Jack Smith (film director)
November 14, 1932|
|Died||September 25, 1989
New York City, New York,
|Field||film, photography, performance art|
|Works||Flaming Creatures (1963)|
|Influenced||Andy Warhol, John Waters, David Lynch, Matthew Barney, Richard Foreman, Robert Wilson, Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley, Pipilotti Rist, Nan Goldin, Lee Breuer, Laurie Anderson, Lou Reed,
John Cale, David Byrne,
pop art, punk rock
Jack Smith (November 14, 1932 in Columbus, Ohio – September 25, 1989 in New York City) was an American filmmaker, actor, and pioneer of underground cinema. He is generally acclaimed as a founding father of American performance art, and has been critically recognized as a master photographer, though his photographic works are rare and remain largely unknown.
Smith was one of the first proponents of the aesthetics which came to be known as 'camp' and 'trash', using no-budget means of production (e.g. using discarded color reversal film stock) to create a visual cosmos heavily influenced by Hollywood kitsch, orientalism and with Flaming Creatures created drag culture as it is currently known. Smith was heavily involved with John Vaccaro, founder of The Playhouse of The Ridiculous, whose disregard for conventional theater practice deeply influenced Smith's ideas about performance art. In turn, Vaccaro was deeply influenced by Smith's aesthetics. It was Vaccaro who introduced Smith to glitter and in 1966 and 1967, Smith created costumes for Vaccaro's Playhouse of The Ridiculous. Smith's style influenced the film work of Andy Warhol as well as the early work of John Waters. While all three were part of the 1960s gay arts movement, Vaccaro and Smith refuted the idea that their sexual orientation was responsible for their art.
Smith has also been referenced by artists such as Laurie Anderson, Cindy Sherman and Mike Kelley, filmmakers David Lynch and Matthew Barney, photographer Nan Goldin, musicians John Zorn, Lou Reed and David Byrne, and theatre director Robert Wilson. Theater legend Richard Foreman writes, 'Jack Smith is the hidden source of practically everything that's of any interest in the so-called experimental theatre today.'
The most famous (and arguably the most notorious) of Smith's productions is Flaming Creatures (1962). The film is a satire of Hollywood B movies and tribute to actress Maria Montez, who starred in many such productions. However, authorities considered some scenes to be pornographic. Copies of the movie were confiscated at the premiere and it was subsequently banned (technically, it still is to this day). Despite not being viewable, the movie gained some notoriety when footage was screened during Congressional hearings and right-wing politician Strom Thurmond mentioned it in anti-porn speeches.
Smith's next movie Normal Love was the only work in Smith's oeuvre with an almost conventional length (120 mins.), and featured multiple underground stars, including Mario Montez, Diane di Prima, Tiny Tim, Francis Francine, Beverley Grant, John Vaccaro, and others. The rest of his productions consists mainly of short movies, many never screened in a cinema, but featured in performances and constantly re-edited to fit the stage needs (including Normal Love).
Apart from appearing in his own work, Smith worked as an actor. He played the lead in Andy Warhol's unfinished film Batman Dracula, Ken Jacobs's Blonde Cobra, and appeared in several theater productions by Robert Wilson.
He also worked as a photographer and founded the Hyperbole Photographic Studio in New York. In 1962, he released The Beautiful Book, a collection of pictures of New York artists, that was re-released by Granary Books.
After his last film, No President (1967), Smith created performance and experimental theatre work until his death on September 25, 1989 from AIDS-related pneumonia.
In 1989, Penny Arcade, New York performance artist and former Warhol superstar tried to salvage Smith's work from his apartment after his long bout with AIDS and subsequent death, as per Smith's request. Arcade attempted to preserve the apartment as Smith had transformed it - an elaborate stage set for his never to be filmed epic "Sinbad In a Rented World" - as a museum dedicated to Jack Smith and his work. This effort failed.
In 1992, performer Ron Vawter recreated Smith's performance "What's Underground about Marshmallows" in Roy Cohn/Jack Smith which he presented in a live performance and which was later released as a film directed by Jill Godmilow and produced by Jonathan Demme.
Until recently, Smith's archive was co-managed by Arcade, alongside the film historian J. Hoberman via their corporation, The Plaster Foundation, Inc. Within ten years of Smith's death, the Foundation, operating largely without funding but through donations and good will, was able to restore all of Smith's films, create a major retrospective curated by Edward Leffingwell at PS 1, the Contemporary Arts Museum, now part of MOMA, put his films back into international distribution, and publish several books on Jack Smith and his work.
