Harry Smith was a central, if at times underrecognized, figure in the mid-century American avant-garde in both New York and San Francisco. He began to experiment with abstract film in the mid-forties in the Bay Area, creating works by painting directly on film stock, while working closely with such figures as Bruce Conner and Jordan Belson to develop a vibrant underground film community. In the early 1950s, Smith received a grant from Hilla Rebay at the Museum of Non-Objective Painting (later the Guggenheim Museum) and moved to New York to continue his career as a filmmaker and painter. Smith created a series of important animated and abstract films in New York as well as an epic four-screen project based on the Brecht/Weill opera Mahagonny, which he described as being an extended meditation on Duchamp's Large Glass.
Trained as an anthropologist, Smith had begun to record and document Native American rituals in the Pacific Northwest while he was still a teenager. His interest in ethnography also led Smith to become one of the country's leading collectors of traditional American music. This massive collection led Folkways Records to ask Smith to assemble an anthology of folk music. Published in 1952, the Anthology of American Folk Music was to become the leading resource and inspiration for the folk revival of the 1960s. Smith continued to develop other important sound works throughout his career, including Materials for the Study of Religion and Culture in the Lower East Side, which featured early recordings of Gregory Corso's poetry and Peter Orlovsky's songs, as well as projects with Allen Ginsberg (released as My First Blues by Folkways in 1976) and the Kiowa Native Americans (released as The Kiowa Peyote Meeting by Folkways in 1973).
The Harry Smith symposium was part of the Getty Research Institute's overall 2000-2001 scholar-year theme: Reproductions and Originals, when the programs at the Institute centered on the relationship between the study and experience of art and technologies of reproduction. Harry Smith's major works are not only in the reproductive media of film and audio recording, but they are fundamentally concerned with questions of appropriation, collage, and montage, which are at the heart of notions of originality. In particular, the Anthology of American Folk Music was compiled from existing commercial recordings of traditional American music, most of which were released between 1927 and 1932. However, to call these recordings originals and Smith's anthology a second-order reproduction would be to overlook the fact that many of these songs were already standards tinged with nostalgia by 1927 and that Smith's work was an imaginative re-presentation and not a mere appropriation. In a manner similar to the work of artists like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, Smith's anthology was an avant-garde transformation of a vernacular idiom originally shaped to commercial ends. Smith decontextualized the 84 songs on the anthology, jettisoning the racial and ethnic categories that had circumscribed this music's reception in favor of an aural collage that created its own distinctive world. After its release in 1952, the anthology became a primary work for a generation rediscovering the history of traditional American music and its legacy is still with us today in genres as diverse as folk, country, and rhythm and blues.