“Art Crust of Spiritual Oasis,” the retrospective of Jack Smith organized at Artists Space by Jay Sanders and Jamie Stevens during the summer 2018 was the occasion to reconsider the reception of this artist in the current context of New York. For the last few decades, the artistic communities have not only been subjected to a highly commercially and professionally driven art world—climaxing with the first signs of the burst of the art speculative bubble, and the Covid outbreak in 2020—, they might be now threatened of dispersion or at least of a sudden reconfiguration. Confronted with a suspension of social life, a younger generation of artists might also be deprived of its romantic inspiration for an era toward the 1960s–1970s art world, of which Jack Smith was a late marker, like David Wojnarowicz or Paul Thek, to whom we dedicated an issue previously. All along, we kept thinking of the essay by Antek Walczak published in May no. 6, wondering what the term poverty would mean in relation to Thek in 2011. Already during his lifetime, Smith embodied the cliché of a marginal romantic artist because of the ephemeral and “poor” quality of his works, his reputation as an artist’s artist, nourished by the infinite circulation of personal anecdotes, and his uncompromised position of resistance to any forms of mediation. This cliché was held up and reinforced by his ongoing attempts to position himself against well-known artists, like Warhol or Mekas. In reality, his main social reference in terms of reception seems to be the community existing around him at that time, a queer counter-community that shared the langage and codes of his films and performances—“queer” being understood as rejection of any normative quality, whether social, aesthetic, sexual, or economic. The timeline of his public reception has been jagged, peaking around connoisseurs, exhibitions or events mostly organized by his friends. “Flaming Creatures,” a first cross-disciplinary retrospective in 1997 at PS1; LIVE FILM! JACK SMITH!, an event in Berlin at the Arsenal institute of film and video art in 2009 and “Rituals of Rented Island” at the Whitney Museum in the winter 2013–14, where an entire room was dedicated to his work. We have to add to this list Wait For Me at the Bottom of the Pool, the remarkable publication of some personal texts, edited by J. Hoberman and Edward Leffingwell, contributing also to the creation of his image of an artist’s artist. In the meantime, during the last decade, the academic reception of Smith has been mostly discussed among the departments of queer studies, performance studies, post-colonial studies and experimental film.
In an essay published in 2014, Diedrich Diederichsen developed a different theoretical interpretation. He considers Smith as “a practitioner” of the fine arts in the lineage of queer american surrealism and argues that his work should be understood foremost as anti-capitalist, theoretical and critical. In the introduction, he wrote: “In what follows, I discuss Jack Smith theoretically, and I do this as if he had a consistent theoretical and aesthetic program. Of course, this method contradicts the numerous personal and anecdotal memories about Smith in circulation, especially since his rediscovery twenty-plus years after his AIDS-related death. But I am convinced that it is precisely because of a certain programmatic—others say, neurotic—consistency at the heart of his queer anarchism that interest in him these days is so great.”
In this spirit, this issue, conceived partially in New York over a long period of discussion and research, suggests other perspectives especially on the issues of language and power. The essay by Branden Joseph provides another explanation regarding his social marginalization, showing that Smith struggled with the penal justice system. With the essays of Enzo Shalom and Felix Bernstein, more precise reflections are at stake regarding the rhetoric of Smith’s language in relation to the generated forms, and lead us to raise this question about the current tendencies of the art world: How can one receive his baroque rhetoric and method while facing the normative art discourses on identity politics in the early 2020s?
-  Diedrich Diederichsen, “Not Being Able to Work That Way as An Endangered Ability—Jack Smith, Das Kapital: Volumes I, II, and III,” Criticism, vol. 56, no. 2 (2014). ↩