In January 2004, the New York Surrogate Court ordered Hoberman and Arcade to return Smith's archive to his legal heir, estranged, surviving sister Sue Slater. Hoberman and Arcade fought to dismiss Slater's claim, arguing that she abandoned Jack's apartment and its contents; the Plaster Foundation created the archive and took possession of the work only after 14 years of repeated, documented attempts at communication with her. In a six-minute trial, Judge Eve Preminger rejected the Foundation's argument and awarded the archive to Slater.
By October 2006, the Foundation had still refused to surrender Smith's archive to the estate, claiming money owed them for expenses associated with managing the archive—and hoping Smith's work would be bought by an appropriate public institution that could safeguard his legacy and keep the works in the public eye. According to curator Jerry Tartaglia, the dispute was finally resolved as of 2008, with the purchase of Smith's estate by the Gladstone Gallery.
Quotations about Smith 
- "Jack oozed his aesthetic. And you either knew exactly what Jack wanted or you weren't interested in that scene. Andy [Warhol] picked up that you don't really have to direct people. You have to get them into the sense of what you are doing." Billy Name
- "Jack Smith inspired Charles Ludlam, of the 1960s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, and also inspired Hibiscus to move out to San Francisco and found the Cockettes." Cited in article about Antony Hegarty, who was tracing his own "family tree," including what he had learned of it from his teacher Martin Worman, a former member of the Cockettes.
Selected filmography 
- By Jack Smith
- 1952 Buzzards over Baghdad 
- 1961 Scotch Tape
- 1963 Flaming Creatures (b/w, 46 min.)
- 1963 Normal Love (120 min.)
- 1967 No President (a/k/a The Kidnapping of Wendell Wilkie by The Love Bandit, ca. 50 min.)
- With Jack Smith as actor
- 1960 In Ken Jacobs's Little Stabs at Happiness.
- 1963 In Ron Rice's Queen of Sheba Meets the Atom Man.
- 1964 In Ron Rice's Chumlum.
- 1966 In Warhol's "Hedy" starring Mario Montez and Mary Woronov,
- 1974 In Ted Gershunny's "Silent Night Bloody Night" starring Mary Woronov, Patrick O'Neal, John Carradine, Candy Darling, Ondine, and Tally Brown
- 1989 In Ari Roussimoff (Frankenhooker)'s Shadows in the City.
- About Jack Smith
- 2006 Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis Documentary written, directed and co-produced by Mary Jordan.
- By Jack Smith:
- 1960 16 Immortal Photos
- 1962 The Beautiful Book (dead language press, republished 2001 Granary Books)
- About Jack Smith
- Leffingwell/Kismaric/Heiferman (eds.), Flaming Creature: Jack Smith, His Amazing Life and Times, London: Serpent's Tail, 1997
- J. Hoberman, On Jack Smith's 'Flaming Creatures' (And Other Secret-Flix of Cinemaroc), New York: Granary Books, 2001
- J. Hoberman and Edward Leffingwell (eds.), Wait For Me At The Bottom Of The Pool: The Writings Of Jack Smith, New York and London: High Risk Books and PS1, 1997
- Dominic Johnson, "Glorious Catastrophe: Jack Smith, Performance and Visual Culture", Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2012
- About Jack Smith
- D. Reisman, "In the Grip of the Lobster: Jack Smith Remembered", Millennium Film Journal 23/24, Winter 1990-91.
- Als, Hilton (2009-11-16), "Talk Talk: Richard Foreman puts language onstage", The New Yorker
- "Film Examines Art-World Provocateur" By David Ebony, Art in America, May '07, p.47. Retrieved 2-3-09. Includes photos of Smith in pre-production for Flaming Creatures and in Shadows in the City.
- Jones, Sonya L. (1998), Gay and Lesbian Literature Since World War II: History and Memory, Haworth Press, p. 18, ISBN 0-7890-0349-X
- Jack Smith - Les Evening Gowns Damnees - 56 Ludlow Street 1962-1964, Volume I and Jack Smith - Silent Shadows On Cinemaroc Island - 56 Ludlow Street 1962-1964 Volume II Label: Table of the Elements. CDs released in 1997
- Holden, Stephen (1992-05-03), "Two Strangers Meet Through an Actor", New York Times
- Holden, Stephen (1995-08-04), "2 Extremes of Gay Life", New York Times
- Jordan, Mary. Interview with George Kuchar. Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis. 2006. Retrieved on 2007-11-04.
- Jordan, Mary. Interview with Laurie Anderson. Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis. 2006. Retrieved on 2007-11-04.
- Jordan, Mary. Interview with John Waters. Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis. 2006. Retrieved on 2007-11-04.
- Jordan, Mary. Interview with John Zorn. Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis. 2006. Retrieved on 2007-11-04.
- Factory Made: Warhol and the Sixties, Steve Watson, Pantheon Books (2003)
- "Antony Finds His Voice" by John Hodgman, The New York Times Magazine, September 4, 2005. Retrieved 2-3-09.