famous for his curatorial obsessions (his 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music is a cultural touchstone for an entire musical era), his filmmaking (no less than Jonas Mekas claimed that “there are more levels in Harry Smith’s work than in any other animator I know”), his mystical Surrealist paintings (many of which he destroyed), and his occultist scholarship (Ed Sanders recounts how Smith inspired his band the Fugs and Allen Ginsberg in their ritualistic efforts to exorcise and levitate the Pentagon). Before he died in 1991, he did enjoy the pleasure of at least one mainstream success, receiving a Lifetime Achievement Grammy for his archival work with folk music. Even so, his was a career lived out in the interstices of culture; since many of his films, artworks, and collections were rarely exhibited and haphazardly maintained, he was an artist and thinker more heard about than heard from. Smith’s self-destructive tendencies cannot be discounted either: “I’m not only a filmmaker,” he once said of himself, “I’m also an alcoholic.”

Nearly a quarter century after his passing, the appearance of the first two volumes of a catalogue raisonné mark another effort to recognize Smith’s rightful place as an epic progenitor of ideas that were once obscure but now animate almost every sphere of cultural production—for instance, in the 1950s he anticipated the revivals of ancient spiritual pursuits that have come to inform every alternative belief system from hippie cosmology to holistic medicine. Editors John Klacsmann and Andrew Lampert have taken on the task of sorting through the materials held at the Getty Research Institute, the Smithsonian, and elsewhere to organize them for publication. The new volume devoted to string art—the craft of manipulating a loop to form, say, a “cat’s cradle”—has deep origins in Smith’s biography. Trained as an anthropologist, he grew up close to Native American communities in the area around Portland, Oregon. His mother taught on the Lummi Indian Reservation, and his studies at the University of Washington (for only five semesters—he was the ultimate autodidact) concentrated on the traditional art and music of this tribe and others. Smith developed a particular interest in Native string art, and began to document the specimens he found in photographs, transcriptions of instructions, and notations about techniques. He hoped to produce a grand anthropological catalogue that would range across indigenous cultures and reveal their underlying universal themes, something not unlike what he achieved with his folk-music anthology. But, as was the case with so many of Smith’s epic undertakings, the text he wrote is not to be found. According to a research assistant who worked with him in the mid-’60s, it may have been misplaced (quite likely, given Smith’s chaotic life and work habits), or perhaps it was simply never written. What survive are notes, film depictions, drawings, and photographs of actual string “compositions” that Smith made. These images, various films stills, and reproductions of handwritten notes and indexes constitute String Figures.

Of course, the very notion of a kinetic, three-dimensional, essentially performative art being adequately represented by anything other than the artist forming the shapes in front of you presents a challenge. The string figure exists in an elusive moment, the slightest hand movement altering the configuration. That this “sculpture” cannot be preserved without crucial diminishment may well have played a role in Smith’s attraction to the art form, as well as to its necessarily problematic documentation. Directions and drawings for figures such as “Mr Umake the Younger,” “Swinging Below,” “Polar Bear,” and “Tug of War” offer very specific instructions: “figure produced . . . by rotating thumbs in ulnar direction and re-extending.” It would be difficult to reproduce these intricate geometries employing Smith’s equally intricate directions, which make use of symbolic language for shapes, particular fingers, and hand movements. There are several much clearer manuals to consult. If these meticulously noted texts, on occasion made on envelopes and menus, evidence a ferocious intensity of focus, it is one seemingly at odds with Smith’s personal and professional disarray.

Still, this precision shows itself with painterly elegance in the string-figure mountings Smith constructed by affixing white string to black poster board. The minimalist palette accentuates the ornamentality of the shapes and evokes their making: the strings loop, coil, triangulate, crisscross, and double-cross in what almost seems like constant motion. Smith further attempted to solve the problem of representing the figures’ three-dimensional state by staging the illusion that they float in what could be the blackness of night or perhaps some more-forbidding void. Constellations are as readily conjured as hallucinations—those mutating geometries that might appear behind dilated eyes. Despite the formal beauty of these arabesques, there is an unmistakable cunning apparent in their devising, perhaps because we cannot quite shed our association of ligature and entrapment with things knotted and tied.

