On the opening night of Live Smith! Jack Smith!, the film chosen to inaugurate this five-day tribute to the cult filmmaker was a four-minute silent portrait of Smith himself, shot by Andy Warhol (ST 315, 1964). It was a poignant if somewhat extra-dignified introduction for the crowd that filled Berlin’s Arsenal theatre, who then were meant to contemplate in religious silence the hawkish features of the quintessential artist’s artist, dramatically lit from above.
Shot on black-and-white film, there isn’t much happening in Screen Test 315, aside from several reluctant glances at the camera until Smith finally musters an indeterminate smile. From the outset, and in the context of a retrospective-slash-symposium-slash-festival where more than 50 artists, scholars performers and former acquaintances are flown to Berlin to discuss, reassess and re-circulate Smith’s legacy, the disarming silence of its main subject invoked a ghost of the artist both effervescent and mocking.
Towards the end of the 1960s, Smith’s films—until then screened under typical viewing conditions—were incorporated into live performances. Smith even re-edited footage on the spot as the original reels were being projected. After Flaming Creatures was notoriously banned, Smith’s expanded cinema woud remain the well-kept secret of a dedicated audience.
This perpetual “director’s cut” got an abrupt end upon Jack Smith’s untimely death in 1989. Incorporated as The Plaster Foundation, Penny Arcade and J.Hoberman salvaged the heaps of material left in Smith’s apartment from the black hole of oblivion-and the garbage bin. They enlisted filmmaker Jerry Tartaglia to restore the kilometers of film Smith had stored, who later came into contact with the Arsenal and curators Susanne Sachse, Marc Siegel and Stefanie Schulte Strathaus. (LEFT: JACK SMITH, COLOGNE, 1974. COURTESY EXILE GALLERY)
Smith’s work originates in the feeble matter of dusty films, and the labels “scholar-interest” or “artist’s artist” were usually met with Smith’s defensive suspicion. Before introducing a screening of Normal Love (in its restored entirety—any other way would be like “taking a knife to a Carravaggio”) to a high celebrity-quotient festival audience, Tartaglia joked that Jack Smith “would be furious.”
“Landlordism” was a recurring term in Smith’s unique brand of avant la lettre institutional critique. Organized parallel to the festival, Kreuzberg’s Exile Gallery showed a series of black-and-white photographs by Gwenn Thomas, originally published as a storyboard in the avant-garde magazine Avalanche, with a video shot in 1974 by Birgit Hein for West German TV. Set in the Cologne Zoo and wearing what looks like colonial attire with outrageous Ostrich feathers, Jack Smith delivers a scathing, lucid account of the market forces that regulate the art world, all the while flinging crumpled sheets of paper.
Jack Smith’s subversive capacity also found incarnation outside of his filmography—if the distinction even applies. The Whitney Museum’s Callie Angell discussed Smith’s influence on Andy Warhol through accounts of their friendships. Rare stills taken from Batman Dracula, the artists’ 1964 collaboration that was left unfinished, and Smith embittered, were shown. In the black-and-white film Camp (1965), the Factory’s response to Susan Sontag’s eponymous essay, Smith appears as himself obsessing for an exaggerated amount of time around a plastic glass closet that contained solely a Batman comic book. On a separate occasion, Diedrich Diederichsen highlighted Smith’s singular resistance to “the temporal economy of cultural production”: challenging Warhol’s scripted timeframe, but also the private narrative smuggled via a thinly-veiled reference to Batman Dracula exemplified his ability to exceed even the elusive edges of camp.
Novelist, playwright and screenwriter Ronald Tavel—who founded The Theater of the Ridiculous with Jack Smith and wrote some of Warhol’s film masterpieces‚passed away last March. His play, “The Life of Juanita Castro” (1965), was performed with the exceptional participation of another special guest, superstar Mario Montez, marking the first public appearance in over thrity years of Jack Smith’s iconic muse. On the final night of the festival, Montez and Tony Conrad—who once shared an apartment in the lower east side of manhattan—were invited onstage in a talkshow-like setting for a casual conversation. Conrad, who gave the previous night a droning violin concert amidst a Smithian Arabian Nights decor, conveyed vivid memories of the New York avant-garde before poverty became fashionable. Anecdotes of stolen goods, crash pads and no heating brought to mind an amphetamine-fueled episode of Seinfeld, with Montez’s refined sincerity, attentive retenue and perfect timing unfailingly delighted the audience.
But until rumors that Spike Jonze will direct a movie based on Smith are confirmed, the conclusion belongs to Conrad in the statement that accompanies his current solo exhibition at Daniel Buchholz: “That’s all, folks…that’s every last remaining scrap of stolen Perutz Tropical Film that Jack Smith shot for F.C.”