Free for All

William Pym on Jack Smith and Frisbee

New York

Left: Artist Carlton de Woody and “Frisbee” curator Anat Ebgi. (Photo: Alexandre Singh) Right: Mary Jordan.

On Friday night, I found myself in a newly renovated loft above the former McBurney YMCA on Twenty-third Street, ambling among the candles and lace that filmmaker Mary Jordan had strewn about liberally in loving tribute to underground film nonpareil Jack Smith. The event was ostensibly a showcase for edited segments of Jordan’s forthcoming documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis; refreshingly, on a weekend during which it seemed that everyone in New York was selling something, the only thing on offer here was Smith’s dream of absolute beauty in an anything-goes environment. If that sounds corny, you probably haven’t seen Flaming Creatures. Sure, the people wandering around dressed like pharaohs with neon piping on their costumes were distressing (“Burning Man regulars,” one guest muttered), but Smith would have loved it, and, after all, we were there in his honor. “I wouldn’t be here today without Jack Smith,” said Christopher Tanner, an artist whose recent exhibition at Pavel Zoubok was the only gig in town that rivaled this one in silent-era-style sparkle. “Jack Smith was my mother,” he clarified. Taking notes and wearing a tie, I felt hampered by taste and propriety and so retired to a corner, where a woman I’d never seen before sat on my lap, poked around my notebook, and began waxing a mile a minute on the wonders of Smith. This was Mary Jordan. “You have to lie on the opium bed,” she told me, and soon enough we were in a darkened room, sharing a pouf on a recliner that could have fit ten people. This, I figured, was as close as I would ever come to life, circa 1962, in Smith’s East Village loft. Incisive, well-edited interviews about art and capitalism were projected high onto the wall across from us, and, while Mike Kelley, Andres Serrano, Nayland Blake, et al opined on the artist’s struggle for expressive autonomy, Jordan spritzed the air with verbal glitter. She had a knack for pitch-perfect malapropisms, saying “tintillating” and “venomently” with breathless authority. “Here is a place where we can find beauty,” she said, lolling with me while the party circled around us. “Smith was a master of ambiance for everyone.” She also told me that Richard Prince has just signed on to executive produce her film. We cannot wait.

Left: Artists Jen DeNike (in yellow), Sabrina Gschwandtner, and Peter Coffin. (Photo: Alexandre Singh) Right: Costumed revelers at the Jack Smith party.

Much as I would have loved to continue lounging on the opium bed indefinitely, I had to rouse myself from my reverie and head down the hall to the opening party for Frisbee, the newest of the young gypsy organizations that follow art fairs and pitch their tents next door. Like ~scope and NADA, Frisbee aims to offer an approachable, affordable alternative to the big brands in the main arena. Its bash was anarchic, too, if less utopian in tone than Smith’s. Chelsea-lit and -slick, the displays were geared keenly toward the collectors circulating through the crowd. The well-dressed curator Anat Ebgi scolded me when I put a bottle of beer on a shelf. Fair enough in the context, I suppose. Ebgi had picked a few good-value knockoffs, including Justin Lowe’s carpet of stacked pulp paperbacks—mellow, loved-up Cornelia Parker—and a painting of a naked teen, isolated in the terror of the American lawn, that was a passable miniature homage to Eric Fischl. Who knew art students are looking at Fischl again? Shudders all around. There was knockout work, too, namely, Chris Verene and Christian Holstad’s video, a long home movie of (I’d venture to guess) a new-age baptism. Its action simultaneously evoked ballet class, Montessori schools, revival meetings, toddler birthday parties, and recovered cult-suicide tapes; I could have watched it all night. Completely fucked-up, completely without pretension, and willing to go anywhere. Jack Smith’s specter looms large.