Harry Smith, Film Number 18: Mahagonny (detail), 1970–80, four-channel 16 mm transferred to 35 mm, color, sound, 150 minutes.
Harry Smith, Film Number 18: Mahagonny (detail), 1970–80, four-channel 16 mm transferred to 35 mm, color, sound, 150 minutes. © Anthology Film Archives and Harry Smith Archives

One piece shows, according to Smith’s text, “two Eskimo views of the mouth.” “On the right,” the label continues, “a cross-section (note the glottis), on the left, a front view.” Bridging the gap between a literal representation of a mouth and these abstracted anatomies requires the same imaginative capacities a viewer would bring to paintings by Brice Marden, Klee, or Miró—it is possible to see something of what’s intended, but seeing that requires seeing so much more than merely what the artist envisioned. The figures aren’t confined to static depiction; some portray action-packed narratives: “Cutting up the whale; an Eskimo figure in six stages from Point Barrow. Stage four: The dog that became sleepy and went home.” Again, what nuance in the loops of this figure delineates a dog, let alone its sleepiness, only a scholar might say (and Smith’s analysis isn’t included). But the image suggests enough of the maker’s handiwork—the rotation of wrists, the quick extension of a thumb—to stir the air above the page.

What an agile hand might do with a piece paper instead of a length of string spurred another of Smith’s passions—paper airplanes, the subject of another volume of the archivist’s work. The extant collection numbers more than 250 specimens that he found on streets, fished out of wastebaskets, or even, as one friend recalls, ran into traffic to retrieve. Planes are as fragile and ephemeral as the string figures, and their intact survival testifies to the high degree of care devoted to what would otherwise have been thrown away. Indeed, many of the planes are annotated with the location and date of their discovery: “Prince nr Wooster 4-5-79”; “Bet 9th & 10th Aves on 49th 4-24-79 In Playground.” The variety of colors, paper types, and aerodynamic designs is further enlivened by the multifarious texts visible on magazine, newspaper, phone-book, and loose-leaf pages, menus, political leaflets, commercial handbills, Bible sheaves, manila envelopes, and cardboard scraps. If the planes are found objects, the texts are found poems of particular interest, owing to the reconfiguration of words that the folds create. From what looks like a topless-bar advertisement, the word fragments isolated by creasing are “go avail,” which are juxtaposed with a young woman’s face; the phrase “to remember” appears along another’s fuselage, and the wings present, with a little emendation, “christ parade.” A complexly folded handbill merges “service” and “business” to yield “serve siness.” The shapes, too, tease at large ideation by offering an inadvertent retrospective of twentieth-century sculptural forms, in which echoes of Calder, Brancusi, Serra, Noguchi, and many others are easily identified.

Again, the tactile presence of the creator is felt in these constructions—we can envision the bored high school student bending a notebook page, or a contest between office workers, each launching their favorite design from a midtown window. Conceived, folded, and pressed into flightworthiness, each plane reveals in its design and construction a certain sum of labor. And then, of course, that work and its material consequence were offered to the world with no possibility of recognition for the plane-maker. In fact, unless their builders imagined so unlikely a person as Smith, they had every reason to believe they were pitching their planes into the trash.

This spirit of anti-commodification, as well as its attendant art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic, no doubt intrigued Smith—the notion of effort heedlessly spent marks his entire career as an intellectual and artist. He gathered with a fervor equal to the idiosyncrasy of the objects; he amassed archives of odd folk relics, photos, and records that, owing to a life lived in a succession of hotel rooms, sometimes disappeared. His completist obsession, though, sat comfortably with a genuine insouciance: “I’m leaving it to the future to figure out the exact purpose of having all these rotten eggs, the blankets, the Seminole patchwork I never look at, and records I never listen to. . . . It is a way of fooling away the time, harmlessly, as much as possible.” With these initial volumes in what promises to be an extensive publication, the future has at last begun to figure out the purpose that eluded Harry Smith.

Albert Mobilio is an editor of Bookforum.