PRINT October 1997

Rene Ricard

Jack Smith always wanted to be a fashion photographer. None of his fashion photos have surfaced. Of course his best stills are like fashion shots—but fashion shots from another civilization. It’s not as though Jack failed at becoming a fashion photographer for want of trying. He claimed to have actually brought his portfolio to art directors’ offices.

“Then they always say the same thing—casually: ‘Leave your portfolio over the weekend.’ They might as well just keep the portfolio because when they do return it it’s been raped, stripped of every idea.”

I suppose this could be a brutal dilemma. For Jack Smith it was paralyzing: if you actually produce work, people are liable to see it; if they see it they might be influenced by it, and could even start to copy you. Jack didn’t see his audience in terms of potential admirers. They were parasites sucking up his “ideas.” “I won’t fertilize them.” Jack’s tone of voice was an impressionist’s delight.

This morbid terror—paranoia is too mild a term—of not being unique made him a difficult collaborator. Definitely a shortcoming in a film director. He could be reluctant to let his actors know what he wanted of them. His actors, though, would put up with anything. When you look at the human refuse he preferred as stars—Joel Markman was the single most repellent human being I have ever met; and Joel was a major star at J. Smith Studios—Jack could totally dominate them by dangling before their eyes the jewel of transformation. One would put up with any humiliation to not be, for one exquisite moment, Joel Markman, to become instead a Watermelon Sprite, or in the case of John Vaccaro, a Milk-Bat Invading the Mermaid’s Milk-Bath.

For truly Jack Smith created worlds of immaculate beauty—a world apart, albeit one grounded in the movies of Maria Montez. He was the repository of a vast amount of film lore. Jack Smith was to Republic Pictures what an idiot savant is to square roots.

His own movies were, for all their seeming opulence, often marvels of economy. In Jack’s hands one sequin could become a thousand nights and a night; one dripping red candle, the blood of a thousand slaves; one marijuana plant, a jungle; one nose—well, it was Jack’s nose—two noses.

Jack just pitched his camp a little too close to the frontier of Life and Art. For Jack the supreme insult was “Careerist.” For him the word contained a lifetime of contempt. I think it also implied success and, to me anyway, seemed to express a great artist’s jealousy of mediocrity—success made you mediocre. On his deathbed he called Allen Ginsberg “a walking career” to his face. (How sad to have to clarify; it was Jack’s deathbed.) But Jack, I’m afraid to mention, was also obsessed with his career, except that his striving was inverted: his will was to fail. Andy Warhol once said, “We always think of people starting at the bottom and working their way up. What about someone who starts at the top and works their way down?” He was talking about Edie Sedgwick at the time, but in a way it seems to apply just as well to Jack.

It’s strange to look back now and remember how in the early ’60s film aesthetics seemed so neatly split between Warhol and Jack Smith. The apparent antithesis made an entire and rich culture. Where Andy was slick and shiny, Jack was, in his own words, “moldy and pasty.” They shared, however, one profound and startling similarity: a capacity for slogging through great unrelieved stretches of film time. And at one point they were equally famous. But Jack didn’t see Andy as a complement. Jack had to make Andy a vampire. And whose blood? That’s right—always Jack’s.

Once, at a party for Candy Darling, in the middle of a dance, Jack threw a glass of straight vodka in my face. Sure, it was all gesture, but the alcohol burned and I was the only one who could appreciate this nicety. In a way this was the essence of Jack’s art: the costar and the audience were one and the same, and both had to come to harm. Bear in mind that Jack was at the vanguard of the make-the-audience-suffer period of early performance art. When the audience represents a one-on-one confrontation at the crossroad of life and art, style and substance are reduced to less than a vapor. So Jack would win this battle (and preclude any theft) by reducing his art to a minimal gesture, winding up chopping onions in front of a paying audience (as he did in “What’s Underground about Marshmallows?” at the Theater for the New City in October 1981). Perhaps this was the greatest thing he ever did. I’ve heard it said. To me it was just Jack offering neither style nor grace or even the Jack Smith touch, so that the lousy parasitic audience would have nothing to take home and no ideas would be stolen. Perhaps a sparkling moment in art history was reached—but it’s only history in the retelling. You end up sacrificing so much for art that you end up sacrificing the art itself.

And let’s not forget government interference. Flaming Creatures was tried for obscenity, in 1964. Already paranoiac, the trial pushed him just that much farther out. He was being pursued: not the healthiest psychological environment for a pothead. Keep in mind that after the massive publicity of the Flaming Creatures trial Jack was in the same category, both artistically and in the public’s perception, as Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. He’d become a culture-hero, a coiner of the shibboleths of hip. So what does he do for a follow-up? Nothing. He shoots endless reels—hours in fact—of the most beautifully mounted footage the world will never see: Normal Love, one of the great rumors of art history. At one point there were four hours of Normal Love. I got occasional glimpses. All he had to do was show the damn footage. No, Jack insisted on an overtantalized audience. The audience was expected to remain pumped up under the merest suspicion that somehow it would stumble on the incredible privilege—there was footage out there someplace, rumors, hadn’t a superior group, an elite, managed to glimpse a 2:00 AM screening? And then it was the ’70s.

And then it was the ’80s. Jack still wanted fame and still managed to produce art that always contained at least one element that would guarantee its failure.

Then, charisma on autopilot, Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures became a solo act. Act 3; Scene 3—on the road as a performance artist dragging his act, “the authentic SoHo loft act,” through every continental backwater, holing up for months on end in Genoa.

Of course, by necessity, this is written from a careerist point of view in the sense that the intense solipsism the Jack Smith experience embodies is largely inaccessible to me. But not totally. Somehow the entire “Beauty” apparatus broke down around him and Jack was left, purely and simply, with himself, becoming in the process a pioneer performance artist—an intensification of self. So what kind of trade-in is that—creatures in flaming decadence for one middle-aged man chopping onions in an empty punk-rock bar?

Oh, before I forget. I wasn’t entirely candid at the beginning of this little reminiscence. That is, it occurs to me that I did once see what may have been a Jack Smith fashion photo. A while back one of Jack’s old stars found a portfolio of these photographs. All told there were four, three black and white and one color. They were, typically, a mess. I think they’d actually gone through afire, but water damage was the least of it. They were beautiful—prime ’59—’60 Jack Smith. Creatures, lots of creatures. Except one that was dull, dull, dull. That is, unless you look at it as a fashion photo circa 1959: in extreme close-up a pretty blonde girl in an organza picture hat. She is backlit and every hair is in place. Her expression is smug and self-satisfied on a bright summer day. Then you notice she is not alone in the picture; leaning in under the soft shadow of her hat longing yet hardly daring to place a kiss on her soft cheek is the face of an attractive and light-skinned black man.

As Cardinal Newman once said: “Hannibal’s elephants never could learn the goose-step.”

Rene Ricard is a poet based in New York.