Schmidt was born in 1897 in Astoria, Queens, New York, where he was trained as a plasterer and stonemason. Around 1940 he moved to Woodstock, where he applied his trade and also worked as a general handyman. Married at the time and living on Ohayo Mountain Road in his first house, Journey’s End, he began to clear and terrace a nearby mountain slope. He did not have a specific plan when he began to build: it was an organic process, and his vision grew as the house evolved. The growth of the house paralleled his development as an artist, and the house began to exist as a point of departure for his creative energy.
His first task was the construction of dry-keyed bluestone walls, and this would become a foundation for his second dwelling, the monumental House of Mirrors. The stone walls that bordered the walkways and the retaining walls required many hours of practised skill, and Schmidt often felt that this work was overlooked in the overall scheme of his creative efforts.
Starting with a modest log cabin anchored around a large tree, he slowly added room by room in an ordered and eccentrically modern-looking assemblage of modules that traced the mountainside contours upward. The early construction process loosely followed the conventions of accepted frame-construction carpentry. By the mid-1950s the house comprised some thirty rooms which descended seven storeys down the mountainside, with dozens of windowed surfaces that reflected sunlight from the many-faceted planes; this would become a defining element in the evolution of the entire environment.
Schmidt’s earliest creative activity started with the use of various found materials and lighting sources to embellish and illuminate the interior of the house. Aluminum foil and paint, mirrors, plastic flowers and numerous brightly coloured toys soon covered the ceilings, the walls and the labyrinth of passageways throughout the house. A miscellaneous array of coloured bulbs bounced light off the numerous mirrored and foil surfaces. As the work developed into an increasingly dense collage of materials, Schmidt turned his attention to the uppermost exterior of the house, which he referred to as the Roof Garden. Using the outdoor space enabled him to consider larger objects for the garden, and this new phase of building developed into a sprawling, undisciplined tangle. He also adopted a new material outdoors in the form of industrial roofing tar. He explored expressive, painterly surfaces that were made from mixtures of asphalt which he swirled together with paints and varnish to produce concoctions of marbleised colours. These exotic tar blends eventually covered most of his assemblages with surfaces that were often embedded with broken mirrors, bottles and coloured plastic elements. Schmidt had intended to preserve his work with the tar coatings, but instead the viscous material trapped moisture and eventually caused the wooden structures to rot.
The Roof Garden soon encroached on a common access road used by neighbours, who increasingly viewed the House of Mirrors with a critical eye, and Schmidt was forced to continue the ever-growing environment on the front side of the house, which overlooked the Ashoken Reservoir. The house seemed to have reached a critical point of completion in the early 1960s, and the overwhelming scale and the areas of deterioration may have caused him to abandon further plans to continue his building pattern. It was at this time that a noticeable creative shift began to take hold, and he refocused his attention on the clapboard surface of the house and the surrounding areas defined by the bluestone walls. This was the beginning of Schmidt’s most inspired and prolific period of work. His building technique changed dramatically as he commenced to resurface the house with new rough-cut boards. The new surface served as an anchor to fasten the long, pointed boards which jutted outward to form complex overlapping constructions that disguised the underlying architectural structure. The tar that had been the base additive for paint now became the adhesive that secured aluminum foil to the surface of the new wood constructions on the house. Schmidt further exploited the reflective possibilities by covering most of the tree-limbs, shrines and constructions along the walkways with foil. He was clearly aware of the dramatic effects of reflection and colour caused by atmospheric conditions, and he often asked people to make their visits during certain seasons or at a particular time of day.
The dense accumulation of work on the façade began to impede further progress and Schmidt directed his attention to a long alley-way and surrounding pathways below the house. The building itself was no longer a primary focus and he was able to realise new possibilities for the direction of his work. Now he was able to explore an art of content, free from the associations of architecture. There was an acceleration of productivity and commitment and the environment grew significantly. ‘I’ve got to be 185 to complete what I want to do and I’ll startle the world with what I’m going to say and do,’ he declared. A surprising event that coincided with this new direction was the donation of hundreds of latex rubber body parts such as hands, feet and heads, manufactured for the army to use in the simulation of battlefield wounds. The rubber replicas added startling subject matter to Schmidt’s new work and inspired one of his most remarkable series of sculptures. He started making specific decisions for each new work in terms of colour, composition and choice of materials. The new assemblages were created within the dense weave of foil ropes and wrapped branches in the lower garden, yet they were clearly identifiable as individual pieces of work. The figurative shrines, totems and portraits were often given titles such as Meher Baba, Homer, Cinderella and The Four-Headed Indian Woman.
Peace, war and human suffering were subjects that concerned Schmidt, and he made numerous works to honour these feelings. The shrines paid tribute to the Kennedys, presidents Washington and Lincoln, Vietnam veterans, and a sculpture called Hope was dedicated to the nurses of the Red Cross. ‘It’s so immaterial what I do. It isn’t what it’s made of; it’s what it signifies. This is going to make history.’
The House of Mirrors burned down on 6 January 1968. ‘I was in the big house when it burned,’ recalled Schmidt. ‘I thought it was thundering, but it was the branch from a dead maple tree that fell down on it and on the wires to the house. Everything shot up in flames, and the fire created an aurora borealis that you could see for miles and miles. The 50 and 100 gallons of tar was a mess. It burned for days and days up there.’ Schmidt was forced to seek shelter for the winter in a motel at the foot of the mountain, where he continued to wrap branches with foil in anticipation of his return to the mountainside. When he moved back onto the land the following spring he started building his final house, the Mark II. An old Studebaker station wagon that had served as a support for sculpture and his office was moved to the base of a tree to form the foundation for the new structure. He added only one small, vaulted sleeping-room above the car and capped it with a sitting-deck that provided a spectacular view of the Ashoken Reservoir. The house was eventually covered with foil-wrapped tree branches and it resembled a large organic, spiked ball that concealed all references to the rectilinear structure that had characterised the big house. Adjacent to the Mark II was the Silver Forest, one of the most notable achievements of Schmidt’s late work. It was designed with chipped bluestone paths that wove among dozens of silver-painted and foil-wrapped trees with large silver dolls impaled on the limbs. The rambling, crowded constructions were no longer present and the clearly defined walkways enabled the area to be viewed as an integral element of the Mark II.
In December 1971 the Mark II was also destroyed in a fire, and once again Schmidt escaped harm. Due to increasing health problems, he moved to a nursing home and never returned to the mountain. Referring to the last fire, Schmidt remarked, ‘It’s like standing in front of a mirror looking at yourself over the past. What can I say? Believe me: I’m working all night now. I’m doing it in my mind. I’d lay down my life for art.’
After Schmidt left the land, the trees and undergrowth slowly reclaimed the mountainside.
*This article was originally published in Raw Vision 56.