New York

Jack Smith

The inclusion of Jack Smith in the Times Square Show may be a tribute to his capacity for inspiring successive waves of New York artists, but the three performances he gave were proof of his ability to alienate even sympathetic audiences. From the underground filmmakers of the early ’60s through Warhol to the Playhouse of the Ridiculous and beyond into performance and punk, Smith has been a tangible influence. As a subterranean artistic force and an eccentric personality he is the closest thing we have to an American Alfred Jarry. Smith makes no distinction between his life and his art and his subject has often been the failure of both. He typically gives his most sublime performances to near-empty houses and the Times Square Show gave him more visibility than he has had in years. The almost predictable result was that Smith precipitated a bewildering degree of chaos and artlessness into an environment dedicated to both.

The initial midnight performance of Exotic Landlordism of the World was packed to overflowing. The audience sat listening to a tape of kitschy “tropical” mood music, staring at an impoverished set (two lamps, a hanging sheet, a drape made from a plastic poncho) while the Brassiere Girls of Bagdad—a pair of garishly punk belly dancers—cajoled them to part with the requisite four dollars. It was 1:30 a.m. before Smith descended the stairs at the rear of the performance space, wrapped in a burnoose and carrying a container of coffee. He was joined by another dancer, Coral Lips, and a Brassiere Boy, called Steve Adore, whose spectacular costume—a blue and silver loincloth and plush pillow bikini—might have been fashioned from a couch in the Fontainebleau lobby.

Smith’s performances are often “rehearsals” pushed so far beyond the limits of endurance that they come to seem like quasi-religious rites. “I don’t ask people to act. It should be more like reacting to stimuli,” he once told an interviewer, while a press release for a never-performed work declared that “memorized speech is possibly the least dramatic thing that can happen on the stage.” So it was with Exotic Landlordism. After converting his coffee container into an incense burner , Smith rummaged around in a plastic shopping bag and finally produced a hefty manuscript. The bag was marked “Trick or Treat,” but this performance was not going to be the latter. Smith’s usual strategy—handing his performers an unfamiliar script and directing their reading of it on stage—was soon torpedoed by the crass heckling of the obstreperous Brassiere Girls. His initial indulgence soon turned into vague embarrassment, and after a while he retreated upstairs. At this, the B-girls and the two other performers burst into an energetically lewd display of free-form dancing, grabbing artworks from the show to use as props. The utter breakdown of the piece was sad and frightening. A woman sitting next to me left in tears. In an eerie bit of synchronism, the tape Smith had prerecorded for the show abruptly switched from musical exotica to the sounds of somebody screaming.

By 2:30 a.m., after the actors had exhausted themselves, and with the audience largely cleared out, Smith reappeared. He established himself as the dominant figure by standing on a chair and having Coral Lips darn the bright green Hawaiian shirt he was wearing. The B-girls and Steve Adore lay sprawled out at his feet making occasional wisecracks but were too tired to bid for control. Smith picked up the script and mumbled “I rubbed against the lamp and, uh, inadvertently summoned the genie.” Then, addressing the audience directly, he said, “Remember, I wanted it . . . both ways . . . I knew if I didn’t get much writing done on the play (”It would be us or nothing,“ Steve Adore interpolated] it would be . . .
surrealistic.” Smith continued for another 20 minutes with a slow, sarcastic diatribe against “brain pickers” and “the Sleazy Weekly News,” then disappeared.

Perhaps the strain of this performance drained Smith, for the subsequent shows were less confused and also less dramatic. The following night’s early performance featured a long interlude of Coral Lips dancing to the tape, while Smith changed in and out of his burnoose or wrestled with a brassiere. At one point he had Steve Adore read aloud from a children’s picture book of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. Ultimately, he presented Adore with the “Humility Award of Bagdad” and called for an intermission. I returned an hour later to find a new audience crammed into the storefront and the original Brassiere Girls storming out the door. Evidently they had attempted to rejoin the show, had been rejected by Smith and briefly debated with him on stage. (This was described to me as “a scene out of a ’40s movie” with the B-girls melodramatically insisting on their “right to explain.”) Coral Lips was dancing and Smith, muttering about “rented Brassiere Girls,” asked her if she would like to read from the biography of Yvonne De Carlo (an actress who, in Smith’s cosmology, is a sort of tenacious, pseudo-exotic Sammy Glick). The reading—an incredibly detailed bit-role by bit-role account of De Carlo’s rise to stardom—eventually emptied the house. As Smith vanished upstairs, Coral Lips and Steve Adore began a last frantic dance. Inadvertently they kicked over one of Smith’s hand made lamps and shattered it on the floor. It was an appropriate conclusion.

J. Hoberman