Harry Smith / New York / Seattle

Harry Smith, Doris Chase & Shirley Clarke: Chelsea Hotel Penthouse Avant Garde


Underground filmmaker Shirley Clarke was one of Harry Smith’s neighbors in Chelsea Hotel.

From Dee Dee Halleck’s eulogy to Shirley Clarke:

In the early seventies I somehow found my way up to her workshop space in the penthouse of the Chelsea Hotel. Shirley lived and worked there making live and taped video performance, installation and documentation with a collaborating group of artists. I was lucky to have been a part of that work. We formed a troupe, those of us who worked with Shirley. She called us the TeePee Video Space Troupe and the idea was to experiment with performance that integrated video and other technologies. It was the days before video cassettes and each tape had to be hand threaded into the portapak decks. Not that it was really about recording per se. Most of what we did was never on tape: the tape was only one of the elements of the constructions, the happenings, the events. It was electronic performance in an interactive mode. The troupe included myself, Andy Gurian, Shirley’s daughter Wendy, Bruce Ferguson, Vicki Polon, David Cort, Bob Harris, Parry Teasdale, Shalom Gorewitz, Susan Milano, Shridir Bapat and others. There were regular drop-ins like Agnes Varda, Shigeko Kaboda, Beryl Korot, Nam June Paik, Skip Blumberg, Barbara Haspiel, Steina and Woody Vasulka, Jori Schwartzman, or neighbors at the Chelsea, Carl Lee, Viva (toting one of her kids), photographer Peter Simon, Doris Chase, Andre Vosnevshenski, George Kleinsinger, Virgil Thompson, Harry Smith, Arthur C. Clarke (no relation).

At any given time there always seemed to be one or two Japanese dancers around. Sometimes even Andy Warhol climbed that flight of stairs after the last elevator stop, looking for Viva. Louis Malle came by, as did Susan Sontag, Joris Ivens, Peter Brooks, Jean Rouche and Shelly Winters. The Chelsea had a certain cachet for visitors from Europe, Hollywood and Japan and Shirley was queen of the Chelsea.

If Shirley was queen, maybe Harry was king? They were both experimenting with using multiple screens/multiple images. Smith made Mahagonny (1970 – 1980) at the Chelsea Hotel.


Steve Polta describes Mahagonny:

This is an epic, non-narrative, kaleidoscopic collage, an abstract city symphony portraying New York City as the titular capitalist dystopia. Visually dazzling, musically grand, and featuring cameo appearances by underground icons Allen Ginsberg, Patti Smith and Jonas Mekas, Mahagonny is a must-see work of experimental cinema and twentieth-century culture.

Dee Dee Halleck lists painter-turned-filmmaker Doris Chase (1923 – 2008) among the Chelsea Hotel residents who made visits to Clarke’s rooftop salon/production studio. Chase was from Seattle, where Harry had gone to school. Plus she was his exact generational cohort. I wonder if they were friends?

Embedded in Halleck’s wonderful eulogy, titled Remembering Shirley Clarke, is a link to Rome Is Burning, an hour long interview/portrait of Shirley Clarke made in 1970 by Noel Burch and André S. Labarthe. I recommend it! It features Yoko Ono hiding under a blanket, and excerpts from Clarke’s most famous films, The Connection and Portrait of Jason.

For people who want first hand knowledge of Harry Smith’s work:

On Jan. 16, 2015, Oregon Movies, A to Z returns to the Hollywood Theatre with Dennis Nyback’s multiple projector, expanded cinema version of Harry Smith’s Heaven And Earth Magic, the stop motion animated feature Harry made alone in his apartment at 300 1/2 East 75th Street before he moved to the Chelsea Hotel.


Heaven And Earth Magic was begun in 1957 and completed in 1962.

More information at Mid Century Oregon Genius.


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