An 80-year-old rabbi with whom Harry Smith studied cabala in the 1950s watched one of his pupil’s hand-painted, animated films of geometric shapes pulsating to the syncopated rhythms of bebop, and remarked in Yiddish, “That man is from another planet.” Smith, who died in 1991 at the age of 68, was a painter, anthropologist, folklorist, and ethnomusicologist, as well as a filmmaker. Shuffling between Native American sweat lodges and the Chelsea Hotel, he devoted his rigorously marginal existence to investigating the mystical qualities of abstract forms, whether in the unearthly strains of Tuva throat singers, 19th-century theosophical diagrams, or the art of Kandinsky.
In an age increasingly hungry for spiritual content and wary of market values, such a dedicated eccentric appears ripe for reconsideration. This show, curated by Raymond Foye (who also contributed an essay to the insightful catalog), presents a selection of Smith’s drawings and paintings, and one film, alongside the work of contemporary painters Philip Taaffe and Fred Tomaselli. It’s an inspired match. The three share an eye-popping visuality and a concern with art’s otherworldly dimension.
Taaffe’s brightly colored, biomorphic acrylics on paper can seem like portals to another reality, or the residue (à la Henri Michaux) of psychedelic experiences. Smith’s lushly beautiful and sometimes druggy silk screens and gouaches are filled with complex geometries, suggesting designs for the game plan of a divine creator. His film, set to a Beatles soundtrack and playing continuously in the back gallery, is mesmerizing. Best of all, Tomaselli’s paintings, photograms, and collages—the latter pieced together from leaves, pills, and magazine illustrations of tiny eyes, noses, mouths, and flowers—form Arcimboldo-like figures or outer-space galaxies that fairly explode with life.