#40 Abstraction in Painting and Music: Films by Harry Smith and Jonas Balsaitis

Thursday 26 July, 7.30pm @ Arena Project Space, 2 Kerr St Fitzroy.

Harry Smith  Late Superimpositions  (1960)

Harry Smith Late Superimpositions (1960)

Abstraction in Painting and Music: Films by Harry Smith and Jonas Balsaitis

This program seeks to link the interest in energy and dynamism shared by artists working in abstraction in the post-war avant-garde, with the transmission of cultural symbols through long established traditions of music and drawing, on film.


Harry Smith (1923-1991) –

Perhaps best known for his extraordinary recovery of Apallachian mountain songs, hillbilly music and recordings gleaned from ‘Race Records’, on the archival project The Anthology of American Folk Music (released on Folkways Records in 1952), Smith was also a painter, mystic, anthropologist, expert on string figures, collector of Ukrainian Easter eggs (Pysanka) and paper planes, a some-time resident of the Chelsea Hotel in New York, and most importantly for our purposes, a film-maker. His work deals with the transmission of images as cultural memory, and is still largely unexplored and under-researched for its linking of film to the persistence of the occult in the survivals of pagan antiquity. Living and working in the Bay Area of San Francisco in the aftermath of the US involvement in WWII, Smith was a contemporary of Jordan Belson, Jack Spicer and Bruce Connor. In the 1950s he received a Guggenheim grant to make an 'Abstract film', precipitating his move to New York, in part because – in his own words – ‘I wanted to hear Thelonious Monk play.’


Late Superimpositions (aka. No. 14, 1964) 27mins

Superimposed photographs of Mr. Fleischman's butcher shop in New York, and the Kowa aroko [Kiowa], Oklahoma–with Cognate Material. The strip is dark at the beginning and end, light in the middle, and is structured 122333221. I honor it the most of my films, otherwise a not very popular one before 1972. If the exciter lamp blows, play Bert Brecht's "Mahagonny".

– Harry Smith

Listed in the NFSA collection as ‘an extraordinary display of unedited and randomly associated images taken from everyday life and superimposed in the camera,’ this film is also accompanied by ‘a randomly associated soundtrack of German opera and cabaret songs’. Just how random and ‘un-edited’ these montages may be remains to be seen.

Video: Harry Smith collecting a Grammy Award in 1991


Jonas Balsaitis (b.1948) – 

Jonas Balsaitis is an artist who lives and works in Melbourne. Emigrating from Lithuania in 1948, Balsaitis is represented in the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, and was a pivotal member of Melbourne’s committed abstractionists and the conceptual artists congregating around Bruce Pollard’s influential Pinacotheca Gallery in Richmond between 1967-1970. The gallery was the location of the first meeting of the Melbourne Filmmakers’ Co-op – coincidentally during Balsaitis’ first solo show there in 1970 – introducing him to filmmaking techniques. Principally a painter, Balsaitis’ film installations in the late 70s, at the Hawthorn City Art Gallery for example, were described by The Age art section as ‘too crammed and fast, with hundreds of drawings and their innumerable combinations reduced to a staccato kaleidoscope,’ which left reviewer Mary Eagle more enamored by the still grandeur of the film’s documentation, a tiny fragment of the drawings used for the films 48,000 frames installed on the wall of the gallery. Space Time Structures, as the work is called, was exhibited again at ACCA in 1993. It is one of the few films held in the collection of the NGV (albeit as a video copy).


Space Time Structures (1977) 33mins*

Described as a visual and aural analysis of both space and time, this work comprises a series of animated drawings filmed in black and white then coloured by filtering processes on an optical printer. Balsaitis’ film is accompanied with music made by Australian artists Asher Bilu, Mike Brown and John Mathews. Balsaitis took the film to New York in 1979, where it was shown at the Millenium Film Workshop, and the Kitchen.

*this film was conceived to be shown at varying projection speeds – a decision on the playback speed will be made on the night by rolling a dice.


Erratica (1979) 20mins

Following his journey to the Americans touring Space Time Structures, Balsaitis documented his eventual arrival at Easter Island. Peruvian, Chilean, and Columbian music, both traditional and commercial, accompanies an intricate rhythmic montage of images drawn from a variety of places (New York, Melbourne, South America, Easter Island etc.). An underlying theme is described by Balsaitis as 'making your mark on the scenery' which suggests the imposition of a view on the environment both within individual images (the use of graphics, angles, movement, perspective etc.) and between images (e.g. cycles of shots are often arranged for their graphic relationships). There is also reference to ritual ceremony and to historical and cultural inter-relationships in art.



All films on 16mm, from the collection of the NFSA.

Jonas Balsaitis - Space Time Structures installation view (ACCA, 1993)

Jonas Balsaitis - Space Time Structures installation view (ACCA, 1993)