An enraged man sprayed the words “Kill Lies All” on Picasso’s painting Guernica at the Museum of Modern Art yesterday. He was seized immediately and the red-paint lettering was removed from the masterpiece, leaving no damage.
The vandal, who shouted that he was an artist, was identified as Tony Shafrazi… As the guard grabbed Mr. Shafrazi, the man reportedly dropped the can and demanded, “Call the curator, I’m an artist.” He was taken to the West 54th Street station house and was charged with criminal mischief…
Mr. Shafrazi, who was born in Iran, spelled his name for those in the gallery as he was led away…
Several artists who were involved in picketing and protests at museums remembered Mr. Shafrazi as a fringe member of now-defunct protest groups.
“He was a wild Persian,” said Alex Gross, former head of the Art Workers’ Coalition. Mr. Gross said he had never seen any of Mr. Shafrazi’s work. Nor did he know what it was. Another painter who knew Mr. Shafrazi, John Hendricks, said he thought the suspect was “a conceptual artist.”
—The New York Times, March 1, 1974
There’s a story about Tony Shafrazi. Actually, there are a lot of stories about Tony Shafrazi. He’s a wild Persian. He’s totally Armenian. He gave Keith Haring his first solo show. He gave Jean-Michel Basquiat his last solo show. He defaced the most beloved antiwar painting in the world. He worked for the shah of Iran. His first day in New York, he met Andy Warhol. He was there, in Texas, when Robert Smithson died.
We sought Shafrazi out this spring to learn more about the Tony Shafrazi Gallery — not his current space, in Chelsea, and not the 1980s SoHo hotspot, but the first one, in Tehran, which opened just months before the fall of the shah. There was a story about the gallery that we wanted to hear, about its first, last, and only exhibit, ‘Gold Bricks,’ by Zadik Zadikian. We wanted to know more about the gold bricks and the Iranian Revolution, and how the conceptual artist who sprayed KILL LIES ALL on Guernica to protest the Vietnam War became the Iranian royal family’s go-to guy for contemporary art.
We got our answers in the end, nested inside another set of stories about the underground filmmaker Jack Smith, Tarzan, and the Thousand and One Nights — but only after several marathon interview sessions in his New York gallery. Very specific questions provoked fantastically meandering responses. We grew frustrated and thirsty. But his gallery staff was accommodating and would on occasion delight us with the excellent Armenian sour cherry drink Shafrazi loves. And we were, of course, very grateful to Shafrazi himself. We know Larry Gagosian would never have given us this much time.
Bidoun: We’re interested in the first incarnation of the Tony Shafrazi Gallery, in Tehran, and the Zadikian show.
Tony Shafrazi: Well, in 1973, I was in the desert with Robert Smithson. He was desperate to make an earthwork — he hadn’t made anything for many, many years. I had been getting ready to go to Amarillo, Texas, because this gentleman, a big shot — owned a television station and a radio station, all the land you could see—and his wife, who came from a cattle family, they had millions of heads of cattle—they had invited me to come. I had met them in Tehran the year before. An artist friend had told them to call me up, and I took them around, we went to Isfahan. And you have to realize that being an artist in the late Sixties, early Seventies — even the well-known artists had to teach to survive, they made very little money, and at that time so many colleges were on strike, anyway.
I had been teaching a bit, and it was not easy — I planned my summer around little gigs that would make me a little money, knowing that I could go to Texas for a well-to-do holiday for a month or something. It was great. And then Smithson asked to come with me. I felt a little awkward because the people I was going to see didn’t really know him, but he was such a good friend, and being older and more experienced at these things, he persuaded me. And he sort of took over the trip. We flew in a plane. There was a lake a few miles out on this property that he became interested in. He started circling the lake — it was a terrible flight, the wrong kind of plane, you had to tip the wing to see out of the window. The lake was maybe five or six hundred feet across and seven or eight hundred feet long, and there was a little dam four or five feet tall that had been built to gather water for irrigation, all this rainwater and the silt, which was very fine earth that had come from mountains miles away. So he loved this thing and kept going back to make drawings and circle it in the plane. I had a very bad dream one night that something was going to happen, but he went back up. And then the plane crashed, and he died. It was a gigantic shock for all of us.
