Clarence Schmidt: "Let's Call it Hope"
“The hands are pleading for help in this cruel world that we have. It’s a mixed-up world. Let’s call it Hope.” – Clarence Schmidt
Perched on the slope of Ohayo Mountain in Woodstock, N.Y, Clarence Schmidt’s “House of Mirrors” once existed. Outside: a titanic architectural mashup resembling many residences stacked and clumped together, seven stories tall and drawn-out in all other directions. Inside: roughly 35 alcoves and caverns housing endless wonders, interlocked in a circuitous system of corridors, galleries, and staircases. Now a place of legend, the House of Mirrors is accessible only through the documentation of a number of chroniclers, photographers, and filmmakers, as well as through the few pieces of sculpture that survived its doom. “Let’s Call it Hope” presents a selection of such works, inviting viewers to conjure the mood and mystery of Schmidt’s remarkable creation and to consider the relevance of the artist’s oeuvre in the wider landscape of modern art.
Schmidt was born in 1897 in Astoria, Queens. He attended high school but started working as a plasterer and stonemason (his father’s trades) in his teens and never graduated. In 1920 he inherited a five-acre property in Woodstock and, sometime between 1930 and 1940, moved there permanently with his wife and cousin Grace—who left this story soon after, returning decades later in a dark twist. During this period, Schmidt built a wood cabin that he coated in tar and encrusted with shattered glass and mirrors. He named this house “Journey’s End” and sold it shortly after its completion. At that time, he was already diligently mining rocks for a series of retaining walls he erected on the mountain’s incline. Within them he built a second cabin using a large tree for support. This space, which he eventually called the “inner sanctum,” continued to be Schmidt’s bedroom as he added more modules, starting in the late 1940s, ultimately erasing it from the façade.
The process of materializing the House of Mirrors appears to have been an interplay between improvisation, or instinct, and a very deliberate interaction with the site’s specificity. The seasons and their palettes didn’t simply wash over the house but melded into its myriad of reflective surfaces and appendages. Initially, the interior of this massive complex—part madcap greenhouse, part hoarder’s utopia—was where Schmidt, the compulsive builder, started to become an artist whose output overlapped with major currents in 20th century art. He combined natural and artificial elements in an ever-growing vine that engulfed walls and ceilings; all manner of plants and found objects coalesced with tin foil wrappings, silver paint, mirrors, and colorful string lights. He transformed the roof into a bric-à-brac of non-functioning household items. His boundless reverie left no surface unadorned—even as deteriorated chambers were tumbling down the mountain. When the house could bear no further development, Schmidt turned his mind to the alleyway and trails below the house, creating independent arrangements designated as shrines, several of which incorporated humanoid forms—often embalmed with tar and altered with paint—including elastic face masks and rubber extremities retrieved from a local factory. There were also shrines conceived around paintings and printed media—pictures of the artist included. While others were memorials for notable figures such as John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
By the late 1960s, Schmidt had created an eerie microcosm of American culture embedded the Catskills, willed into existence with the simplest materials and glued together with tar. Photographs of the artist show him white-haired and unshaven, blissful and free as he roamed around his oddball empire. “One for all and all for one,” read a sign outside the house. The artist’s belief system was, in fact, grounded in the humanist verities of love, compassion, and equality, yet a legend requires a compelling hero—a certain measure of performance—and Schmidt owned up to the part: “I’m a cross between Rip Van Winkle, Paul Bunyan, and there’s a lot of Robin Hood in me. I became some greater part of this mountain up here. Why, when I walked along the road, the trees bent down on my behalf.” ** Schmidt and his vision were, however, one and the same: there was no conceptual detachment, no cynicism, and in the process of pursuing his own truth, he touched on the theatricality and the teasing antilogic of surrealism, the notion of the readymade, the improvisational vitality of abstract expressionism, the psychological fabric of assemblage, environmental sculpture, and light phenomena as subject matter. When word was out about the chimera on Ohayo Mountain, the artist began receiving swarms of visitors and with them came assorted donations of urban debris (“it made our parents feel better about their junk—by-product of the consumerism which remains America’s first and foremost addiction. Clarence redeemed it and us by slathering our garbage with roofing tar and attaching it to his tumbledown palace” ***).
