Bright Lights Film Journal

“He’s Dreaming My Dream!” Beryl Sokoloff’s Web of Artists

Of insular wonderlands and open cityscapes

New York City, late 1980s. A mugger chases an old man. The mugger corners the man and pounds his head with a thick iron pipe. The stumbling old man fumbles in his pocket. He’s trying not to lose consciousness. He yanks out his press pass and holds it high. The mugger, seeing the pass, abruptly stops his attack. He runs away from the elderly man.

How did a flimsy press pass stop an armed assailant dead in his tracks, especially with such an easy mark? Most likely it wasn’t the pass alone that did the job, it was two pieces of information unknown to the mugger:

Many press passes were shaped like police badges.

The old man was Beryl Sokoloff, an artist who had spent decades transforming raw shapes, colors, and sound into cinematic orbits of wonder.

Sokoloff’s films are not widely known, perhaps because his work did not quite coincide with the zeitgeist: though he hit his artistic stride in the 1960s and 1970s, his technique and conceptual approach were more strongly set in 1950s Abstract Expressionism. But that night, the sleight-of-hand that he mastered as a filmmaker and photojournalist quite possibly saved his life.

Born in 1918 to Russian-Jewish immigrants in the Bronx, Sokoloff came of age in Philadelphia, developed mural plans for the Works Progress Administration in San Francisco, and traveled the Pacific as a wartime meteorologist before finally settling as an artist in downtown Manhattan. He continued to travel as a photojournalist for the Mexican newspaper Periodico Excelsior. Sokoloff reveled in the job’s free travel assignments, and even after they dwindled, Sokoloff used his press pass to gain admittance to screenings, openings, and parties around New York. The expiration of the pass was hardly a barrier for Sokoloff, who gleefully counterfeited new press passes until September 11 made the practice too risky.

Most of Sokoloff’s films are freely flowing, associative urban landscapes. However, his most widely seen works are those that document art and its makers: outsider architect Clarence Schmidt, who subsisted in his handmade found-object houses; painter Jose Bartoli, who chronicled protest, politics, and his own experience as a concentration camp refugee; sculptor Carl Nesjar, who translated Picasso sculptures into public art; and Crista Grauer, Sokoloff’s life partner and maker of dream-anatomical, motorized boxes.

Sokoloff constructed his films, and each frame of each film, like paintings. This is especially true of his art documentaries, which, in inventively observing inspired uses of physical materials, become artworks themselves.

Woodstock’s summer-of-love audience may have made another stop on its hippie pilgrimage if it had known that in the very the same town stood a multistory house handmade from windows, doors, and found objects. Bob Dylan lived nearby, so he and Joan Baez brought their guitars over to strum and sing in this “land of ecstasy.”1 Beryl Sokoloff caught Dylan and Baez on film. But he never used the footage of these then-unknown folk singers, for his true subject was Clarence Schmidt (1897-1978), the lone builder of these fragile, one-man mansions.

My Mirrored Hope is Sokoloff’s best-known film, now in the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The piece is one in a series of Schmidt-focused films made in the summer of 1963, the year Schmidt may have been at the height of his ecstatic, weather-beaten powers. It was an important time for both men. Being commissioned by the Lannan Foundation to make the Schmidt film series enabled Sokoloff to switch from an 8mm to a 16mm camera. As for Schmidt, his dream houses, originally born as fairly conventional buildings in the 1950s, had grown, through his daily attachments of newfound objects, to their most mammoth proportions. These houses were not pragmatically planned as residences, and a few short years later, they would all burn in electrical fires.

Schmidt had moved to Woodstock after becoming disillusioned with the chaos and noise of New York City, where, raised in Queens, he had followed his father’s footsteps to become a set builder for Astoria Film Studios. One day in the 1940s, the subway doors closed on Schmidt, forcing him to drop a mass of fresh flowers onto the filthy tracks and platform. An incensed Schmidt then moved his wife and young child to a small, old-fashioned house in Woodstock. He started to build his visionary houses over the next few decades, each one being more fantastical then the last. His family never lived in these houses — as large as they were, the houses accommodated only him.

