That Time That Jack Smith Proposed That Artists Should Throw Themselves Down Stairs

Jack Smith during his performance. (Photographer unknown/Artists Space)
Smith during his performance. (Photographer unknown/Artists Space)

Over four consecutive evenings in April 1974, curator and Art-Rite co-editor Edit deAk staged a program at Artists Space titled “PersonA” with what today reads like a dream lineup: performances by Laurie Anderson, Scott Burton and Adrian Piper, screenings of films and videos by Eleanor Antin, Kathy Acker and Dennis Oppenheim, and a whole lot more.

Jack Smith also performed, and J. Hoberman describes the wild scene in a footnote for his essay in the richly illustrated catalogue that accompanies “Rituals of Rented Island: Object Theater, Loft Performance, and the New Psychodrama—Manhattan, 1970–1980,” which is now on view at the Whitney. (Mr. Hoberman consulted on the show, and just got a new job with The Times.) From the essay:

Smith closed the “PersonA” performances, appearing last on a bill with Adrian Piper (who distributed written texts from her Talking to Myself: The Ongoing Autobiography of an Art Object) and Dennis Oppenheim (who showed selections from his films on video). Appearing in a jacket and tie, Smith delivered a rambling, glacially paced monologue entitled “Life With Mekas,” indicting the brave new world of grant-subsidized art. Complaining that “money is granted to the most aggressive,” Smith proposed that “foundations” build a papier-mâché stairway from which artists might hurl themselves, awarding money to those who rolled down “most impressionistically.” Smith stood behind a table decorated with green dollar signs and, as he had done three months earlier at the Onnasch Galerie, sold signed pieces of bread for a dollar. “Artists Space was too straight for Jack,” deAk would later say.

Two points here: (1) that’s how you do institutional critique, and (2) always read the footnotes. I have to admit that I did not when I first read the catalogue, but curator Bradford Nordeen came to the rescue by sharing it on Instagram. Thank you, Mr. Nordeen.

That Time That Jack Smith Proposed That Artists Should Throw Themselves Down Stairs