Clarence Schmidt’s House of Mirrors, a legendary outsider architectural wonder that existed on Ohayo Mountain from the 1940s into the early 1970s, burning twice during its last half decade, has risen back to life this summer in a New York City art gallery. And not just any gallery, but the famed Ricco/Maresca in Chelsea, known as the cutting edge for Outsider, Self-Taught, and American Folk art, as well as a key inspiration for new arts movements throughout its 39 year history.
The exhibition, entitled “Let’s Call it Hope” for a quote by the late artist, came about in as serendipitous yet determined a manner as all Schmidt built in his lifetime. It involves another legendary Woodstock artist, the abstract painter Calvin Grimm. But first things first.
The man everyone knew as Clarence Schmidt was born in Astoria, Queens in 1897 and started working in his father’s trades as a plasterer and stonemason before getting through high school. He moved to Woodstock in 1920 after inheriting a five acre property on the mountain he’d eventually make famous, and built a cabin that he festooned in tar and mirror shards and named “Journey’s End.” Then sold.
He had a wife (who was also his cousin, Grace) who moved on. Schmidt started building retaining walls along a steeper incline on what remained of his property and sometime in the 1940s built a second cabin for himself, which would eventually become his “inner sanctum” bedroom, around which he constructed more “modules” using discarded windows, scrap lumber, assorted throwaways, and even more tar and mirror shards.
“A titanic architectural mashup resembling many residences stacked and clumped together, seven stories tall and drawn-out in all other directions,” was how the resulting creation was described in news stories of the day, paraphrased in the current gallery write-up of their new show. “Inside: roughly 35 alcoves and caverns housing endless wonders, interlocked in a circuitous system of corridors, galleries, and staircases…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. 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. His boundless reverie left no surface unadorned — even as deteriorated chambers were tumbling down the mountain.”
Eventually, a branch fell on the creation’s makeshift wiring and the entire thing went up in a tar-fuelled burst of flames in 1968. But Schmidt was undeterred, working from what remained of a labyrinth of surrounding mirrored trails to build a new residence he called “Mark II,” piggybacked onto a Studebaker station wagon and “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,’” according to the gallery’s historical notes. That, too, burned in 1971, after which Schmidt was moved on to a Kingston psychiatric hospital, then to two different nursing home facilities, before he died of heart failure in his early 80s.
Enter the Calvin Grimm part of this story, and how Schmidt’s work, and the memory of his unique creativity, has come around to dominating the Chelsea art world this summer.
“I knew Clarence. I visited him in his homes. My grandparents lived here in Woodstock and I had been visiting the town since I was two weeks old…I followed his progress,” Grimm said from the home he started building for himself across town, on Hutchin Hill, in 1969. “Everything in this exhibit except for one piece that belongs to Jim Cox is from my collection.”
He explained how he got the pieces now on view at Ricco/Maresca, as well as how it got there. His tale started with an exhibit of found objects he participated in at the Albright-Knox Museum in Buffalo in 1965, while he was still a student at what is now SUNY Buffalo. He was expanding an interest in antiquities to the patina age brings to all things, a love for the ways nature changes substance. And the meaning in such change, and one’s acceptance of it.
“I started to go up and visit Clarence when I was in Woodstock, and saw the house before it burned,” he recalled. “When he started in on the second place I would run into him down at the lumberyard, Woodstock Building Supply, and drive him back up the mountain with his buckets of tar.”
Grimm gave Schmidt a copy of the book he’d created for his Buffalo show on found objects, which Clarence rifled through until he saw a doll’s head.
“’I have those, I have those,’ he said. But later I found the book decomposing in the back seat of his Studebaker, which was sort of his office,” Grimm recalled. “Eventually, I went off to lead wilderness expeditions in Wyoming and Alaska and by the time I got back it had all kind of gone south for Clarence.”
A mutual friend made arrangements with Grace, Clarence’s heir, to come back into the picture and start salvaging what she could from Schmidt’s disheveled shard-covered property on the mountain.
In the meantime, Grimm started thinking more and more of all he’d seen at the House of Mirrors, Mark II, and the Silver Forest during its heyday.
“Knowing him turned out to be quite a transformational experience for me — his strength, his vision, his determination, the sheer beauty of all those objects as they aged…he created a vast environmental sculpture, but there was also most importantly something about him that stayed with me,” Grimm said.
The artist of today spoke about Schmidt’s way with tar, as both an adhesive and painting medium, how he’d work with its glistening aspect, then dapple it with elements of red and silver which “he’d seem to apply everywhere, but not everywhere,” and then let it change with time, “shrinking into islands, providing fissures on the surface that would start to manifest over time into the most extraordinary patina.”
Grimm spoke about the ways in which his experience of Clarence Schmidt, as a working artist as well as the manners in which all he created has lived on, moved him to have confidence in the beauty of a “something for what it is,” as well as the “obsessive visionary” as a goal for all artmaking.
So how did Schmidt’s remaining pieces come to Grimm, and then make it to Ricco/Maresca? Ah…Grimm tells of how much of the material salvaged from Ohayo Mountain rotted due to insect infestations or scavengers. But he picked up what he could, keeping it from the worst ravages of ice by hanging it in his home and studio, or on the walls of one of his barns.
Eventually, the painter realized it was time to share what he had. He’d noticed how Schmidt’s legacy had morphed into legend, with stories about him and a few pieces shown here and there, including a few in the Smithsonian’s collection.
“I went to the Outside Art Fair in New York and presented what I had to Frank Maresca, and he got very excited. As a young photographer at the age of 17 he’d gone up to see what Clarence had built for himself,” Grimm recounted. “So Frank selected from what I had and then blocked out the exhibit with his staff.”
The results are stunning, museum-quality in the clean-ness of their presentation, the ways all elements that Grimm has long prized about the artifacts, and the art within their aging process, shine through all he has helped save.
“The opening was very nice,” Grimm noted. “The widow of the man who shot the three films of Clarence that are showing from the 1960s, Beryl Sokoloff, was very excited.”
He brought up two quotes from the walls of the exhibit.
“The hands are pleading for help in this cruel world that we have. It’s a mixed-up world. Let’s call it Hope,” read one, explaining the show’s title.
“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,” read another.
Calvin Grimm spoke, most eloquently, of the way two works stand out. One is a car hood, “coral-like, similar to a photo I took once of the six varieties of moss and lichen I took of a rock on the mountain above my house” that the painter noted was “something I identify with in my paintings, the macro and micro of nature…it’s fun to cruise between the two planes.”
The other is a massive old Mobil advertising sign which Clarence Schmidt had painted and then moved on from, letting nature finish what he started. Grimm spoke of the Pegasus myth of a winged horse, but also the role horses have played in his own life as teachers of nature’s nobility, the ways humans want to subjugate, but only soar on once they succumb to.
“It’s a sign of resurrection, synthesizing an original commercial function long ago discarded with Clarence’s embellishments and creativity, later abandoned a second time and now championed and resurrected once again.”
We talk about the horse, and winged horses in particular, as spirit guides.
We talk about the ways civilization incorporates the beauty of all that is old, as well as all that is created, or recreated, moving forward.
What a grand Woodstock set of things to have shared.
Clarence Schmidt: Let’s Call It Hope runs at Ricco/Maresca Gallery, 529 West 20th Street in Manhattan through August 17. Call 212-627-4819 or see riccomaresca.com for further information.