My Mirrored Hope is composed similarly to the Abstract Expressionist paintings Beryl knew, made, and admired firsthand from his Greenwich Village vantage point. Extended sequences closely focus on the largest house’s ingredients: heavily applied paint, hardware surpluses, discarded toys, molded tin, beads, and dozens, perhaps hundreds, of windows and mirrors. Though Sokoloff used Alexander Scriabin’s The Poem of Fire to accompany the tumbledown journey through Schmidt’s house, he was never entirely comfortable with this music, perhaps because its heavy orchestration bears echoes of a Hollywood movie soundtrack. Yet over the next several decades, Sokoloff was never able to find another score to fit the film. Maybe he could never find the right music to match the rarity of one person single-handedly making so many things at such immense scales. Nevertheless, The Poem of Fire captures aspects of Schmidt’s frontier wizardry.

The other films in the Schmidt series are more relaxed. They show more of Schmidt himself, a heavyset man with a grizzled Santa beard, who that summer often wore nothing more than denim overalls with one shoulder strap carelessly buckled. Schmidt’s solitude is punctuated by a visit from William Spanhank, a German farmer and fiddler who would stroke his long brownish grey beard into one large curl. Sokoloff captures the two old men dancing in a lush garden, and then shows an astonishing candid close-up of Spanhank’s wrinkled, rueful, bashful face as he twists his beard.

The twenty-seven minute Reminiscences, Clarence Schmidt, the longest of Sokoloff’s Schmidt series, reveals Schmidt’s daily thoughts, activities, and struggles. In one scene, Schmidt lists the dozens of objects used for a small section of the house, and then exclaims that he can’t do any more listing, or he’d never get any work done. In another scene, Schmidt matter-of-factly says that the cost of engaging in a sort of lifelong meditation has been great poverty. But the strain of paying this price never shows in Schmidt’s face, which, as captured on film, is always filled with a quixotic faith in his mirrored hope.

In contrast to Schmidt, a monument-making mountain manchild, painter Jose Bartoli (1910-1995) was an urbanite very much of his times. Sokoloff filmed each man in the wake of an escape from his homeland. For Bartoli, it was a sort of “Great Escape”: having fled Spain for his anti-Franco views during the country’s civil war, he was caught in France and thrown into a concentration camp. He dug out of his cell with his hands and snuck aboard a boat bound for Mexico. There he rose to prominence as a painter and even had a brief affair with Frida Kahlo before escaping again and finally settling in New York with wife Bernice Bromberg. In the 1950s, Bartoli met Sokoloff through mutual contacts at the Ladies Garment Workers Union.

Sokoloff brought his camera to Bartoli’s studio in the 1960s. He filmed Bartoli’s wall-covering grid of small paintings on colored paper. This film, Mural, is like My Mirrored Hope in its examination of a wildly varying artwork made from heavily applied paint and found objects. In the film, layers of clipped newspaper and magazine paper are glued onto the construction paper. Campaign buttons and pills are glued into the layers — in fact, the entire mural abounds in an eye- (and pill-) popping color palette. Each panel of the mural is an abstracted news snapshot: top-heavily curvaceous streetwalkers, blues brothers, a cigar smoking Uncle Sam with a monkey’s face, a man with “Nixon/Agnew” button eyes, a crowd gathered around a freshly decapitated, still upright body.

Though Sokoloff shows the same fascination with textural detail that threaded through My Mirrored Hope, he takes a more modern approach in Mural to match Bartoli’s contemporary concerns. Mural is one of Sokoloff’s few films not to use a classical score. Instead, Miles Davis’s All Blues sets an aural background for Sokoloff’s experiments in double exposure, kaleidoscopic lensing, and stream-of-consciousness film cutting: a miniaturized Bartoli walks on his own hands. A television weathercast plays, superimposed on the mural. Bartoli fights with his shadow. Multiple copies of Bartoli smoke cigarettes together.

