Random Notes on the Art of Jack Smith
Everything Should Be Free, and It Could Begin With Art
Written by: Bob Nicklas
MNCARS, National Museum Reina Sofia, SPAIN
Web URL: http://
Courtesy by National Museum and Center of Art Reina Sofia of Madrid, Spain
Why is it that everyone, not most people, but every person who writes about Jack Smith
can't help but avoid using the V word? Visionary. Of course, it's true. The visionary nature of his work can't possibly be denied. Smith
's finely tuned and unique aesthetic absolutely demands not only the awe of his audience, but asks them in a sense to time travel into the world he conjures out of thin air, whether in his films or performance events. Time is important to many facets of his work. There is the glacial movement that personifies his delivery of the spoken word, sometimes one single word at a time. His often quoted advice to Robert Wilson
: "It has to be ... sadder, Bob, it's not saaad enough ... make it ... slow ...er, much slow ... er, just much slow ...er."
1 (Advice Wilson clearly followed.) Richard Foreman
once commented: "To watch Jack Smith perform was to watch human behavior turn into granular stasis, in which every moment of being seemed, somehow, to contain the seed of unthinkable possibility. It was endlessly fascinating."
has also pointed out Smith
's intentional disruption of the often seamless temporal experience of a performance or a film screening; his intention, by, for example, the calculated "breakdown" of the projector itself, to interrupt the illusion that time stands still in the dark — "Everything's gone wrong!"
— to heighten the audience's awareness of that very illusion. Think of the movement of light from projector to screen as an image of time. Smith
once wrote, "Kill time — see a movie."
In his work there are myriad references to the films, music, and soundtracks of his youth — childhood, that time of free play and imagination — and so in a film from the 1960s we are transported back to the '30s and '40s, to Ali Baba
and the Forty Thieves and I Walked With a Zombie
, to the director Josef von Sternberg
and to Smith
's muse, Maria Montez
, an actress who could never be accused of what Smith
derided as "the hypocrisy of good acting."
3. He goes so far as to suggest that it's not the actor who brings the costume to life, but the costume which brings the actor to life — a remarkable observation. He is also in his films precise in the staging of his set and the choreography of bodies in space. Smith
is totally of his time and also inhabits completely other, distant points in time. (Is this how he ends up being ahead of his time?). From the fantasies of harem intrigue and the Arabian nights to the thrills and chills of mummies, monsters, and the Spider Woman, Smith
's earliest obsessions would ultimately and decisively inform his perverse sensibility. Of obsessions, the writer J.G. Ballard
once reflected, "All you can do is cling to your own obsessions. All of them, to the end. Be honest with them. Identify them. Construct your own personal mythology out of them and follow that mythology, follow those obsessions like stepping stones in front of a sleepwalker. ... if you compromise with your own obsessions, that way lies disaster."
4. Ballard could very well be describing Smith
, an artist for whom the very idea of compromise must have been completely alien.A skull floating in a milky bath (Normal Love).
Visual filters — plants, leaves, veils, masks, wisps of smoke from a candle, sparks from lit sparklers, lace, and billowing, intricately patterned fabric — merge actors and setting, and purposefully obscure and abstract the action or view. Smith'
s films are almost pure visual experience. There is little dialogue. Most actors have no speaking parts whatsoever. It's as if these are films from the silent era — again the element of time travel that we experience in his invented world — films with no script. In silent films, even with inter-titles to add dialogue that sets up or advances a scene, the actors have to convey through body movement and pose, through facial expression, the action and emotion that propels the narrative. Today, this "acting" for the most part appears excessive and theatrical. Actors of the silent era don't so much act as emote. In Smith
's nearly wordless films, the actors often cavort or simply pose, for he is also a master of the tableau, of mounting altars and shrines, of the tableau vivant, and in Flaming Creatures
of the writhing, convulsive tableau. The purely visual world he brings to life, that he makes animate, is that which he sees in his own mind. It is the same preoccupation with the visual — over a coherent story line or easily related plot — that connects him to von Sternberg. When Smith writes of von Sternberg that "his expression was of the erotic realm — the neurotic gothic deviated sex-colored world and it was a turning inside out of himself and magnificent. You had to use your eyes to know this tho because the soundtrack babbled inanities ..."
could well be speaking of his own films, and of Flaming Creatures
in particular. His observation of von Sternberg's visuality as "a world of delirious unreal adventures"
is also in every sense his own identification with that very world.
