Still from Harry Smith’s Heaven and Earth Magick, 1962
This month we opened our new and improved modern and contemporary collection galleries. The installation is a component of the 2013 Carnegie International (as is the Playground Project, which also opened this month in the Heinz Architectural Center) and highlights the major role the International has played in forming the museum’s collection. As the show has been curated by different individuals over its nearly 120 year history, and as those individuals have chosen to acquire certain things rather than others, the collection has a unique character reflective of personal tastes and interests. Sometimes major artists were missed, but with the benefit of hindsight, the museum has continued to fill in the gaps through new acquisitions. Works that weren’t in Internationals past are included in the reinstallation as well, to create a cohesive presentation of many of our best works.
Film and video is one facet of artistic practice that showed up late on the International‘s radar, appearing for the first time in the 1985 iteration. In the meantime, the Film and Video department was doing really innovative things, bringing some of the most important filmmakers to Pittsburgh to present their work and building an outstanding collection. Rethinking the collection galleries has given us the opportunity to make room for this frequently overlooked segment of our holdings (and history), so we’ve built an elegant new “black box” space in gallery 14. Over the course of the next 8 months–through the run of the International– this gallery will be home to a roughly chronological, rotating program of works by 11 major artists (see the full upcoming schedule after the jump). Most of the films that will be on view were acquired during the Film and Video department’s first ten years (1970-1980), and some were presented in person by the filmmaker.
First up: Harry Smith‘s Heaven and Earth Magick (1962), a surreal collage film composed from Victorian-era catalogues and exercise manuals that Smith produced over a period of five years using a randomizing selection process called sortilege, inspired by the Surrealist practice of automatic writing. Smith adopted a strategic regimen of sleep deprivation, working to the point of exhaustion and then transferring his dreams to film upon waking. The resulting animation revolves around a male magus character who, after injecting a female figure with magic potion, finds she has disintegrated and must be reassembled.
Heaven and Earth Magic includes references to the Kabbalah, 19th-century philology, and the writings of Dr. Wilder Penfield on open-brain surgery and the concept of the Homunculus, evincing Smith’s nearly encyclopedic knowledge of esoterica and mysticism. The artist was an avid collector of everything from pop-up books and forgotten folk records (he famously compiled the Anthology of American Folk Music, released in 1952) to Native American costumes, string figures, and Fabergé eggs. His interest in ethnic artifacts and everyday ephemera, as well as obscure forms of knowledge and the occult, was rooted in a search for universality underlying the diversity of human endeavor.
Stop by and see the film before July 8th, when we’ll switch it out for a compilation of Kenneth Anger‘s early work.