New Collections: Paul J. Smith Papers

By Jacob Proctor
April 23, 2024
Detail of grayscale image of many people gathered in a room, surrounding empty boxes stacked haphazardly.

This entry is part of an ongoing series highlighting new collections. The Archives of American Art collects primary source materials—original letters, writings, preliminary sketches, scrapbooks, photographs, financial records, and the like—that have significant research value for the study of art in the United States. The following essay was originally published in the Spring 2024 issue (vol. 63, no. 1) of the Archives of American Art Journal. More information about the journal can be found at

Grayscale image of many people gathered in a room , surrounding empty boxes stacked haphazardly.
Renita Hanfling. Scene from opening of exhibition Made from Paper Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York, 1977. Paul J. Smith Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Measuring a massive 75 linear feet, the papers of museum curator and director Paul J. Smith (1931–2020) document his long and illustrious career through biographical material, extensive personal and professional correspondence, audio recordings and interview transcripts, photographic material (including photographs of artists taken by Smith), and voluminous research files relating to exhibitions, publications, and other projects. 

In addition to such landmark exhibitions as Objects: USA (1969) and Craft Today: Poetry of the Physical (1986), Smith’s papers document nearly all his curatorial endeavors, from his earliest years creating innovative window displays for Buffalo’s Flint & Kent department store, through his three-decade tenure at the Museum of Contemporary Crafts (later known as the American Craft Museum and then the Museum of Arts and Design) in New York, to his subsequent independent projects. Particularly from the mid-1960s through the mid-1970s, Smith’s exhibition files reveal a visionary approach that extended well beyond the traditional bounds of “craft,” engaging with experimental forms of artistic and material culture that were emerging at the time. In conjunction with the 1966 exhibition The Object in the Open Air, for example, Phyllis Yampolsky and Dean Fleming staged a happening-like event involving hundreds of individuals collectively painting 105 yards of canvas stretched between trees and poles in New York’s Central Park. 

Grayscale image of a man in a paint-covered jumpsuit making holes in large scrims of paper in front of an audience.
Flux Masters of the Rear Guard (1977), performed in conjunction with the exhibition Made from Paper, Museum of Contemporary Crafts, New York, 1977. Photographer unknown. Paul J. Smith Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Intitution.

The following year, the exhibition Made from Paper opened with James Lee Byars’s performative sculpture The Giant Soluble Man, an ambitious project in which an enormous expanse of water-soluble paper covered the entirety of 53rd Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues. On Byars’s signal, two Department of Sanitation street-cleaning trucks drove over the sculpture, spraying it with water and causing it to dissolve. In a later writing included in the papers, Smith recalled, “We took great risks with Byars’[s] events, in allowing the artist to realize what might have been termed an impossible idea.” Photographs in Smith’s papers reveal an additional—and until now, all but forgotten—performance the night before, entitled “Flux Masters of the Rear Guard,” by a group of young artists associated with the movement Fluxus.

Postcard with a foot collaged with torn pieces of papers, and writing in black ink. There is  a postmark of September 19, 1977 from Quakertown, New York, and a cancelled stamp with an image of the capital building that says RIGHT OF THE PEOPLE TO PEACABLY ASSEMBLE.
Lenore Tawney mail art to Paul J. Smith, September 19, 1977. Postcard collage. Paul J. Smith Papers, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.

Smith maintained friendships and close associations with many artists, and his papers include hundreds of letters and postcards—many of them illustrated—from such noted figures as Byars, ceramicists Robert Arneson and Clayton Bailey, metalsmith and jeweler Robert Ebendorf, sculptor and fiber artist Sheila Hicks, textile designer and author Jack Lenor Larsen, and weaver Alice Kagawa Parrott. Of note are more than a dozen pieces of correspondence from glass artist Dale Chihuly (including one 1976 letter written on the back of a menu from the Gloucestershire Royal Hospital, where Chihuly was recovering from an automobile accident), and mail art in the form of small collages from pioneering fiber artist Lenore Tawney.

In 1975, Smith began recording interviews and documenting artists involved with studio craft. Among the archived tapes are largely untranscribed interviews with Parrott, Florence Eastmead, Toshiko Takaezu, Peter Voulkos. and Margret Craver Withers, and Smith also made thousands of photographs of artists in their homes, studios, and at events. These recordings and photographs show how Smith touched virtually every corner of the studio craft movement. Through their impressive depth and innumerable connections to other collections, his papers promise to continue that connective practice into the future.


Jacob Proctor is the Gilbert and Ann Kinney New York Collector at the Archives of American Art. 




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