The charges of obscenity and pornography leveled against Flaming Creatures
in the '60s seem ludicrous to us today, and precisely because even the film's orgiastic and violent images have an unreal, erotic/fantastic/poetic quality, but also because we live in a time when the most graphic and disturbing images can be called up in seconds on any home computer screen. In the summer of 1968, when Flaming Creatures
was privately shown to members of Congress by the conservative Senator Strom Thurmond
, one Senator later complained to a Newsweek reporter: "That movie was so sick, I couldn't even get aroused."
How possibly to deem a movie as obscene or pornographic when it fails so completely to excite?6 Smith would many years later refer to Flaming Creatures as simply "a comedy."Smith
would, perhaps unknowingly, help to define the notion of "camp"
identified in the '60s, most famously by one of his early admirers, Susan Sontag
, however, would get it wrong, claiming Smith as a pop artist, or at the very least identifying him as an artist closely affiliated with a pop sensibility. Camp
has to be understood as coming from a decidedly queer position, from artists who reject the straight world — e.g. boring, predictable, and, as Smith
would say, "pasty"
— and in standing outside of that world they open up a new space of freedom not bound by convention. Writing about Smith
, the artist Nayland Blake
bluntly identifies camp as "an outsider's action of cultural resistance."
The notion of Camp
has, like everything else, mutated over time; a clear historical trajectory seems difficult to trace precisely because camp today bears little affinity with the transgressive. What we have now is a defanged version of transgression: straight-identified actors in drag as women as the most obvious example of the travesty of quote/unquote camp. This always pitiful attempt at "comedy"
has become not only normal but a lazy, opportunistic attempt for laughs, and the perfect example of how threatened straight men are of anything that appears to undermine their "authority,"
and over women as well as over other men. Even if Smith
titled one of his films Normal Love
, through a serious viewing of his work you come to understand that this is an artist for whom the idea of anything "normal"
is utterly appalling. He once and presciently wrote: "Normalcy is the evil side of homosexuality."
(And this decades before the Log Cabin Republicans
— Share a little wood.) Smith's early work prefigures that of the artists, playwrights, and directors who would emerge in the post-Stonewall era that ushers in women's liberation, gay rights, protest against the war in Vietnam, and the general state of disaffection that hung over America at the end of the '60s, along with an increased questioning of authority that would reach its high point with the humiliating resignation of Richard Nixon
. The painter Michael Krebber
has observed of this artist: "Jack Smith’s art seems to be anti-authoritarian – even his anti-authoritarianism is non-authoritative. There seems to be no mediation of any kind of ideology whatever. This would amount to generosity, and of the second order at that, for generosity is dispensed unstintingly. There doesn’t seem to be any kind of pedagogical program here, but real freedom."
8 As Smith
once famously proposed: "When you have police everything looks queer," and even more pointedly: "The police are there to preserve disorder."Smith
's contentious relation to money is legendary. Consider a statement made in 1974: "Everything should be free, and it could begin with art."
Maybe such a statement could only have been made all those years ago. But think about the dizzying prices paid for art today in an art market run amok, with millions of dollars routinely spent on paintings that have absolutely no guaranteed future value. More than thirty years ago, Smith
was genuinely troubled as he tried to negotiate the reality of art as Art, and art as private property, and of museums and collectors hiding away art from the public. He referred to capitalism as "Clapitalism,"
suggesting that the combined force of money and power was akin to a sexually transmitted disease, as well as to mere entertainment. Let's all applaud for the very highest price paid. Smith writes: "Clapitalism is when you must kill in order to earn a living."
(Earning a living as an artist involves some form of murder?). Krebber quotes Smith
from a 1974 performance for German TV: "So the artists compete for more and more useless ideas and the art becomes thinner and thinner as it is. They give nothing. They pretend they give you art and then take it away after two or three weeks. This is a disgusting performance when you think that art should be free. Everything should be free, and it could begin with art."
