Magazine article Artforum International

No Dice

Magazine article Artforum International

No Dice

Article excerpt

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 dose 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. …

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