‘He Saved Every Scrap’: Barbara Gladstone on Acquiring Jack Smith’s Archive

Jack Smith, circa 1958 and reprinted in 2011.  COURTESY JACK SMITH ARCHIVE/GLADSTONE GALLERY

Jack Smith, circa 1958 and reprinted in 2011.


In this week’s Talk of the Town, The New Yorker’s Emma Allen speaks with New York and Brussels gallerist Barbara Gladstone regarding her purchase of the late Jack Smith’s entire archive. The “only true underground filmmaker,” according to John Waters, died at the age of 56 from AIDS-related pneumonia before creating an official will, which legally left his possessions to an estranged sister in Texas. Concerned about her intentions, Smith’s friends secretly removed most of his belongings from his apartment and locked them in a storage unit.

The sister finally hired a lawyer, and legal proceedings ensued until 2008, when Gladstone swooped in and bought the entire archive after learning about it from documentarian Mary Jordan, who made the documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis in 2007.

Gladstone remarks on the fascinating discrepancy between Smith’s anti-ownership philosophy—an objection to a system he termed “Landlordism”—and the fact that he held on to so much of his work:

To me, the biggest amazement when I looked at everything was that for someone as iconoclastic as that, who didn’t care for the system, he saved every scrap. He cared about posterity, or else throw it away! Every little napkin…

Though Gladstone has acquired all of Smith’s sellable work, N.Y.U.’s Fales Library will be receiving everything else—miscellany like flyers advertising “A BOILED LOBSTER RAINBOWRAMA COLOR LIGHT BATH WITH ORCHID LAGOON MUSIC,” informational brochures on living with AIDS, or a script for a film called Secrets of the Cocktail World.

In the opening paragraph, Allen cites Waters, Andy Warhol, Laurie Anderson, Robert Wilson, Matthew Barney, Cindy Sherman, and Ryan Trecartin as people who had either worked with Smith or been influenced by him, or both—“to name a few.” While his most famous work to date is 1963’s Flaming Creatures (seized by police during its premiere on charges of obscenity), one wonders how Smith is not a more well-known figure of underground cinema and experimental performance, when his introduction to Secrets, for example, so brilliantly reads:

This is the story of Viola Vayne, one of the world’s richest women. She was possessed of eternal youth and was secretly a transvestite. She existed in the cocktail world and lived solely to be rude to social climbers. The Cocktail World! Where affected rapture greets the suggestion of cocktails with all the ecstasy usually reserved for announcing the brand names of new products to one’s friends.

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