Jack Smith

Poster from Flaming Creatures

Vanguard Filmmaker, radical photographer, seminal performance artist, Queer saint: the late Jack Smith maintained an intense, lifelong rapture conjured out of the frayed magic and glamour of a Hollywood that had come to camp out on the movie set of his own mind. The externalization of that tarnished magic and glamour, which obsessed him, enabled him to both exoticize and humanize a conservative American culture enamored with progress and bruised in its formation by economic speculation and cold war.

Jack Smith was one of the most accomplished and influential underground artists in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, a key figure in the cultural history of Downtown film, performance, and art. From the late 1950s until his death from A.I.D.S. in 1989, Smith was chiefly recognized for his work in film and performance. Innovative and idiosyncratic, Smith explored and developed a deceptively frivolous camp aesthetic, importing allusions to B-Grade Hollywood films and elements of social and political critique into the arena of high art. Less celebrated than the many people he inspired, Smith's multi-media influence is evident in the works of a broad segment of the American Avant Garde. In film, his influence is evident in the work of Andy Warhol, Ken Jacobs, John Waters, George Kuchar, Scott and Beth B. In avant-garde theater and performance art, his hand touches Robert Wilson, Charles Ludlam, John Vaccaro, Cindy Sherman, and Richard Foreman.

His Filmmaking

In his filmmaking, Smith's initial goal was to create a sense of "aesthetic delirium." Through his use of outdated film stock and baroque subject matter, Smith pushed the limits of the medium, liberating it from the straitjacket of "good"' technique and "proper" behavior. In his best known film, Flaming Creatures (1961), characters cavort in a setting reminiscent of the court of Ali Baba, with a mood suggestive of the paintings of Heironymous Bosch. The film is a quasi-documentary of Androgynes and Transvestites in which flaccid penises and bouncing breasts are so ambiguously equated as to disarm any distinction between male and female. In Flaming Creatures, Smith manages to combine the ornate imagination of his youth with the realities of adult fantasy.

Smith's second feature length film, Normal Love (1963), is something of a sequel. Unlike the black and white Flaming Creatures, it is shot in rich color, at outdoor locations including the swamplands of Northern New Jersey and suggests the archetypal Gardens of the human imagination. The characters include a variety of 30's horror film monsters, a mermaid, a lecher, and various "cuties" performed by a cast which included Mario Montez, Tiny Tim, Diane DePrima, Beverly Grant, and John Vaccaro.

Smith created No President (1968), originally titled The Kidnapping of Wendell Willkie by the Love Bandit, in reaction to the 1968 Presidential campaign. It mixes black and white footage of Smith's creatures, with old campaign footage of Wendell Willkie, the 1940 Republican Presidential candidate.

In addition to No President there are numerous shorts and fragments of short films. Some of these include: Overstimulated (c.1960), Scotch Tape (1962), Wino (c.1977), Hamlet (c.1976), Buzzards Over Baghdad, Respectable Creatures, and others.

See the Jack Smith Filmography for complete descriptions.

The Films and The Performances

Smith was both filmmaker and performance artist. After a period of about eight years (1961 - 1969) in which Smith showed the films in their completed forms in conventional film screening settings, he began to incorporate the films and his slides into the performances. He developed this technique called "Expanded Cinema" in many of his performance pieces of the period: "Exotic Landlordism of the World," "Dance of the Sacred Foundation Application," "Death of A Penguin," " The Secret of Rented Island, " "Shark Bait of Capitalism," and "The Horror of Uncle Fish Hook's Safe."

Smith created startling stage effects through the spontaneous re arrangement and interplay of recorded imagery on film and slides, with the live action on the "stage", editing and re-editing the film images on the spot, in the midst of the performance. This spontaneous editing, however, required a unique form of splicing in which he put together strands of camera original as well as printed material with masking tape. Thus he managed to create a unique version of the films for each performance.

See also the Jack Smith Filmography.

artists page venues page resources page images page
flicker home page