I was very close with Robert and his wife, Nancy Holt, and I came back to New York with the body. Virginia Dwan of the Dwan Gallery arranged a gathering of artists at her house up on Central Park West. I was still unknown then. We had a little bit of food, and everyone asked, “Well, what are you going to do now?” and I said, “I have to get back and finish Robert’s piece.” There were only four or five stakes stuck in the lake, but I knew the piece because he had drawn it for me. We had stayed up until four or five in the morning talking about it that week we were there, before he died. So Nancy said of course she was going to come, and Richard Serra said he would go. So the three of us spent forty-five days together in the desert, all these cactuses and rattlesnakes, making this thing. Richard was very helpful because of the forceful nature that he has.
Bidoun: You finished Smithson’s last earthwork?
TS: Yeah, it’s called Amarillo Ramp. It was quite a chore. You had to break the rock on a hill and then drive it in this truck and dump it into a bulldozer. The work is a spiral that starts from the water and comes to the beach, a rising spiral, the rocks tumble down so it’s wider. On the second day the guy fucked up, he sort of banged it, and I got mad at him and I took over the truck and built the whole thing.
Bidoun: Did Zadikian figure into this?
TS: So basically we spent forty-five days building this thing. And Richard Serra had an assistant, a very strong young man who had been helping him do these black wall drawings, really large canvases, with oil sticks — he would rub them really hard and it would leave this residue. That guy was Zadikian, a young guy who had escaped from Armenia, which was then the Soviet Union. He had very good energy. We became friends.
I followed his career. He had been working in tar and then suddenly he was working with color. There was a house on Greene Street where he knocked out a window and then sprayed the whole interior yellow with this gigantic industrial sprayer. It was wild — nobody had done that. And then he was at PS1, which had just opened — it was still an old, dilapidated school. He applied gold leaf to the whole entrance, the wall, the ceiling, the floor, everything. You were surrounded by gold. It was the best thing there. Walking into the space had a really dramatic effect. When the light hit it, it radiated tremendous fractured light.
Bidoun: How did the show in Tehran come about?
TS: There was all this stuff going on in Iran at the time. The empress had this whole cultural program, which was based on the five fingers of the hand. There was the Shiraz Arts Festival, focused on dance and performance, which had been going on for years and was radical beyond belief — to this day I think the most ambitious theater Robert Wilson ever did was this weeklong performance in Persepolis where the audience sat in the mountains and watched it like a picnic. There was the Tehran Film Festival, where people like Carlo Ponti and Pier Paolo Pasolini would show their films and talk. There was a big new Carpet Museum of Iran, which assembled the finest carpets in the world — which actually meant buying a lot of them back from the Vatican and palaces in England and France and Germany.
￼So I had heard talk about a museum of modern art. I asked around and knocked on doors and it was true, and eventually I found a building that was being built and got to know Kamran Diba, the architect. This was the Museum of Contemporary Art, and they wanted to build a major collection. When I got back to New York, I started going around to all the galleries—I didn’t trust the Persians, still don’t, as you can imagine — and got people to write me what was really a letter of recommendation, “To whom it may concern,” you know, giving an account of how they knew me and that if something happened with this museum, I would be the best person to make the collections really worthwhile. And it worked. They had acquired some important pieces before I got there, but then after, the acquisitions became quite rapid, much more focused on the 1950s and onward, very good pieces, a first-class representation of what the global culture was at the time. The idea was that I’d be building a bridge, a great vehicle for European and American friends and artists to come to Iran and travel to various villages, which in turn would allow up-and-coming artists from Iran to come into contact with European artists.
Bidoun: Where did the idea to start a gallery come from?
TS: Things started slowing down — the museum was taking longer than I expected, and I was frustrated. And I saved and saved and borrowed money from my father, and I decided to open a gallery. I thought maybe with the museum nearby, someone, one of the well-to-do families who knew me, might buy something, or maybe a museum would buy something. And maybe eventually this would enable me to have a gallery in New York, which was my goal.
Bidoun: And Zadikian?
TS: We decided to go with Zadikian, and the idea was to do something with gold leaf and bricks. We found the most primitive place where they made bricks from mud packed together and baked in a kiln and then each brick was sanded and sanded until it was perfect, absolutely beautiful, glorifying it in the form that it was. So it was a thousand-odd bricks, and when the gold was applied it was incredible, an absolutely fucking piece of work.
Bidoun: Okay, so you open a gallery in Tehran in 1978 and the first show is a pile of gold bricks. And the country is on the brink.
Bidoun: We’re interested in the show as a kind of historical allegory relating to your own life and to that specific moment. It actually came to our attention through a work by another artist, Michael Stevenson.
TS: In England? I heard about something, but I never saw it.
Bidoun: He did a recreation of the opening in Iran. He actually rebuilt it from what he —
TS: What he heard about it.
