Smith was an ethnomusicologist, perhaps best known for The Anthology of American Folk Music, as well as a painter, drug enthusiast, and filmmaker. Smith was also a mystical omnivore, born the son of Theosophists and a follower of Kandinsky, Rudolf Bauer, and Franz Marc in addition to being a devotee of Aleister Crowley’s magical order, AA. In his art as in his beliefs, Smith bridged high and low cultures, spirituality and the everyday. Although he claimed later in his life that “I was mainly a painter. The films are minor accessories to my paintings. It just happened that I had the films with me when everything else was destroyed. My paintings were infinitely better than my films,” Smith’s numbered films, particularly the group collectively known as the Early Abstractions (films no. 1-5 and 7, 1946-57), represented new modes of direct filmmaking. Smith’s influence on future direct filmmakers may not be as pronounced as that of Lye or McLaren, yet Stan Brakhage, for one, told his students at the University of Colorado that he never painted a film without thinking of Smith.
Though Smith’s early films are silent, the question of what might constitute their appropriate soundtrack has lingered. Smith told William Moritz that early films were synched to recordings by Dizzy Gillespie, but that he couldn’t afford the transfer to the soundtrack. In 1964, however, a reel-to-reel tape of the Fugs’ first album (which the multitasking Smith had coproduced) accompanied several screenings of the films, and in 1965, after Smith told associate and critic-filmmaker Jonas Mekas that the films were intended to accompany contemporary music, Mekas was inspired to add an optical soundtrack of the entirety of the recently released Meet the Beatles! LP to a new assemblage of Smith’s films. Smith also claims he played the films to Bach. Current-day exhibitors have taken Smith’s instructions to Mekas as a call to pair Early Abstractions with new music, be it techno or classical. As one might expect, the cinematic experience of Smith’s films changes radically as the soundtrack changes or disappears, creating myriad mental and cultural associations that vary depending on how the film is heard.
Smith has provided an array of divergent readings of his painted films and wielded a number of varied methods to make them. At one point, he described No. 1 as “the history of the geologic period reduced to orgasm length.” Smith’s description of No. 1 as a “dirty” film may also reference the look of the film, which combines geometric and biomorphic forms against dark washes of blue and green, and which seems encrusted with grime or creaturely secretions. There are also curved forms in mottled, grayish pink and blue, as well as circles and squares in primary hues.
For the second film, Smith developed a method of “batiking” the film, based on the Javanese wax-resistant cloth dye technique. Smith placed down shapes, spray-painted over them with one color, and covered the whole with Vaseline. He then removed the dots and sprayed the film again with a different color before finally scraping off the Vaseline. This procedure produces a two-color processes. No. 2 features mostly circles, which move into the frame from all sides of the screen, implying a great deal of off-screen space. Smith seems to be playing with the idea of the bounded abstract image, while showing the potential of establishing new kinds of space in abstract film. No. 3 uses the circles, which are now grouped with triangles and rectangles.