J.S. (Je Suis/Jack Smith)
The Whitney Museum’s performance curator Jay Sanders talks to Brooklyn based artist and writer Felix Bernstein about his early relationship with the temperamental and visionary queer New York artist (photographer, sculpture, filmmaker, performer) Jack Smith. Sanders surveyed the work of Smith and his contemporaries in Rituals of Rented Island, and Bernstein is preparing for a forthcoming performance at the Whitney, Bieber Bathos Elegy, and the specter of Smith looms large. But do the iconographic & iconoclastic images of Smith that haunt the posthumous documentaries and retrospectives capture the true spirit of the artist? Or is the artist’s spirit rather pricklier?
JAY SANDERS: When did you meet Jack?
FELIX BERNSTEIN: Well, I was really young, and Jack, at the end, nobody really liked him, I would just hang out on the lower east side, I was a poser, I wasn’t an artist, I wasn’t really interested in culture, I just found the lower east side a compelling place to experience things.
I would pick up guys, I would cruise, basically one of the guys was Jack, and he had all these punk neo-Nazis hanging around with him. Ludlum was over, and the Club Kids were a mess, and Jack was really generous, and I wouldn’t be an artist or anything if it weren’t for his generosity. He would tell me to meet him for a rendezvous or whatever, but he wouldn’t even show up. But that taught me a lot. Him not giving me attention made me show up in wilder and wilder costumes. I was called a child prostitute, but I wouldn’t think of myself as that, but as a rebel. We had a lot of encounters where we wouldn’t talk. He would give just little statements, not positive or negative, that just pushed me along. I think of that as generous. Pina Bausch, or someone like that, is very hands on, obviously…. Jack wasn’t even there. It was a teaching in absence.
Was it difficult?
Yeah cause you’re put on the spot and there’s no one there for you. His father died when he was very young, in a sea accident.
I don’t want to say I came into my own because he didn’t want me to come into my own. I wasn’t self-possessed; I didn’t have a self, and he took that material and used it.
Anyone who evaluated him was ascribed as a monster, patriarchal, crazy. I grew up in a world where there was no evaluation. You can imagine that having a teacher like that wasn’t an easy situation. He wasn’t evaluated and didn’t evaluate me, but I learned from him to evaluate others. But nowadays, German art magazines pay me to say the sort of stuff Jack Smith said. They love to see me bite the hand that feeds.
What about ideas? Did he have any ideas?
His ideas were already out there, and people used them all the time. When I was on St. Marks Place I was bored, cause everyone wanted to be Jack, and I didn’t. I didn’t want anything to do with him, and I think that’s why he found me.
I had no diva worship for Jack, and I don’t like Jack and I don’t like who you think he is. To put it cutely, You Don’t Know Jack, and that was the space of our interaction. I’m not gonna dress up as a Flaming Creature and dance around Barbara Gladstone gallery or at a Pride parade. He would hate that. In fact, I’ll let you know: he hates you, if you do that. And if you say performance art is subversive in a museum, he’ll kill you.
Did you ever have sex?
The phallus is an organ belonging to the father, and Jack’s father was dead but he didn’t care. Jack had no phallus: he hated phallic men. He just had a flaccid penis, hanging around all the time. That’s what’s so “obscene” about his film Flaming Creatures; there are no erections.
Jack was at that weird time: the birth of pop art. Like Warhol, he didn’t want to be a subject; he wanted to be an object. But unlike Warhol, he didn’t want to be a commodity, even though he loved the world of commodities—Maria Montez and the starlets. But Smith liked being the pivot between subject and object. He couldn’t settle on one or the other, and it drove him. Most of us pick. He wouldn’t. He was neither Batman, the hero, the free agent or Dracula, the bloodsucking villain (he played both in his one filmic collaboration with Warhol)—it’s clear that Warhol chose to be a vampire, an undead object who fed off of the lives of subjects.
What did he invent?
