Folding a paper airplane is a rite of passage for many kids. With a few strategic creases, anything from a page ripped out of a magazine to piece of card stock could become airborne. While they’re never going to be a marvels of aviation design, paper planes are clever little case studies about problem-solving: How do you tweak the shape to make the damn thing soar?
Artist Harry Smith (1923–1991)—an eccentric Beat-generation filmmaker and painter—was fascinated with paper planes and spent decades collecting the ones he found on the streets. (Apparently there were a lot?) Paper Airplanes: The Collections of Harry Smith, a new tome published by J&L Books and the Anthology Film Archives, documents 251 of them.
Over the years, Smith amassed an eccentric collection that spoke to his fascination with anthropology and folklore: Ukrainian painted eggs, records, Seminole textiles, string figures, and tarot cards. On each plane, Smith noted where and when he found it, and found most of them during a 20-year period between the 1960s and 1980s.
“As with his other collections, Smith was not necessarily looking to show that the planes were different, but rather how much they were the same, if not solely in design then in impulse,” the book states.
Smith donated the collection to the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum in 1984, but they were never formally accessioned. Narratives describe the artist possessing dozens of boxes filled with planes, but most of them have been lost. In 1994, one box was sent to the Anthology Film Archives—which also has all of Smith’s surviving films, recordings, paintings, drawings, and ephemera—and catalogued them to eventually become this monograph.
The artist never left notes on what he initially intended to do with the planes, but they certainly make for a quirky documentary of the humble objects New Yorkers made.