Bidoun: Yeah, he just approximated what that first show looked like in half-ruin.
TS: Uh-huh, in a state of half-ruin. Well, it wasn’t like that, but okay.
Bidoun: All right, so what was it like? Didn’t the opening take place under martial law?
TS: Yes, everyone had to be home by seven o’clock or you’d be arrested or shot. The military out in the street, tanks, trucks, the army — everybody is out there. Only a few people came to the opening, some Iranians and Europeans. People were already afraid. We had a little bit of food, some photographs were taken. And after that, I left. Maybe a day or so after the shah.
Bidoun: Did you close the gallery?
TS: I left it to my family. I was still thinking that things would get better eventually. Later all the artwork was taken and stored in the garage of my father’s apartment.
Bidoun: So the story about the bricks being stolen from the gallery isn’t true?
TS: No, it was — all the bricks were stolen, they broke into my father’s garage and took everything, stole everything. It disappeared. Sure, it was nothing compared to the devastation other people were suffering. It was nothing compared to being taken up to the rooftops and shot or hanged in public for kissing someone, or losing your family or all your properties. And that’s not even counting the war with Iraq, another ten years of devastation.
Bidoun: It’s the stealing of the gold bricks by the revolutionaries from the gallery… even just displaying a pile of gold bricks in a gallery in the middle of a revolution. There seems to be an inescapable irony.
TS: Not really, no. This was also about taking dirt, the earth of Iran, and gilding that. There was a remarkable force about it, about using gold as a material in art, the literal impact that has, with the balancing of the light. I think his understanding was also about arriving at a place of glory. I mean, if you look at the history of ancient times, of the arrival of gold and the function it played in the first coins, for example, it was all about this idea of value, which is sort of godlike, that everybody agrees upon. Even in ornamentation, or let’s say, in the bulls or in animals.
Bidoun: But that’s such a plastic definition. It’s almost an abstract expressionist way of defining a substance. But you know better than anyone that by the time it came out, all this different stuff had come into art. Including politics. What gold is, is also, you know…
TS: Firstly, I think you have an association that is not true, which the press always said, which is that I built the collection for the shah of Iran. It wasn’t the shah of Iran. The work I was doing was for the program set in place by the empress. The shah was not at all involved in the cultural program. I think he had heard about it, of course — he attended the opening of the museum. But he was busy doing other things. So it wasn’t a collection for the shah at all. That’s the first thing. But also about the so-called revolution, I don’t consider it a revolution. It happened over one night. I went to see it, I checked it out. I saw streets with every business that had to do with the West — cinemas, music shops, computer stores — completely destroyed. Three hundred, four hundred stores, everything pulled out into the middle of the street and set on fire, all this while the military and the army is there. How is this possible? With, like, two hundred, three hundred people there? In the course of three or four hours? Impossible!
Bidoun: It looks like there are thousands of people in photographs from that time.
TS: Even if you have thousands of people, it is impossible to do that much damage. With tanks and the military on the street? Impossible, impossible, impossible, impossible. Unless it was planned.
So, unfortunately, this is the theater in which I am trying to do my little bit. And so we opened the gallery where we were glorifying the earth of Tehran, turning it into gold, and what happened? The Tehran museum says, “You’re independent, you don’t belong to the museum.” I didn’t get a penny out of the Tehran museum, not even a ham sandwich, after I helped them make close to a billion-plus profits and the cultural advantage of having the best pieces.
Bidoun: It just seemed ironic, the revolutionaries stealing the gold — and from you, a man famous for his political intervention on another work of art. It feels like in America you were on a different side of the struggle.
TS: You have to realize the passage we’d gone through. I came from a radically revolutionary bearded background. I mean I wasn’t in the SDS or the Weathermen or whatever, but I was pretty radical and involved with students who participated in the marches and the Art Workers’ Coalition. Witnessing what the AWC did, making the world aware of what the military was doing and to take a position — all the artists participated and an artistic dialogue was taking place and the work that was being made addressed that. Protesting became part of the art. But for me, now, coming to Iran, seeing that there was a need, I thought I could serve the purpose of opening the door through culture. Young Iranians could get closer to that and engage in a dialogue.