Everyone in Greek Theatre knows what this look means. He didn’t splinter the disclosure of thinking but some people think he did. But he wasn’t expressive. It wasn’t about the outpouring of emotion. The beauty of Smith’s Hamlet is that emotion is rendered through objective correlatives, and it connects you to the subject through a skewed view. You directly feel it through indirection, as T.S. Eliot has explained of Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Nowadays all intimacy is delayed through parody and irony…but for Smith there was no deferral. The indirect was always already directed at the viewer. It was an instantaneous transferal through spontaneous yet effective bodily hieroglyphics.
Famed experimental artist Tony Conrad was originally Smith’s intern. Of course, Conrad is a straight, minimal artist. Conrad was using drugs to control his emotions: to go from happy to sad, the two faces of theatre—all very simple, controlled, framed. Jack Smith, Conrad thought, was so corny and emotional. And this helped him reduce emotions to stark symbols. Maximalism became minimalism. In turn, it is true that Smith invented minimalism. And he turned away from Kant’s subjectivism towards a new paradigm: the subject-as-object or the subject as thing.
For someone like Jack Smith, what’s the boundary of an artwork?
To be or not to be, to be art or not to be art, hard or soft dick, wavering, stuck in wavering, because phallic authority is dead. That lack of resolution became what others manufactured in their attempts to claim his legacy. Even Warhol.
Jack Smith didn’t hate all proper names. He always hated the one, who led the chain gang of signification: Jonas Mekas, that was the master signifier he abhorred. Smith was always playing the crazy polymorphous signified. That was Jack Smith, or Jack Smith was that thing. Mekas uses his subjectivity to interpellate and determine, Smith was always the interpellated thing. Young performance artists and queer academics always say with a smile, “that was Jack Smith.” But perhaps the “that” that was Jack is really just the stab in the back caused by the reclusive and elusive referent. So it is not wrong when everyone says “that was Jack Smith,” the one who sent me that strange and hostile letter. That was him since he was always that thing, and we were always determining him through such anecdotes.
We’ve talked about the reptilian technique. How did Jack Smith convey his own technique?
Interns became baroque apprentices. You can never master baroque art but you can at least be told about it. The student can never be more than a subjective creature; only he was ever really an object; and so he remained better than us. We would decorate or be “flaming,” he would watch us then morph based on what he saw us seeing. Like Warhol, he was a voyeur not a “flaming” participant, like the modern gay/queer artist. But unlike Warhol, he would become what he watched the watcher watching. Thus, Warhol’s cruel glare was more than just a subjective standpoint for Smith—but rather, it was also an internalized compass for designing selfhood.
What do you think about his legacy?
John Waters said about Jack Smith: that he bit the hand that fed him. He’s wrong. Jack Smith was never even fed. Rather, he fed the hand that bit him. Not to over-emphasize the point, but Jack Smith’s dad died at sea. He was untreatable and unfeedable, because you cannot treat someone who does not accept, as an ontological premise, the supplement of health—he was the living embodiment of what Richard Foreman termed the Ontological Hysterical Theater.
Can Smith be anything more than a dodo? What does Jack Smith mean for productivity?
Plenty of people will say, Jack Smith is a real artist, but Rent the musical is superficial. They are wrong. Gay Marriage is neoliberal fantasy and so is Rent but your critique is just as neoliberal. Protesting gentrification is gentrification. Jack wouldn’t have cared about Rent: it would’ve been as good as anything else. Idina Menzel might even be our Maria Montez.
Funny story—a budding hip gay artist blocked me from all his social media accounts after I wrote a critique of his safe aesthetics—an hour later, he shared a glossy ArtForum essay that praised Jack Smith for being an aggressive trailblazer. “Never conform,” he tweeted as a caption. Jack Smith is rolling in his grave. Or anyway, Jack Smith is the thing that rolls in a grave.
Bieber Bathos Elegy will be presented in the Whitney Museum’s theater on January 15th & 16th at 9PM. Advanced tickets will be available. More information is forthcoming.
(Transcription by Julien Nguyun)