[Then pointing to a nearby museum] "Make that goddamn place open til midnight or put something interesting in it and keep it open 'til five in the morning."9 Smith, walking through the Cologne zoo, is wearing a large, colorful feathered hat. Matter-of-factly, he delivers mail to caged gorillas, walks past lethargic camels, declares that artists "only live to attract the spare change of the rich,"
and refers to collectors as "art scavengers."
He indicts the artist as "the playmate of the rich." Smith
, of course, was well-aware of how he himself was in a position to be for sale, and states flatly: "I can be rented."
Feb. 1963. Smith
, composer Tony Conrad
, and artist/musician Henry Flynt
protest at the Metropolitan Museum
, the Museum of Modern Art
, and Lincoln Center
. They carry signs that read: Demolish Serious Culture! Demolish Art Museums! Demolish Concert Halls!"Making art was never supposed to be easy. It really has to be very boring. How on earth do you think any of the masterpieces of the past were produced? In continual fits of ecstasy? No, it must become very, very boring, no matter what they say about ecstasy. It must become not only boring, but really, really, deadly boring. And it's the person that can live with that boredom and to continue to go on doing things that has the resources to deal with that boredom. That's what it takes to make art."
has hailed Smith as "the only true 'underground' filmmaker." Smith
himself would surely react: "Underground — that means they only bring you out once every ten years."
But of course Smith
didn't live to see his influence spread across time, one generation to another, from his time to ours — from the films of Ken Jacobs
(his early collaborator), George
and Mike Kuchar
, Andy Warhol
, and John Waters
, to the stagework of Richard Foreman
, Charles Ludlam and the Ridiculous Theater
, and Bob Wilson
, to the art of Mike Kelley
and Cady Noland
to name but a few. The Cockettes
, the theatrical/performance group active primarily in San Francisco in the late '60s/early '70s, and the glam rock of The New York Dolls
in the mid-to-late '70s each in their own way owe debts to Jack Smith
's sensibility. His proclamation "Glamorize your messes"
resonates deeply for the installations and sculpture of Karen Kilimnik
and Isa Genzken
, who could see the unrealized potential in the most mundane, discarded object, once declared: "Art is one big thrift shop."
(And who else but Smith
could turn a cheap plastic kiddie pool into an exotic lagoon?) When we think of much of the radical, "trashed"
art produced in the '80s and '90s, his remark proves prophetic indeed. Although we know that true visionaries are almost always lesser known than the artists they inspire, Smith
would surely find this a very bitter pill to swallow. Jack Smith
is a true visionary in every sense of the word. Welcome to his world of delirious unreal adventures. Let no one prevent disorder. Notes
1. Richard Foreman, During the Second Half of the Sixties, in Flaming Creature: Jack Smith, His Amazing Life and Times, Serpent's Tail, 1997, p. 26.
3. Jack Smith, Belated Appreciation of V.S., in Wait For Me at the Bottom of the Pool: The Writings of Jack Smith, High Risk Books, 1997, p. 43.
4. Survival Guide: J.G. Ballard, index magazine, Oct./Nov. 1996, p. 50.
5. Jack Smith, Belated Appreciation of V.S., in Wait For Me at the Bottom of the Pool, The Writings of Jack Smith, p. 42.
6. See J. Hoberman, Crimson Creatures, in his book, On Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures (And Other Secret—Flix of Cinemaroc, Granary Books/Hips Road, 2001, for a complete accounting of "The Case Against Flaming Creatures."
7. Nayland Blake, The Message From Atlantis, in Flaming Creature: Jack Smith, His Amazing Life and Times, p. 180.
8. Michael Krebber, press release for an exhibition at Greene Naftali, New York, 2006.
10. Jack Smith, 1984, as quoted by Edward Leffingwell, The Only Normal Man in Baghdad, in Flaming Creature: Jack Smith, His Amazing Life and Times, p. 86.
*Unless otherwise noted, all quotes of Jack Smith are from Statements, "Ravings," and Epigrams, compiled by Edward Leffingwell, in Wait For Me at the Bottom of the Pool: The Writings of Jack Smith, pp. 151-155.