Students who hadn’t had the opportunity to participate in the kinds of protests that the French, American, and German students had in the Sixties were taking to the streets. And their so-called banner, their enemy—well, the shah was going to be their enemy. And why? I am convinced that there was a planned program that was put into place to dismantle Iran and bring down the shah, because Iran was making tremendous headway into becoming a wealthy country and America was going through a devastating recession. Cities were on fire. I remember seeing the Watts Riots, visiting my mother’s house in Los Angeles and watching on the TV that another part of the city we were in was on fire. And meanwhile we were still hearing of lynchings going on in the South, town halls taking part in lynching, people coming out into the square in their nice white suits, smoking cigars, standing around as if it was a ceremony, taking pictures with these bodies hanging from the trees. And this is the Western world that started telling the Eastern world about human rights, telling it how to behave. Jimmy Carter was a stupid, idiotic, moron peanut farmer from the Midwest with an alcoholic, beer-drinking pig of a brother, and of course nobody today really analyzes the fact that Carter was probably one of the worst presidents America has ever had, as far as foreign relations are concerned.
Bidoun: But didn’t you identify the political aspirations of at least the Iranian left with those of your peers in New York in the AWC? Or the protestors in Paris?
TS: Of course, by 1977 you could sense things were happening, the level of anger was there. But the suspicions weren’t very well founded. And the people who had suspicions — they were not of the kind that you would have any respect for, I’m sorry to say. The so-called revolutionaries were not the kind of people who had participated in New York or Paris. But the media in America made them into that. The information and the misinformation and the pictures that were broadcast to the world about the palaces and the jewels and all the wealth and riches were contrary to reality. The picture that was painted of the shah as this horrible, corrupt person, killing people and torturing people, mischievous, secretive. And all of a sudden this godlike guy comes along. When I came back to the States, I found my colleagues, buddies like Richard Serra, people I worked with, were glorifying Khomeini. The American media invented Khomeini, they are the ones who helped create the Shiites, they helped create Al Qaeda, they created it and let it become out of control, and now it is completely out of control. It’s like playing with a bee’s nest, in a way, by purposely destroying it. What did the resulting fractured animosity and hatred do to that country or those cultures? It sent them back to pre-medieval ages.
Years and years and years ago, I remember always being frustrated at the uneducated aspect of Iranian culture that I come from. Back in ’76, ’77, when I took visiting American artists out to see the mosques and all that, you realize what a miserable pit that it is. You have all these people stinking with the worst stinking feet, I’m sorry to say. And you can always say that it’s because they’re poor, but it wasn’t about being poor. And here the paradox was between the stinking to high heaven and the great grandeur of the mosque. But the mosque had been built generations earlier by extremely competent craftsmen. When the shah’s father came into power, he actually — with tremendous cruelty — he had whitewashed, just taken out all the riffraff with incredible strength. I remember driving around Iran, there were certain places that you would go through these desert-like hills, and there were these pillars that were said to be people turned into pillars of salt — much like the ancient biblical story, I suppose. But he had been the one who had modernized the country, the shah’s father. So, when you went to a mosque, you saw this wonderful replica of what was left of Islamic architecture, and then here are all these people with their stinking, really primitive behavior. Not poor—not at all like the people in even the poorest villages. I admired those people because they were clean. They have cultural traits that are sophisticated, as poor as they are. Their clothes might have hundreds of stitches, but there is beauty, there is glory, they are glorious people. But this was unimaginable, nothing came out of it — the voice of the mullahs praying or talking came out of cheap loudspeakers. Even that, based on Western invention. These people have contributed absolutely nothing, zero, in the last how many centuries? And now they want to jump into nuclear war. You know, the mystical image of Khomeini as the people’s hero, the radicals and the left-wing media glorifying him, the idiotic young students, they all bought into this stupid so-called revolution, and their revolution became something else. I don’t consider it a revolution.
Bidoun: So you don’t see it relating to your Guernica action?
TS: No, no.
Bidoun: Let’s talk about Guernica, then. Because we’ve always understood what you did as very much a political act. And we still want to know — you know, what was going through your head at the time? Were you thinking about the historical legacy of what was happening even as you were doing it?
TS: Basically, a thought came to me at a critical point of my development. I was working with words, phrases, speech — it was what we were dealing with at the time. And I thought, well, where else could the phrase go? A phrase taken out of context, with no subject, no I. We were all into the business of dislocation back then. Displacement. Smithson, for example. Taking a thing from one place and putting it in another was a concern of Lawrence Weiner, as well. So a thought occurred that in this process a phrase could literally slide off the page and then travel onto the wall. And then another thought occurred, which was that if a phrase could slide off the page and travel onto the wall, what would happen if it met a painting? What if it then went across the painting? I thought, wow — a whole new thing would occur then.