Sokoloff’s talent for capturing the naked, unguarded face does not spare Bartoli, who has the dark, piercing, baggy eyes so often seen on the shores of the Mediterranean. Sokoloff intercuts this footage of Bartoli and his work with sudden shots of Revolutionary War reenactments and then-current Vietnam War protests. He intercuts All Blues with jarring city sound effects — for instance, Bartoli’s painted decapitation is joined with the din of a cheering crowd.

Like Jose Bartoli, Carl Nesjar (1920-) was Sokoloff’s friend, a European artist who spent significant years in New York. Like Clarence Schmidt, Nesjar is a maker of monumental works. In the 1960s and ’70s, Nesjar worked with Pablo Picasso to translate several of Picasso’s small sculptures into permanent concrete works for institutions like NYU and Princeton University.

Sokoloff’s most widely seen film of Nesjar’s work is Tete de Femme (Head of a Woman), named after a series of small busts inspired by Picasso’s wife Jacqueline. Princeton commissioned Nesjar to translate one of these busts into a massive outdoor sculpture. It also commissioned Sokoloff to document Nesjar’s process of planning and executing the sculpture’s fabrication. Tete de Femme is one of Sokoloff’s most accessible films, highlighting Nesjar’s exacting approach to permanent, public art. The film is in the collections of Princeton University, the Musée Picasso in Paris, and the Museo Casa Natal in Malaga, Spain.

Nesjar’s voice provides technically precise narration as Picasso showcases his original Tete de Femme sculptures, as the first onsite large-scale mockups in wood and cardboard are erected, and large sandblasted slabs are fitted onto a base of nearly watertight wood and concrete. This more conventional fitting of audio to visuals, an outlier in Sokoloff’s body of work, is refreshing in its clarity and coherence. Nevertheless, some of Sokoloff’s signature style seeps in. Footage of the sculpture’s construction is juxtaposed with subtle reactions from different castes — the faces and postures of artists, construction workers, faculty and students crossing campus and gazing curiously or peering out shyly from behind window curtains. These visual human reactions often sync with the voiceover in amusing ways; for instance, a clip of Nesjar saying “do over” (referring to the sculpture’s base) is paired with a shot of impatient college girls cocking their hips.

Tete de Femme is a remarkable education in concrete sculpture building, and perhaps what keeps it from being a dry how-to-guide is the pairing of Nesjar’s engineering sensibility with Sokoloff’s flair for the ephemeral. The most arresting passage of this film is after a sudden shift from the construction site to the studio. There, Nesjar focuses on preparing the sculpture’s face by repeatedly observing, tracing, drawing, and transferring photos of the original Picasso bust. Sokoloff captures Nesjar’s face in a moment where Nesjar is completely, unmistakably absorbed by this process, so much that he loses consciousness of Sokoloff’s camera in front of him.

“His muse, his soul mate, and his manager.” This is how Carl Goodman, Senior Deputy Director of the Museum of the Moving Image curator and Sokoloff’s nephew, introduced Crista Grauer (1938-) at a recent (December 2009) Anthology Film Archives screening of Sokoloff’s work. Over the course of Sokoloff and Grauer’s forty-three-year relationship, this has proven to be true, and in that approximate order. In the 1960s and ’70s, Sokoloff made a trio of films focused on Grauer’s sculptures and drawings. Inspired in turn, Grauer made her own moving image experiments, precursors to her major body of work, a series of mixed-media motorized boxes. In the 1990s and 2000s, Grauer became the ailing Sokoloff’s caretaker and the administrator of his estate and art. She spent Sokoloff’s last few years managing his leukemia and overseeing the digitization, DVD authoring, archiving, and marketing of Sokoloff’s oeuvre.

Though they were born two decades apart, Sokoloff and Grauer developed strong artistic similarities early in their lives: a playful skepticism of authority, a love of modern urban life, and a strong non-Western influence. Both spent a formative amount of time outside the United States before they first met. As a wartime military meteorologist in the early 1940s, Sokoloff played in a Hawaiian military orchestra and witnessed battles on Kwajalein and the Solomon Islands. Walking through the jungles, forests, and beaches of these islands, he was struck by the jumble of ocean and war debris. After he returned home, Sokoloff wrote in his sketchbook: “The savage uses nothing. He is the experience. New Shells Old Experience.”

