A YEAR BEFORE his death from AIDS in 1989, performance artist, filmmaker, photographer, and gay icon Jack Smith declared: "The public doesn't want modern art. They never have and never will." This is largely true; the shrine to Tony 'n' Tina's Weddingis comparatively bigger than the shrine to Pina Bausch. A more relevant declaration, however, might be this: The public wants art. They just don't want it to be a pain in the ass. Which takes us back to Jack Smith, whose own work was often just that.
Smith was, and still is, a cult figure in the New York Lower East Side art ghetto. From the '60s through the '80s, in his photography, filmmaking, and performance art, Smith developed and spearheaded a kitschy, B movie-inspired aesthetic that broke into the arena of high art while augmenting its entertainment value. Some of the greatest figures of the avant-garde canon--Andy Warhol, Robert Wilson, Cindy Sherman, Richard Foreman, Ron Waters--were influenced by Smith's wacky artistic credos. (During the making of The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, Wilson's hours-long opera, Smith, who performed in certain versions of the work, suggested in his languid nasal drawl: "...make it...slow...er, Bob, much slower...er, just much slow...er.")
Smith remains best known for his 1962 film Flaming Creatures, a sort of delirious bacchanalia for transvestites dressed as vampires, beatniks, and Arabian princesses, set to pseudo-Oriental pageant music and featuring lots of bouncy breasts and errant penises. Perverse and absurd, Flaming Creatures was an ode to impropriety--of technique, presentation, subject, and outlook. It became a much-confiscated, underground hit.
Indeed, everything about Jack Smith was an ode to impropriety, as this book--in honor of a retrospective of the artist's work--makes plenty clear. Smith's spontaneous interweaving of life and art (most amusingly illustrated by the penguin doll Yolanda, a performance prop that for a while accompanied him everywhere) was an artistic choice that clearly had a broad margin of error. As in a rummage sale, a viewer must browse through this work, expecting to stumble through a fair amount of junk before striking gold--or even gold-plate and rhinestones. With Flaming Creature, as with Smith's art, skimming is advised.