Flaming Intrigue

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

The family came back into the picture indirectly through Mary Jordan, director of a documentary in progress about Smith called You Don't Know Jack. Jordan had once lived in Irving Rosenthal's San Francisco commune. She learned about Smith when Rosenthal showed her the photos in his "vault," and, says Jordan, "They burned a hole in my heart." Her relationship with the Plaster Foundation has been "strained" (Hoberman's word) from the start, though he and Arcade had no idea she was close to Rosenthal.

In the autumn of 2002, Rosenthal called Mary Sue Slater after learning that the Plaster Foundation intended to charge Jordan $10,000 to $13,000 for up to 40 minutes of Smith's footage. (In contrast, Warhol's footage costs about $6,000 a minute.)

"I was so outraged by that contract that I called Mary Sue Slater at home," says Rosenthal. "I said, 'Look, Jack's stuff is really worth an enormous amount of money, and it's in the hands of these crooks.'" Rosenthal is the one who thinks the archive is worth millions, and maybe it is, but the Plaster Foundation has never been able to afford an appraiser.

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

In November 2002, Slater wrote her first letter to the Plaster Foundation, asking for an accounting and requesting that it "please send us our share." Hoberman sent an exasperated reply, asking why the Nephew had never been in touch, detailing all the work done, and explaining that the foundation operated at a loss.

Rosenthal then decided that the sister needed a New York attorney and called an old friend, Al Podell. Last spring the Plaster Foundation was ordered to turn over all of Smith's work. Convinced that the Slaters would sell it to private collectors, the foundation refused. That's the Cliffs Notes version of how this ended up in court.

Before one court appearance, flyers were sent from Jordan's production office urging "community support" for Smith and his sister against the "vampires." Jordan says that to her, "vampire" means "the system," even if the people in her office meant Arcade and Hoberman. She also rallied Smith's friends to come to court, where the Plaster Foundation argued that the Slaters abandoned the work. But the judge didn't buy it.

Hoberman learned from this reporter that part of the sister's agreement with Podell was that the work be sold intact to a museum or cultural institution. (This was Rosenthal's suggestion.) Surprised, Hoberman said that if a museum took it, he'd jump for joy. Arcade seemed skeptical that this could really be true. But it's the final irony. After all the rancor, both sides apparently want the same thing.

And what did Smith want? Ivan Galietti, a friend, imitated Smith's high nasal drawl to deliver the last wish and testament he heard the artist make: "Let them fight over it."

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