In 1959, Grauer and her sister spent a year studying art and music in Italy. Then in the early 1960s, Grauer traveled with her widowed mother to the Middle East, Asia, and Mexico. She had already cultivated an interest in human representation, and on her travels she observed unfamiliar forms of it, forms rooted in the same natural mystery that struck Sokoloff in the Pacific: multi-appendaged Hindu gods, hamsa amulets, golems, sphinxes, and calaveras.

Sokoloff’s and Grauer’s first major collaborative work, Necromancia, is a tableau vivant that combines enlightenment formalism with carnivalesque wackiness. A plastic toy strongman, his head replaced with that of a toy horse, drives a carriage pulled by a plastic stegosaurus. He is a kind of Master of Ceremonies in an anatomical realm made of plastic body parts, mylar sheeting, magazine cut-outs, and servo motors. Motors, which seem to bridge Grauer’s sculpture and Sokoloff’s film, also power a rotating stage displaying a similarly wide range of assembled toy parts. Asynchronously intercut with footage of Grauer’s art are Sokoloff’s signature New York cityscapes: skyscrapers, street performers, Greco-Roman municipal buildings, and Coney Island amusement rides.

The combination of insular wonderland with open cityscape is more tightly realized in Automata. For this film, Sokoloff challenged Grauer to make things from a bag of wind-up toy motors. He then spliced together a cycle of footage from his favorite city sites. Finally, he shot Grauer’s creations on the same film in a double exposure. The result is a day in the life of a shaman toy gang, set loose upon Manhattan. Automata recalled references ranging from Godzilla to the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Technically, Automata is more roughly hewn than either of these predecessors. Only when the film’s toys are superimposed on an amorphous background (like moving lights or water) do they convincingly seem a part of their environment. Nevertheless, the toys’ jerky motion, the film cuts’ jagged beat, and the staccato George Anthiel score all create a charming, childlike, unexpectedly graceful effect.

ChromoChrome, the most frequently seen film of Sokoloff’s and Grauer’s collaborations, is a kaleidoscopic meditation on a series of Hinduesque figures drawn in magic marker. In the film, each drawing is shown laid flat with two pieces of reflective mylar held at right angles — the three surfaces form a corner. Grauer’s hands are visible as she slides the reflective corner around the drawing, kaleidoscopically changing what is reflected. Sokoloff also projects this imagery onto Grauer’s white, doughy sculptures of mismatched appendages, and finally, as with his other artists, inimitably captures Grauer’s face, projecting Grauer’s own work onto her naked upper body. (“That was back when my breasts were firm,” Grauer chuckled at a recent Anthology Film Archives screening.)

Fittingly, Grauer first met Sokoloff at a screening of his work in 1964. On the program were My Mirrored Hope and Clarence Summer, another film in the Schmidt series. She was drawn to the films, and eventually to the filmmaker himself, a cellist-turned-painter-turned-photojournalist named Beryl Sokoloff. For the next forty-three years, she witnessed and often participated as Sokoloff made dozens more films. She was on hand as Sokoloff, through film alone, found his own hairline cracks in select artists and their artworks. He pried them open, spilling out their secret inner facets, and pieced them back together, often inserting them into the urban landscapes of his personal fascinations. As Sokoloff approached and then crossed the border into death, Grauer diligently worked to preserve his work and expose it to a wider audience. A slowly growing resurgence of Sokoloff’s films has resulted — in 2009, Anthology Film Archives claimed the oeuvre for its collection.

What accounts for Grauer’s devotion to Sokoloff’s work? Maybe it was that they were life partners from before the beginning of the hippie era to after the millennium mark. Maybe it was that while they had the technical and social training to participate in the art world’s industrial complex, they concurrently gravitated towards outsider art’s raw emotions and materials.

Maybe all of these explanations combine into a notion beyond birth, death, and consciousness itself: a feeling Grauer had at that screening in 1964, a feeling so palpable that it came swiftly and easily to her lips more than forty five years later: “He’s dreaming my dream!”

  1. Clarence Schmidt’s voice concludes My Mirrored Hope: “I was in a land of ecstasy!” []