Bidoun: It almost sounds as if it occurred to you as a formal, conceptual act before it became a specific, political act.
TS: Oh, yes.
Bidoun: So it wasn’t that the MoMA was having a particular show and you were upset about the Vietnam War?
TS: Oh, no. But then the next thought was that if a phrase were to travel across a work of art, what work should it be? I didn’t want to go all the way to ancient history, it was too big. But even limiting yourself to the twentieth century, you still had to think about what painting, what artwork, would be the most desirable or the most implicitly significant. I thought about Jackson Pollack, Barnett Newman. I’d always considered Picasso as like a grandfather or a father. And Guernica… Contrary to what a lot of people seem to think, I know the painting extremely well. At my very first art school, I had made sculptures of parts of it, the horse’s scream, the cockerel. There was the expressive nature of it and the originality of its forms. It took into account the scale of cinema — the black and white of it had a lot to do with cinema, a large-scale cinematic reckoning of the horror of war — but also the way it was constructed, the various elements, the buildings, the window, the animals, the baby on the floor. It’s beyond magnificent, there’s no parallel. Even just as a painted surface, it’s very alive, very radical and super fresh. To me it was the most important painting of the century.
Anyway, I was tormented by the idea. It would break all kinds of taboos, of course. But I struggled with the idea for six months, grappling with the consequences — would it be sensible, would it damage the painting, would it be considered a criminal act? I mean, it’s unknowable. But it dawned on me that the singular family that I’d been drawn to since I was nine or ten — my family, really — was the art world. So my greatest fear was that I would literally be hated by everyone, cast out, so to speak, from the family of art. Which would be like going off a cliff for me. And then most likely deported — I didn’t have an American passport — very likely imprisoned. But you’re dealing with the unknown. I was so focused on this business of dislocation, of taking a word out of one context and applying it somewhere else. And you don’t know what could trigger in somebody’s mind. I could be shot — I thought of that being a real possibility, having lived through the Sixties and all these assassinations. And the personal part of it — what would my father say? But the idea wouldn’t go away.
I found myself thinking a lot about Dada. That was one of the first instances where art stepped into the real world, you know? There was Duchamp and the Mona Lisa, of course, but there was also Arthur Cravan, probably the most far out of the Dadaists — big, tall fellow. He challenged Jack Johnson, the heavyweight boxing champion of the world, probably the strongest man of the twentieth century, to a fight. He arranged a public match, went into the ring —
Bidoun: That’s amazing! Like Bob Dylan challenging Cassius Clay.
TS: And that realness was very important — he could have got killed.
So it was… it wasn’t going to be a sort of hit-and-run situation. I didn’t want to go at night, or when nobody’s looking, or run away and blame it on somebody else. I had to finger myself, even. Because the other thing was that I wanted the Guernica to be on the front page. It had to be world news. Of course, it had been world news, it had itself addressed a world news event. It had addressed the bombing of Guernica, yes, but it also addressed the war we were in right then, the war we’re in now. Any contemporary war. And at that moment, in 1974, the cataclysmic disaster that was still going on, the war culminating more or less in the chaos of impeachment, people in top government brought down, headlines from one side to the other — at a time like that, it was crazy to me that a painting like the Guernica was seen, if at all, through a haze of ignorance and smoke, relegated to a place of absolute insignificance. The force, the power, the real significance that art could have, that Picasso had, that that painting had, had been shoved aside somehow, had been… what’s the word?
TS: Exactly, gagged. And I felt that that was the real crime, that the Guernica had a voice, it had something to say — that art had to be the thing that wrecks the world. And so all of the things I had been involved in with the AWC, all the marches, were about the role and function of art in society. And I thought that if I could bring it back onto the front page, maybe it would have a tremendous effect. In the context of this world in crisis, where there was assassination after assassination and bombing after bombing, the Guernica might trigger an awakening…
There is an idea in Zen — “sudden awakening,” they call it — where at a critical moment of his journey, a monk would go to the room where all the Buddhas were and actually strike the Buddha physically. Not out of hatred, but as a kind of ultimate interaction with it. And I imagined my action leading to a kind of emanating sound, a voice. And, you know, I was also thinking about American movies of the Thirties and Forties, when the Guernica was made, black-and-white movies. Someone would hold up a newspaper and suddenly you have a closeup of it that says, “READ ALL ABOUT IT.” And so, you know, the idea of this phrase on the painting becoming a headline, KILL LIES ALL — which could be read either way, “lies all” or “lies kill” — and the Guernica, back on the front page.
