Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: The Art of Harry Smith

Oct 4, 2023–Jan 28, 2024

Harry Smith (1923–1991) was a painter, filmmaker, folklorist, musicologist, and collector as well as a radical nonconformist whose work defies categorization. Although his creative output includes paintings, films, poetry, music, and sound recordings, it also consists of extensive collections of overlooked yet revealing objects, such as string figures and found paper airplanes. His best-known work, a compilation of recordings from the 1920s and 1930s titled the Anthology of American Folk Music, achieved cultlike status among many musicians and listeners since it was first published in 1952.

Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: The Art of Harry Smith puts the artist's life on display alongside his art and collections. It follows him from an isolated Depression-era childhood in the Pacific Northwest—a time when he was immersed in ecstatic religious philosophies and Native American ceremony—to his bohemian youth of marijuana, peyote, and intellectualism in postwar Berkeley, California. The exhibition also traces his path through the milieus of bebop and experimental cinema in San Francisco to his decades in New York, where he was an essential part of the city's avant-garde fringe.

Keenly attuned to changing technology, Smith embraced innovation and used whatever was new and of the moment. At the same time, his lifelong interest in abstract art, ancient traditions, metaphysics, spiritualism, folk art, and world music came to the fore even as he devised ingenious ways of collecting sounds and creating films. These concerns make Smith's work feel increasingly prescient as collecting and sharing come into view as creative acts that are necessary for drawing meaning from the glut of images and juxtaposition of cultures we encounter every day.

This exhibition is co-organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art and the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts at Harvard University, where a version of the project will open in July 2024. The exhibition is curated by artist Carol Bove; Dan Byers, the John R. and Barbara Robinson Director of the Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts; Rani Singh, Director of the Harry Smith Archives; Elisabeth Sussman, Curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art; with Kelly Long, Senior Curatorial Assistant, and McClain Groff, Curatorial Project Assistant, at the Whitney Museum of American Art.

Please read about the exhibition’s accessibility information before visiting Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: The Art of Harry Smith.

Generous support for Fragments of a Faith Forgotten: The Art of Harry Smith is provided by The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

In New York, generous support is provided by Judy Hart Angelo, The Philip and Janice Levin Foundation, and the Whitney’s National Committee.

Significant support is provided by The June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation.

Additional support is provided by Michèle Gerber Klein, The Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, and the Yurman Family Foundation.

My Harry

From December 8–10, 2023 we hosted My Harry, a weekend of programs bringing together some of Smith’s devoted friends and aficionados, all of whom have championed the unclassifiable artist, filmmaker, musicologist, and collector since his death in 1991. This mini-festival celebrated his eclectic life and serpentine pursuits with a series of talks, conversations, listening sessions, screenings, games, and live music.

Learn More about the My Harry Events

San Francisco and Berkeley, late 1940s and 1950s


Lured to Berkeley in late 1945 in the hope of continuing his anthropological studies, Smith was quickly drawn into the vibrant Bohemian scene of the Bay Area. Within a few years he had relocated to San Francisco’s Fillmore District, which had emerged as a center of African American life and culture following the removal and incarceration of its Japanese population during the Second World War.

In the Fillmore, Smith forged close connections with musicians and frequented jazz clubs, including San Francisco’s important nightclub Jimbo’s Bop City, where he painted large abstract murals on the walls. At the same time, he applied his notational genius, combined with inspiration from psychedelic drugs, to the execution of a series of deliriously intense, quasi-abstract paintings intended to represent new recordings by Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. These paintings’ elaborate and sinuous forms directly correspond to each phrase and note of the music. Now lost, the paintings can only be seen on color slides.


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Audio guides

Hear directly from artists and curators on selected works from the exhibition.

View guide

In the News

“Looking through ‘Fragments,' you’ll see things that feel familiar and unremarkable, but together they embody a remarkable set of connections. You’re seeing the traces of the person who made the connections first and brought a riot of dissimilar notions into a single space.” —Artforum

“‘Far-out’ is an accurate, but inadequate, descriptor for the high-flying (and often plain high) cultural magus named Harry Smith” —The New York Times

“…this show will garner much-deserved attention and a far wider audience than he achieved in his lifetime.” —Artlyst

“The exhibition makes the viewer want to enter a time machine and be transported back to one of his hotel room collections.” —Brooklyn Rail

“...a potent dose of homegrown uplift” —The New York Times

“ unusual, but thrilling new show” —Artnet

Related Events & Resources

In conjunction with this exhibition, there are many events celebrating Smith’s centenary and the wide range of his interests, from music and art to spiritualism and metaphysics. We've gathered a list of Harry Smith–related happenings in and around New York City in addition to the Whitney’s programs and events. And check out the Harry Smith Archives for additional reading and resources.

Events in and around New York CityHarry Smith Archives