Flaming Intrigue

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

For a couple of years, Hoberman continued writing to the Nephew, in care of Mary Sue Slater, mostly about the fundraising he had organized to restore, first Flaming Creatures, and then the contents of 47 film cans found in Smith's closet.

In 1990, Arcade called the Slaters, reached the husband, and was told never to call again.

In November 1992, Hoberman wrote Slater: "For nearly three years, I have been trying to place Jack's artistic effects with various not-for-profit institutions—a matter which has consumed considerable time and no small expense. . . . In each case, however, the institution would need to own this material outright. Would you be willing to relinquish your claim to these effects?" No one from the family ever replied to any of Hoberman's letters, sent by registered mail.

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

Hoberman had told the family in 1989 that Smith's work was both "priceless and worthless," a statement Mary Sue Slater and her son now cite in their depositions as if it had been said to mislead them. But the fact is that when Arcade and Hoberman began working with Smith's oeuvre, they found little art-world interest. Among the nonprofits Hoberman was referring to in his 1992 letter, only Anthology Film Archives was willing to take everything, and that wasn't exactly the optimal place. Aside from Smith's legendary animosity toward Anthology director Jonas Mekas, says Hoberman, "I didn't think they had the resources to conserve non-film material." New York University had expressed interest in the papers, and the Museum of Modern Art in the films. But even if Arcade and Hoberman had been willing to split up the work, they needed the Slaters to sign off on the agreement.

Over the years, my work has brought me into contact with all three members of the Plaster Foundation. I am no longer employed by The Village Voice, but Hoberman was once a colleague, and Arcade is part of the downtown performance scene I covered. Attorney Mary Dorman, who joined the foundation board in 1997, is the lawyer who represented Karen Finley in the artist's lawsuit against the National Endowment for the Arts—an issue I wrote extensively about for the Voice. So I was surprised and disturbed to learn that rumors were circulating through the art world about the Plaster Foundation selling Smith's work. I should also disclose that I first heard these rumors from Hoberman and Arcade themselves, who wanted to know where they came from. They say that they have sold, for example, prints of Flaming Creatures, but vehemently deny selling any original work. Since my own credibility is at stake here, I set out to track every rumor and print the facts, no matter how it made them look.

Hoberman and Arcade incorporated as the Plaster Foundation in 1997, needing a legal entity that could loan Smith's work to P.S.1 for the artist's first retrospective. According to Hoberman, who keeps the books, the foundation took in as much as $12,000 in the years when prints of Smith's films were first made available. (They had not been in circulation before.) And restoring the films was the first major expense. When Smith re-edited during screenings, he'd remove the take-up reel and re-splice footage on the spot, sometimes with masking tape or even duct tape. This had taken its toll on the celluloid. Restoration could not be done by volunteers.

Currently, Plaster Foundation expenses run about $8,000 to $9,000 a year (mostly to rent storage space), and film rentals have stabilized at $3,000 to $4,000, so they are operating in the red. Copyrights on four completed books (the P.S.1 catalog, for example) also belong to the Plaster Foundation, which will earn any royalties.

Rumors about the Plaster Foundation selling work proved hard to track, however, because most amounted to "they're selling work," with no specifics provided. Specifics that were provided did not check out. The Smith photo sold at auction at Swann Galleries (for $3,680) on February 17 came from a European collector. Shows at Mitchell Algus and Marianne Boesky featured Smith artwork owned by his friends. (Only the Algus work was for sale.) The Smith pieces exhibited at Matthew Marks last summer were on loan from the Plaster Foundation and not for sale. No one I spoke to knew of any original work sold by the Plaster Foundation.

A couple of years ago, Hoberman and Arcade were approached by a collector who has a relationship with two prominent museums. Because the foundation was broke, they actually considered selling a couple of pieces—on condition that the collector place the work in one of the museums. They didn't know what price to ask, so they consulted Jeffrey Peabody at Matthew Marks. "My answer was, there's nothing to go on," said Peabody. "There's no sales history. Nothing's ever been sold." In the end, they didn't sell anything.

If the Plaster Foundation made any mistake, it was in not keeping the Slater family connected. The P.S.1 show, for example, changed Smith's image from cult figure to visionary, and no doubt enhanced the value of his work. But the Slaters never even knew about it.

After nearly four years of no response from the family, Arcade and Hoberman turned to Dorman, and she focused her attention on the public administrator, an official who represents those dying intestate. (No response there either.) Hoberman and Arcade then filed notices of claim against the estate totaling $250,000—now used by the sister's supporters as evidence of their greed. But there was no money to be gotten. The claim was Dorman's idea, a way to get the P.A. to respond. But the P.A. never responded.

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