Bidoun: So there was a definite political idea.
TS: Where we had arrived after the Sixties — you cannot imagine what I am talking about, because you weren’t there. Imagine you are eighteen, nineteen, twenty, and all this new technology is developing. Color television in your home. And what is the first thing you see in color? The napalm bomb. Napalm was remarkable, I mean devastating — these bombs being dropped over these villages and these palm trees, the most exotic greenery, and these yellow flames. Imagine seeing that night and day, night and day.
The power of the war industry had a dire impact on the independent life of the artist, on the independent language and freedom of their vista, what they’re looking at, at their sense of play, and it castrated us to the point of sort of a revulsion. And everybody involved in it was so criminal. It had to be ripped apart, so that the fabric of this misrepresentation, this lie, had to come apart.
Anyway, at a certain point, a rendezvous was made. I realized that I had to go through with it — I couldn’t do anything else.
So I prepared myself. I had my passport, my traveler’s checks. I was ready to be banished or expelled or jailed. I even called UPI and the wire services so that they would become aware of it as it was being done. And then I did it. I was all dressed and clean, very calm, very clear. It was very pure. And as I approached it, I was in probably the clearest and calmest place I’ve ever been. That’s what was going through my mind.
Bidoun: And then the next thing you did was Moogambo, an artist’s book that you published with Printed Matter in 1976. It’s such a strange book, photographs and a story. It has the air of a French costume drama or a 1940s Hollywood film — many of the images would not look out of place on the cover of a glam rock album, actually. It was your last major work as an artist, before you became a gallerist. How did that happen?
TS: Well, at this point I started to get some attention as an artist. I was very involved in conceptualism, making short conceptual texts and little performances. I showed in Belgium, Florence, Milan. Of course, in those days, you would have three or four shows a year, and you would make at most a couple thousand dollars from a show, if you sold something. So we were living on $15,000 a year. It was pretty extreme. And then as I started doing shows, you know, I would sit in a hotel room and wait in my room to perform a line or two of text at whatever gallery. You wait one day, you go back, you wait, you go back, you wait.
It was so stagnant. We were all doing our things, but the results… as interesting as it was, it was pretty miserable. Most of those concerns ended up miserable. Look at someone like Che Guevara, this great-looking guy, very enigmatic guy, who gets involved in the idea of revolution. And when the revolution he fought for in Cuba isn’t working, he leaves to find something even more idealistic. Which even he knows is a lost cause. And then the image of his body, riddled with bullets and gaunt — as beautiful and saintly as he was, he was such a morbid waste. Maybe one hopes that this is an example, that it will provoke something, maybe it’ll change things a little bit. But then, who controls the way it gets documented? The stories that are translated and represented and misrepresented make up a totally different reality than the one that actually happened.
Bidoun: How did you break out?
TS: Shortly after the Guernica, I had moved to the East Village, which was a desolate, miserable place, all burnt out and broken down. At night there were fires and drugs and all sorts of gangs, you were barely able to walk from one street to another. Your body language and how you maneuvered yourself was really a matter of survival. All that stuff from the underground comics of that time, S. Clay Wilson — all the rough guys with machetes and tattoos, this tribal world out of control — all that reflected a real neighborhood experience that came alive at night. Cops hardly ever visited there. I mean, this was way before crack, but it was pretty frightening. It was very cheap and very poor.
And then one day I ran into Jack Smith on the street. He was a real underground hero, a radical outsider. More far out than anybody. Jack was a very tall guy with a hook nose — he had been a very good-looking guy, there are pictures of him from the early Sixties, but then everything went crazy, he had drifted somewhere. Jack was the one who had really influenced Andy Warhol to go into movies — Andy said that in his diaries. There was talk that Fellini had seen Jack’s film, Flaming Creatures, and that the whole Fellini world was somewhat influenced by it. Jack represented this whole subversive experimental beat druggie otherworld, very different from the art world that I had been a part of. I had seen Flaming Creatures in 1965 when I visited New York, and then after I moved here in the late Sixties, once in a blue moon, there’d be a play. I went with Richard Serra a few times. There would be soft or sometimes scratchy music from some late Forties Hollywood romance, like you’re in Hawaii or Egypt or some exotic place. Very tropical, Oriental. Very hypnotic. You’d start to notice the set — falling apart, a little ripe, with many references to childlike dreaming, but all funky, fragmented. And little by little this mood would start to happen, there’d be incense, blue light, and then you might see a shadow of some old person, like an old woman with a huge nose, with a vacuum cleaner, and then she would vacuum the carpet, very slowly, for half an hour. And that would be the play.