At that point a mammoth crowdsourced pastiche, a self-fulfilling prophesy, the House of Mirrors burned to the ground in 1968 when a branch from a dead maple tree fell on its makeshift wiring. “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.” * Then 71, Schmidt returned to the grounds a few months later and started building something new. Piggybacking onto a Studebaker station wagon, he made a small residence named “Mark II” with a deck up top overlooking the Ashokan Reservoir. The house was covered with silver-colored sculptural projections, like a porcupine’s quills, and conceived in symbiosis with a strange and lyrical mise-en-scène called “Silver Forest.” Here, there was a more measured sensibility at work: winding trails entwined throughout a shimmering silver woodland populated with suspended or speared sculptures made with altered dolls and their parts. In 1971 another fire destroyed this second house and environment. Schmidt’s saga hence reached its nadir; now homeless, debilitated by trauma, health, and age, he had to leave the mountain for good and seek help in the city of Kingston. He was first taken to a psychiatric hospital, then to two different nursing home facilities, and died of heart failure in 1978. When Grace passed away more than 30 years later, it was revealed that she had kept his ashes all that time.
Schmidt’s work had a brief window of notoriety during his last years and in the immediate aftermath of his death—exhibition venues included the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis, the Robert Hull Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont, Hayden Gallery at MIT, the Neuberger Museum at Purchase, The Currier Gallery in New Hampshire, the Hayward Gallery in London, and the Edith C. Blum Art Gallery at Bard College—after which it nearly vanished from public awareness. Recently, Schmidt’s environment resurfaced as image projections included in “Outliers and American Vanguard Art,” curated by Lynne Cooke at the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C.
“Let’s Call it Hope” pays homage to Schmidt’s extraordinary story, while emphasizing the power and autonomy that his individual works continue to have outside the narrative of their original context—a fine line to navigate, and one that has remained at the core of how we approach Outsider and Self-Taught art. Schmidt relied entirely on appropriated objects and repurposed materials, altering and obscuring figurative components to different degrees (toys, tools, industrial items) or creating purely abstract compositions. In both cases, he used deconstruction, disfiguration, corrosion, patination, and layering of paint, foil, glass, or mirrors into thick coatings of tar now crackled by time and exposure. The powerful convergence of form and surface present in every work in this exhibition is particularly lucid in the Pegasus Mobil Oil trade sign (counterpart to the “Winged Horse Painting,” also by Schmidt, in the Smithsonian Museum’s collection), the perfect synthesis of classic and pop iconography, once part of hundreds of gas stations across the country, now an emblem of Schmidt’s vanished kingdom. Ultimately, we’re all like birds overflying The House of Mirrors; catch a glimpse here, land there, peck on that… Facts resemble fiction and the full picture is elusive. But then again it always was.
*Blasdel, Gregg. “The House of Mirrors: Clarence Schmidt.” Raw Vision Magazine, no. 56, 2004, pp. 24-31.
Bottoms, Greg. “Mountainous Harmony and Everlasting Peace: A Portrait of Clarence Schmidt.” Spiritual American Trash: Portraits from the Margins of Art and Faith. Counterpoint, 2013, pp. 84-109.
Goodrich, David L. “Miracle on a Mountain.” Saturday Evening Post, vol. 237, no. 31, 1964, pp. 22-27.
**Lipke, William C., and Gregg Blasdel. Clarence Schmidt. The Robert Hull Fleming Museum, University of Vermont, 1975.
***Wise, Tad. “Clarence’s Ashes.” Hudson Valley Times, 2010, https://bit.ly/2JXZaze. Accessed 1 May 2018.
ALSO ON VIEW
My Mirrored Hope, by Beryl Sokoloff
HD file from original 16mm print.
1963, 17 minutes.
Soundtrack: Alexander Scriabin’s The Poem of Fire, and Clarence Schmidt’s voice.
Courtesy of Crista Grauer and The Film-Makers Cooperative, New York.
Clarence’s Summer, by Beryl Sokoloff
HD file from original 16mm print.
1963, 13 minutes.
Soundtrack: Giuseppe Torelli’s Concerti Grossi.
Courtesy of Crista Grauer.
Clarence’s Garden, by Beryl Sokoloff
HD file from original 16mm print.
1969, 6 minutes.
Soundtrack: Alessandro Scarlatti’s Sonatas.
Courtesy of Crista Grauer
In 1963, with the help of the Patrick Lannan Grant, Beryl Sokoloff made three documentaries of the visionary artist Clarence Schmidt and his environment. Respectively titled “My Mirrored Hope,” “Clarence Summer,” and “Reminiscences,” these films were made by Sokoloff as abstractly as Schmidt had built his vision. Later, Sokoloff made a short film about Schmidt’s friend Spanhank and in 1969 he shot “Clarence’s Garden.”