PRINT October 1997

Marian Zazeela

In 1961 and part of ’62, I spent many long hours visiting Irving Rosenthal at his apartment on East Eighth Street near Avenue D. Irving had been editor of the Chicago Review and founder of Big Table, and he became a mentor for me. I was a year or so out of college, amicably separated from my first husband, Marc Schleifer, a writer and founding editor of Kulchur magazine, then away in Castro’s Cuba. I was struggling to continue to paint, to be an artist, holding down a part-time job at the Eighth Street Bookstore and living on Avenue C between Ninth and Tenth.

Irving had discovered Jack Smith and his trunk full of extraordinary photographs in the fall of ’61; he immediately recognized Jack as an artist of rare creative genius. Learning of Jack’s continuing need for models, Irving steered me and other friends to participate. I began attending the almost weekly Sunday shooting sessions at Jack’s Lower East Side apartment and continued through June ’62. Over those months Jack created an extraordinary series of photographs, nineteen of which were published by The Dead Language Press in a limited, handmade edition entitled The Beautiful Book, with one of my drawings silk-screened on the cover. Later in ’62, I came back with some of my friends to make a “cameo” appearance for the filming of Flaming Creatures, a role Jack had created for me especially to commemorate the work we had done together in his still photographs. Although Jack had written Flaming around me as the leading lady, invited me to create the calligraphy for the film titles and credits, and even painted the backdrop for it at my studio, my focus in life had changed abruptly in June when La Monte Young and I fell in love and began our lifelong partnership. It became impossible for me to play the role Jack had originally intended. Jack was crushed, but, moving forward, he cast my high-school boyfriend’s wife, Sheila Bick, as the leading lady, just to keep everything incestuous, and, in an inspired gesture, he used his movie camera to film the cameo stills of me enthroned as an exotic Goya “Maja” surrounded and idolized by a group of adoring men—my real-life friends and lovers.

Jack was an artist with an already fully formed aesthetic within which there was a role for me. It was a part that would have allowed the fulfillment of any impressionable, imaginative, ambitious young woman’s fantasy: to be a Star in a Great Work of Art, to be a Dietrich to his von Sternberg. The only requirement was a total devotion to his aesthetic, submission to its demands of focus and attention, and trust in the accuracy of his eye. This degree of devotion was possible only through a frenetic intimacy, and so in that relatively short time we developed a deep and, in some way, everlasting, bond.

We spent nights in long discussions about great art and seething interpersonal relationships and days going to movies together as he patiently indoctrinated me in his greatest passion. Access to good cinema was extremely limited back then; there were no Blockbuster video stores on every corner. Once we tried to get into a City College screening of von Sternberg’s The Scarlet Empress, obtaining a “letter of credentials” on Kulchur magazine stationery, but to no avail—the academes wouldn’t let us in. I had a subscription to Cinema 16, a film club that provided one of the few ways to see new art films, and we would travel all the way to the Upper West Side, to the New Yorker Theatre or the Thalia, to feed our hunger for fare like Dark Passage and The Maltese Falcon. When not traversing the city to see movies, we spent hours poring over contact sheets from the shooting sessions; I learned about Jack’s unerring sense of composition, how he cropped and turned the image to produce the desired balance of elements. There were endlessly protracted sittings with him applying makeup to my eyes and face in preparation for shooting, and the shootings themselves, those moments stretched to infinity spent holding a pose woven within whatever assemblage of bodies, body parts, tacky and exotic tapestries, and odd props were to be the elements of a particular night’s encounter. Each of these still-camera shooting sessions had a theme; my 1962 diary notations bring back the essence of those moments: “7 shots on white brocade tapis”; “7 shots, 6 photos on black with dotted goosie,” as Jack called the gossamer cloths he sometimes used for costumes; “Istanbul 1937”; “SS—Joel, Arnold, yellow lace goosie Ronnie—2 rolls”; “30s & sculpture”; “Piero & Angus—Moorish, pearled green veil—Cincinnati”; and the transformational revelation, charging the entire experience with its ultimate significance: “I look thru lens of camera!”

The psychodrama of the weekly sessions under Jack’s direction was extremely compelling. I became more and more fascinated, more and more deeply involved, until I was totally spellbound. Jack was the Blond Scorpion who took possession of my soul and thus could act through me. I had to question my very existence in the intensity of the relationship. In truth, though, there was a powerful exchange. Jack said it himself in one of his notes to me: “I gave you accomplishment in return for the beauty you gave me.”

Jack Smith was a master of transforming the banal into the sublime. He would compose us, his models, draped in outrageous “goosies,” made up to inspire the realization of his and our fantasies, into elaborate constructions of intertwined bodies. Then, as we strove to remain perfectly still in whatever contorted shape he had placed us for what seemed like an eternity, he would cajole us to turn up the juice a little more: “Project ecstasy!” he would entreat us, and ecstasy would flow from our pores into the chiaroscuro of his lens. A consummate director, Jack maintained with each of us a unique personal relationship, through which he could achieve the results he needed to create his photographic compositions—and through which, like an alchemist, he would transmute us from ordinary mortals into gods and goddesses, into Superstars, into Flaming Creatures of the night!

Marian Zazeela is an artist who creates environmental works in light.