Bidoun: So Jack Smith marked a moment…
TS: Jack Smith represented something totally outside of the moment. His performance was sort of this nonexistent fragment, absolutely outside of anything normal.
So Jack Smith saw me in the street one day, and he said, “Oh yeah, that’s right, you’re the guy.” He was looking up at the sky, far away, and he said, “Hmm, yes, I always considered that the most revolutionary thing, the most responsible thing, any of us have ever done.” He was talking about the Guernica.
And I thought, Wow, that was really something, coming from him. Jack was never impressed by anybody, he would hardly even look at people. He only ever appreciated the most radical art. And he insisted I go with him to his place. It turned out that we lived half a block from each other. I was on 2nd Street between Avenue B and A, he was on 1st between B and C. He lived in this absolutely dilapidated building — you went up these stairs, and you could barely open the door. The place was collapsed decay, mildew and mess, the heater… Forget about any sense of order. It was chaos and cockroaches everywhere, you could barely walk. You knew the insanity was so dense that once you were in it, you were really in it very deep. And yet within that he would find his interpretation, his dream.
Bidoun: How did you fit into this? It doesn’t really seem like your scene, exactly.
TS: I think for Jack, I came from the place he was dreaming about, the place Hollywood had dreamed about at its origins. I came from the Sinbad the Sailor place. And, you know, smoking a little hash and putting his music on… . He asked me to work with him. At that point, he was making slideshows. So I started taking pictures for him. We would go on these excursions, and he would pose like Sabu from the Thief of Baghdad, enacting the Hollywood air, and it was like any corner could be a set. He was so far out. He would be all dressed up with makeup and long nails and a goatee beard, carrying around all this trash and garbage so he could make some sort of costume with it. So we would go around and find a dilapidated corner or a ruined building and something would strike him. And he had these glasses, big reading glasses he had that he wanted to use for a shoot, and I put them on the floor and crushed them, and when I saw it got his attention I took them and got some Scotch tape and taped the broken parts together. And then I got a lighter and I lit the whole thing on fire with a candle so that it was half smoke and half glued and half burnt, and he saw it and he said, “Genius.”
So this went on for a few months. I thought the photographs were really great, and Jack dug them, too, but the other thing was that the interaction was very strong. I was always trying to talk a little sense into him, trying to get him out to do things. And he got this big break, an invitation to go to Rome. He had this thing about a crazy penguin, taking a penguin — oh, I can’t remember all the details. It was the star of his…
Bidoun: Was it a person?
TS: No, it was a penguin. A statue, all dolled up, crazy things done to it. So one day I get this phone call saying that he was sending me a ticket to be a major part of this thing. So, sure enough, since I was in Milan anyway doing a show, I flew to Rome. And I went to where Jack was staying, which was the gallery where his thing was taking place. You could sleep in the gallery — it was very beyond revolution, beyond all that stuff. There was a mattress, I could stay there. So then we spent the whole day in this big, huge, windowless cavern of a place, him making bits and pieces of costumes. So come evening time, a lot of people leave the place, and I said to Jack, “I’m hungry, you want to go and eat something, Jack?” And this guy we were with, this good-looking black fellow, said, “Yeah, let’s go eat something or go see a movie or something.” So I said, “Okay, Jack, let’s go, let’s get outta here and get some air and maybe eat something.” And he says, “Oh, eh…” So I went with the guy, and when I come back it was pouring with rain. It was after ten o’clock and sort of dark, and I was getting really wet — I had a leather jacket, I remember — and I was knocking on this old wooden door in an old part of Rome. And after a while the door opened a little crack and there was this hook nose, rather like the witch out of A Thousand and One Nights. I said, “Jack, it’s raining.” And a hand came out with my beat-up brown leather suitcase, just a hand. And then he put it down and closed the door. “Jack,” and there’s no response. “What are you doing? I have nowhere to go!” Nothing. I didn’t know what to do. I was wandering around in the rain getting soaked. The only thing I could think to do is go to the train station. I took an eleven-thirty train to Milan. So all the way, I’m devastated. I’m broken, shocked, can’t figure out what the fuck it was about. No response, of course he has no phone to call, there’s no means of communication.
