Having A Cow

After dropping in on the National Portrait Gallery's daylong symposium [it's still going on, in fact] connected to Hide/Seek just now, and though I only saw two presentations, whoa--I feel like a cigarette.

Jonathan Katz, co-curator of Hide/Seek, titled his paper: The Sexuality of Abstraction: Agnes Martin, and he rather amazingly addressed Martin's embrace of the substantive stasis of Zen as an alternative to the more prevalent and problematic model of the closet for not addressing her lesbianism. Which she at once did and did not do in some of her formative early New York work, and which she very much did not do when she wrote and talked so extensively about her work.

One particular work, a 1961 drawing titled Cow, for example, has been traced to an illustration in her D.T. Suzuki book, where an oxherder and an ox contemplate a circle in a square. And then Katz read a quote from the artist's statements from one of Martin first shows in NYC, in which she quoted a famously, directly erotic Gertrude Stein poem--but stopped right before the hot parts. And--who knew? not I--he read some other famous-among-lesbians poem where Stein rather rhythmically builds up, and up, and up, to the moment of climax--which is symbolized by a cow. Suffice it to say, Katz's phrase, "Stein's orgasmic cows" is now right next to Gorky's "cosmic vulva" in the modernist discourse. [Holy smokes, I just Googled "cosmic vulva" and Gorky and came up empty. Have I not told that story? My apologies. Let me rest up, and then I'll get right back into it. I'm not 19 anymore, you know.]

Anyway, hot on the heels of Martin's Zen sex koans, Dominic Johnson presented work from his forthcoming book on Jack Smith's 1963 film Flaming Creatures and what he calls the "burden of disgust."

I'd heard the general story of the obscenity controversy around Flaming Creatures, prints of which were seized by police, and became the basis for several criminal obscenity cases and appeals. But I had no idea that when Lyndon Johnson was nominating Abe Fortas to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in 1968, conservative senators, led by Strom Thurmond, raised Fortas's criticism of the Flaming Creatures convictions as evidence of liberalism's inherent perversity.

And that to make his point--are you sitting down? You really should be sitting down--Thurmond organized a Senate screening of Flaming Creatures during the Fortas hearings. And he sandwiched Smith's avant-garde piece between a random strip-tease film, and a couple of run-of-the-mill straight hardcore porn flicks. At the Senate. Charles Keating apparently told Newsweek that the film was so disgusting, it didn't even arouse him. This he told to Newsweek.

Sometimes it feels like you think you know the world you're living in, and sometimes, wow, you just don't.

WOW, HAS IT BEEN TWO YEARS? UPDATE I was searching to see about Johnson's Jack Smith book, and I found the videos of the "Hide/Seek" symposium presentations, so I added them here. Good times.

Meanwhile, the book, Glorious Catastrophe: Jack Smith, performance and visual culture, was released last summer. I haven't seen it, or any reviews of it, which seems unusual.

Since 2001 here at greg.org, I've been blogging about the creative process—my own and those of people who interest me. That mostly involves filmmaking, art, writing, research, and the making thereof.

Many thanks to the Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Program for supporting greg.org that time.

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first published: January 29, 2011.

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