Flaming Intrigue

What’s happening to the legacy of an avant-garde legend?

On January 30, Surrogate Court Judge Eve Preminger ruled that the archive of Jack Smith belongs, in effect, to the artist's younger sister, a 70-year-old Texas housewife named Mary Sue Slater.

Auteur of the notorious Flaming Creatures, performance artist before such a term existed, photographer of unlikely incandescences, "the Alfred Jarry of the East Village," Smith died without a will in 1989.

Known to the cognoscenti but incapable of promoting himself, Smith influenced many who became more famous. He gave Robert Wilson his glacial pacing. He gave Andy Warhol the idea of using non-actors for his films and incorporating mistakes. Smith was the original DIY artist, scavenging on the streets to get material for props, sets, and costumes. A chapter called "The Sheer Beauty of Junk" in Stefan Brecht's Queer Theatre sets Smith up as the forefather to Charles Ludlam, John Waters, and others who dared to mix the sublime with the Ridiculous. Richard Foreman called him "the hidden source of practically everything that's of any interest in the so-called experimental American theater today."

The director in 1964
photo: Fred McDarrah
The director in 1964

Born in 1932, Smith came of age with other cultural rebels, but he wasn't so much unwilling as genuinely unable to conform. What interested him was that state of mind one enters while creating, and that's what he wanted to show on stage or screen. He didn't care about finished products. He made the most important avant-garde film in America, then never completed any of his other films. He was known for actually re-editing during screenings. As for performances, no two were alike. He did not believe in acting, which was "hoodwinking," or in memorizing lines, which rendered one "a mynah bird."

In his manifesto, "The Perfect Film Appositeness of Maria Montez," Smith explained that the B-movie actress became his muse because she could not act. Instead, she believed—in her own beauty, infusing her dreadful filmography with what Smith saw as "imaginative life and truth." Emulating his idol, Smith made his own persona the center of each performance, and dressed for Montezland, usually a faux desert, as a sheikh or a pharaoh. Smith had a consistent worldview, and his shows, for all their exoticism, came from his daily obsessions. Many dealt, for example, with landlordism, "the central social evil of our time." He did not understand why people had to keep endlessly paying. Thus, his Hamlet (never realized, sadly) would have been titled Hamlet and the 1001 Psychological Jingoleanisms of Prehistoric Landlordism of Rima-Puu.

Since Smith's death, his film, scripts, costumes, photos, drawings, posters, props, slides, and ephemera have been looked after by performance artist Penny Arcade, a friend of his, and J. Hoberman, Voice film critic (author of the Jarry quote above) and long a champion of Smith's work. In 1997, Arcade and Hoberman formed an entity to preserve and promote Smith's art—the Plaster Foundation, named after the Greene Street loft where the artist once lived and staged many a midnight show.

Currently, the parties are trying to reach a settlement, so the story would appear to be cut-and-dried. But no. It's been a strangely Smithian drama of indirection. An old friend of Smith's actually set the sister's lawsuit in motion from behind the scenes. After years of caring for Smith's work, unpaid, Hoberman and Arcade have been rewarded with attacks on their integrity.

Mary Sue Slater last saw her brother in 1956. In the deposition she filed to recover the archive, she testified that her husband "did not approve of Jack's homosexual lifestyle and did not want our sons to be tainted by it"—though Slater now seems troubled by this characterization. One of her sons clarified: "That goes back to the '50s and '60s," adding, "Jack chose to alienate himself." Indeed, Mary Sue Slater does not remember ever getting a letter from her brother.

Their mother passed information to her—though not, for example, about the Flaming Creatures scandal that made Smith infamous. (The film was banned as obscene in 1964 and denounced on the Senate floor by Strom Thurmond.) By the time their mother died in 1976, Slater did not even know where her brother lived. She came to New York to look for him, "went around to the addresses I had, and no one had ever heard of him." Smith did not turn up at his mother's funeral, but the lawyer for her estate located him about a year later by running an ad in the Voice. Brother and sister had a last talk, on the phone, in 1980.

"He turned against me because I was normal," Slater speculates. "That's the only thing I can think of. Because he hated normal people." Still, she was distraught at her brother's death from AIDS. She hadn't even known he was ill. "I just went into a funk because it brought up all the way our life turned out. It's sad."

Her first visit to Smith's sixth-floor walk-up the day after his memorial must have been bewildering. The artist had been in the process of turning his East Village railroad flat into a set for his never-to-be-filmed Sinbad in a Rented World. He'd converted door frames into Moorish arches, camouflaged the bathroom as a Tahitian garden with thousands of plastic vines and plants, and painted a Scheherazade figure with three breasts (and embedded custom-made bra) on his living room wall. Here Mary Sue Slater first encountered Penny Arcade (a/k/a Susana Ventura).

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