PRINT Summer 2019



Paul Swan performing movements from La Nostalgie Orientale, 1945. Photo: Jerry Cooke/LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images.

SINGULAR BEINGS LIKE THE DANCER, artist, and poet Paul Swan (1883–1972) are best approached with curiosity rather than a firm thesis. Those whose work has fallen out of favor—or whose tastes were out of step with their times—are often burdened with narratives of failure, of irrelevance, which anyone who understands the unpredictable values of art should dismiss outright. As Jack Smith, one of the great reader-recuperators of culture, wrote in his bravura encomium “The Perfect Filmic Appositeness of Maria Montez” (1962–63): “A highly charged idiosyncratic person (in films) is a rare phenomenon in time as well as quantity. Unfortunately, their uniqueness puts a limitation upon itself.” Giving Swan over for a moment to his own words, which appear in the foreword to his unpublished autobiography: “I dedicate this history to those who are magnificently misunderstood.” He would undoubtedly be tickled if he knew that playwright Claire Kiechel, his great-grandniece, had honored him with Paul Swan Is Dead and Gone, presented this past April and May by the Civilians at Torn Page, a parlor-size performance space in the Chelsea brownstone of actors Rip Torn and Geraldine Page. Weaving her own lines together with ones taken from Swan’s poems, letters, and interviews, as well as from his unpublished autobiography, Kiechel tenderly conjured something of his spirit for the stage—his words now uttered by other mouths, embodied here by Tony Torn—giving the present moment a reason to revisit and rethink his life and work. 

Paul Swan postcard, ca. 1920s. Photo: Dix.

Best remembered as an iconic camp figure and the star of Andy Warhol’s 1965 film Paul Swan, the dancer, lauded in his youth as “The Most Beautiful Man in the World,” was once an international sensation, traveling across the globe and giving recitals to great acclaim and with terrific drama. “‘Adonis’ Faints on Stage” read the headline of a brief but fervent 1914 New York Times report on a performance in which Swan was so “overcome by emotion and excitement” that he collapsed and had to be revived to finish. (“One would like to understand what is the chemistry which could create such perfection,” a reviewer would swoon two decades later.) He was largely untrained and, like Isadora Duncan and Ruth St. Denis, known as an “aesthetic dancer,” i.e., one who privileged affective gestures over traditional standards of technical prowess. His pieces, often inspired by classical tales from Greece and “the Orient,” were the products of his desire to create and live in a state of tingling sublimity: “I dance to express those subtle emotions and hidden meanings which help us to feel that life is somehow good and beautiful, and pass the news along.”

Andy Warhol, Paul Swan (detail), 1965, 16 mm, color, sound, 66 minutes. Paul Swan.

In 1960, Life magazine celebrated Swan as an “all-around man in the arts.” By that time, he was painting and sculpting, drawing and writing poems, but he was no longer enjoying the fame of his earlier years. He was in his late fifties, his features still striking but conceding his mortality. On Sunday evenings, he invited friends and colleagues to Carnegie Hall’s Studio 90, where he would dance and recite his poems in costume. Marcel Duchamp attended, as did Alexander Calder. Artist Robert Barnes recalled that, for him, the ne plus ultra of Swan’s oeuvre was a piece titled Bacchanal of the Sahara Desert, “in which he danced naked, virtually; he had veils, very gay. All by himself, he would do the bacchanal . . . loving his veils.” What Warhol shot was an iteration of Swan’s Sunday presentations staged for his camera.

Actors on the set of Andy Warhol’s Camp, the Factory, New York, 1965. Far left: Paul Swan. Photo: Steve Schapiro/Corbis via Getty.

In 1964, Susan Sontag injected “camp” into intellectual discourse with the publication, in the Partisan Review, of her contentious essay “Notes on ‘Camp,’” puncturing the word with scare quotes, deflating any definitive presence it might have, and observed that to speak authoritatively about such a loaded, coded, and complex sensibility was at once an embarrassment and a betrayal. The artificial, the ornamental, the melodramatic, the hyperbolic, the exotic: Camp wasn’t only a mode of production, of “Being-as-Playing-a-Role”; it was also a method of reading, of perceiving value where the midcult would see only bad taste, talentlessness, degeneracy.

The artificial, the ornamental, the melodramatic, the hyperbolic, the exotic: Camp wasn’t only a mode of production, it was also a method of reading.