So I’m back in Milan, where I have a show to do, anyway. But to do the show I have to wait, I have to sit around waiting, in that agitated state I was in. And Italian life is such that by noon, twelve-thirty, everything shuts down. So I remember looking through these shutters, the sunny day, midday at lunchtime. Being an outsider, being outside, a foreigner, no purpose, no program, looking out the shutters of the hotel room. Looking at the street, bright. And yet nothing moves, the shutters are all closed. Nothing can happen. You can’t do anything. Boring. Dead. Another half-hour. The seconds, hours, and months start ticking away, nothing to do. And at five o’clock everything starts again, you go back to the gallery, read a few words. And come back the next day.
Bidoun: Wait, did you ever find out what happened with Jack?
TS: Many years later I ran into him somewhere, and I asked him why he had shut the door in my face that night and left me in the rain. And Jack was really out of it and kind of looked up in this childlike, dreamy way and said, “You took my chocolate.” I thought he was really out of it, and I didn’t ask him what he meant — but years later I realized that he meant that boy I went to dinner with.
TS: So anyway, there I was staring out of the shades. And I suddenly felt open to anything. I had reread A Thousand and One Nights back then, and it had a revelatory impact on me, having done all my reading of Sartre and having gone back and forth to Iran. The unknown takes you somewhere else, and that takes you somewhere else, one step after the other. So you’re witnessing at the same time you’re participating.
So little by little, being in Italy, I started thinking about Fellini and the magic that cinema had had, La Dolce Vita, the energy, the creativity involved. And then this fucking art world, the draining sense that you have to wait, you have to do a fucking word that’s on a wall, you have to wait, smoke, like, fifty thousand cigarettes, wait, have three beers with boring, unimaginative people, over and over again. It becomes so monotonous, so fucking dreary, everybody is so square and drab, and all the work was like, you glue a few things down on a piece of paper. Or you play with a video camera and you make the most monotonous things imaginable, fucking boring as shit. And I couldn’t stand it anymore. What had started with pop art and miniskirts and sex and color had ended up with beards and long hair and revolution. And at the end of it all, this is where we’re going? I said, “Fuck that.”
The only places to go to in Milan were the coffee shops and the ice cream stores. There’s nowhere to go. So the only thing there was the newsstand. You go to the newsstand and you see what magazines there are. There was a lot of black market stuff happening in a very naive way. They had things called fumetti, little comic books, in Italian. It was all erotic stuff… people fucking and sucking each other. Businesspeople would buy those. But they also had old comic books. Except they weren’t old. I suddenly found comic books from my youth — the original Tarzan comic books, drawn by Burne Hogarth. And suddenly all the longing and the dreams and the wonderful fantasies I had as a kid, seeing my first comic books—cowboy comics, Batman, horror comics, with their incredible drawings — suddenly all these years later, I found the intricacies of the beauty. There! They’re right there! Newly printed, a mad stack of them. It opened up a whole world for me. I realized then you could actually re-track back.
Bidoun: The comics.
TS: It was like a goldmine. I wish I’d taken those comics and made objects out of them, paintings out of them. It was that kind of enormous discovery, the same kind of radical excitement that I found in Warhol when I first saw the paintings, and I loved them, worshipped them, and they touched me so much. The same way as with Lichtenstein’s work, the brushstrokes. But these comics were at the origins of that. And finding them again — especially because they were new. It wasn’t like finding them in a secondhand store — it was a kiosk, a newsstand. Nobody understood the value, but they were putting it to use.
Bidoun: And all of this came together in Moogambo?
TS: Yes. I mean, I had come there to work with Jack, but he had literally left me out in the rain. And I had my Thousand and One Nights and my Tarzan comics, and I just started to do things with sets and with random people I found. I had an intense energy, nothing mattered except making it happen. There was a Fiarucci store that was closed for renovation, and they had hundreds of tropical plants inside, and I knew I needed them for a photo. So I went in the store and I started pleading with them that they had to let me borrow their plants — I told them that I would give them back and that they were beautiful and I had to have them, and somehow eventually they agreed because they knew I wouldn’t leave otherwise.
Another time there was this miserable march going on, these Italian communists, bearded kids in fatigues like we had worn in New York ten years earlier, marching for some reason or other, chanting. We set up a shot right in the middle of the protest. The cast all had the most outrageous brilliant clothes and colors and psychedelic paisley prints and crazy hair — I did all the makeup myself — and the police came in with jeeps and automatic guns and they told us we were under arrest. And we completely, totally ignored them. We didn’t say a word, and they just stood there with their guns, watching, and I kept doing the makeup and setting up the shot. I was working so intensely. Eventually they just left. But you know, there we were, in the middle of these gray, dreary protesters, and everyone thought we were the disruption. I knew we were way, way ahead of these people.