New York

Jack Smith

The pleasure and the interest of this small exhibition of drawings, photographs, and ephemera from the collection of artist Edwin Ruda and Maria Antoinette, Smith’s former friend and superstar, result from its focus. These letters, sketches of costume designs, cut-and-paste flyers for midnight performances, etc., document a friendship and collaboration coinciding with the hyperactive years (1969–71) of the Plaster Foundation, Smith’s live-in, self-run theater on Greene Street. Antoinette, a Mescalero Apache who acted in Brassieres of Atlantis and other Smith shows during that time, embodies the legendary polyartist’s sequined, shamanistic B-rituals with sexy intelligence and a conspiratorial sense of humor. In one series of snapshots, the two accessorize a subway car with fishing nets and a copy of the Daily News announcing Sharon Tate’s murder by the Manson family as they ride out to Coney Island. Performance stills document a topless Antoinette in golden miniskirt and cone-shaped hat, down on all fours as she receives some kind of dada sacrament from a sombrero’d, towering, flamenco-panted Smith; the scene unfolds on a tabletop that makes the performers seem to levitate over the notorious junk pile that served as the Plaster Foundation’s stage. These glimpses evoke the mad magic of Smith’s visionary, self-destructing, sparsely attended multimedia spectacles, as well as his experimental blurring of the line between performance and daily life. In a framed letter to Antoinette following a botched rendezvous, Smith rants about love and treachery, exposing the viewer to the sometimes paranoid extremes of a relationship which today would be called dysfunctional but which at the time was how people got along when they were busy collaborating in the epic construction of queer, volcano-powered, lobster-colored dream weapons against landlordism of all kinds.

In the drawings and flyers—some of them variations on a repeated landscape featuring a volcano and a palm tree—Smith’s baroque lines pause to trace Moroccan motifs or a high-heeled shoe before flying off into stoner zigzags, spiraling puffs of smoke, or dot patterns, then morph into wild lettering somewhere between the cheap exoticism of B-movie credits and a handwritten sign for a yard sale. These clue us in to the world of his shows with promises like “music, wine, nudity, $2.00” or glamorize their own seedy disarray: “Ploduction problems due to DA-GLO paint not drying beclause of Clammy weather causing Opening of Clamercials of Clapitalism to be changed to Aug. 2.” Such artifacts can be viewed either as outsiderish drawings that resonate perfectly with the look of any market-friendly, post-MFA art showing today or as working notes toward, daily elaborations upon, and traces of not a product or even a project but the total process that Smith never stopped abandoning himself to.

There are reasons why a difficult and uncontainable figure like Jack Smith has been subjected to so many posthumous resuscitations as a gallery artist in recent years. One is the current craze for drawing and the retro appeal of everything handcrafted. Another is that galleries today will exhibit anything, no matter how supposedly countercultural in style or content, as long as the product can be moved and shown with ease. Every piece on view here, for example, comes to us radically divorced from its intended function, and from a desire and a working method that are irreconcilable with the sanitized and simplified treatments Smith’s work is often given today. To show and like this stuff now is fine and normal. But Smith definitely was not.

John Kelsey