In the fall of 1965, Warhol made both Paul Swan and Camp, two films that were undoubtedly triggered by Sontag’s weighty dissertation. (She stars in seven of his Screen Tests, which he shot the same year “Notes on ‘Camp’” appeared in print.) By contrast, Warhol’s Camp is a light variety show—think of it as “Scenes of Camp”—which the artist stages to define the term according to his sensibilities: Swan dances in a gladiator outfit with superstar Baby Jane Holzer; Mario Montez wears a flowery dress and sings “If I Could Shimmy like My Sister Kate”; Gerard Malanga reads “Camp,” a send-up of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”; Tally Brown does an impressive Yma Sumac imitation; and Smith plays the lead in a protracted sketch that begins with him asking, “Should I open the closet now, Andy?”

Paul Swan performing his 1913 dance The Sphinx, ca. 1930s–40s.

In his films, Warhol enforced a way of apprehending a performer, a performance, by holding his audience’s attention for the most part within a locked frame, without editing his footage; his reels were always projected in the raw. He formalized gawking as a cinematic pleasure, afflicting viewers with the staring problems of the starstruck. Billy Name, the Factory’s archivist and manager between 1964 and 1970, explained this effect to Wayne Koestenbaum: “People usually just go to the movies to see only the star, to eat him up, so here at last is a chance to look only at the star for as long as you like, no matter what he does, and to eat him up all you want to.” In Paul Swan, however, the leading man would be savored with pans and zooms, sometimes all at once. (As Douglas Crimp noted in his warm, insightful book, “Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol [2012], “Warhol’s preferred medium for depicting dancers was film.”) Paul Swan was also one of Warhol’s first color films, capturing the rich hues of the performer’s backdrop tapestry, the fading vibrancy of his handmade costumes, his kohl-rimmed eyes and pinked lips, the dull metals of his paste jewels, “all Woolworth’s best,” Swan jokes as he adorns himself. We see the entire proceedings, not only his dancing and poetry recitals but also his many costume changes—one for each discretely titled presentation. When not performing, Swan is aware of the passing of time, a bit anxious that his audience is sitting there without him or his art to watch. “It takes too long,” he moans to Warhol at one point, adding, “You can cut it down, can’t ya?” (Warhol wouldn’t, of course.) Swan’s perfectionism buffers the badgering he receives from the film crew, who remind him that the camera is still on; at one point, he playfully moons them when they try to hurry him along.

In the second half of the film, Swan’s off-camera search for a pair of missing shoes keeps Warhol and his cohort waiting, the camera left to linger on a folding chair on the empty stage. In an unintentional diva turn, Swan remains out of sight for fifteen minutes, the same amount of time for which Warhol predicted everyone in the future will be famous—a pitch-perfect performance of and by the man who introduces himself at the top of the film as “the most famous unknown person in New York.” To be at once invisible and the center of attention seems, in the context of the silver screen, the highest achievement of self-possession.

Page detail of the Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch, March 15, 1914. “Why They Call Me the Most Beautiful Man in the World.” Paul Swan.

Swan’s choreography is earnest, sweet, his gestures illustrative and easy to read: He pleads, wields his sword to stab his enemies, and supplicates to unseen gods above him. In abstract pieces such as The Elements: Earth, Water, Fire and Air—the Movements Seen and Unseen in Nature, his arms wave and rise and fall to the punctuating rhythms of his pianist. Toward the end of the movie, the camera follows Swan’s lead as he performs “French Country Dance,” panning left and right, zooming in and out, perhaps out of boredom from having watched him for almost an hour already, or perhaps wanting to join in the number. (As Warhol once declared: “I never wanted to be a painter. I wanted to be a tap dancer.”) In the final moments, Swan recites his own poems, until the reel runs out.

Some read Warhol’s film as a cruel record of aging, of disappeared beauty, of the inevitable obsolescence of an artist and an art form, with Swan cast as the death-averse Andy’s very own Dorian Gray. But the dancer had feelings about his own cultural status: “I have never seemed to live up to the exaltation of my inner vision save in brief flashes.” Pushing artifice and theatricality so far into the foreground, Swan couldn’t disappear into anything or anyone but himself. Let him live now not merely as an example of a sensibility, but as testament to a waning integrity: Despite any proof of success, the show must go on.

Jennifer Krasinski is a senior editor of Artforum.