Please don’t take me for granted – I’m a rare
Freak of nature and now is the time to appreciate
What I am saying to the Earth
Love, Steven Arnold
September 10, 1990
I think it’s pretty obvious that I’m someone who lives for outsider art and culture, and like the other contributors to Dangerous Minds, it’s fun for me, as that kind of extreme “infomaniac,” to be able to marquee for our readers in some way the various weird things that I know about, stumble across acidentally or that gets submitted to us. A big part of the enjoyment also comes from seeing what everyone else comes up with—I get it at just about the same time that you do—and the most fun of all is when I get to discover something that’s totally unknown to me that perhaps I should have known about, but didn’t.
I’m usually pretty hard to stump, but it’s the best thing ever, as far as I’m concerned, when that does happen. Like with the work of Steven Arnold. Prior to March of this year, I’d never heard of him. For a straight guy, I actually happen to know quite a bit about 20th century queer underground art films (Warhol, Toshio Matsumoto’s Funeral Parade of Roses, John Waters, Jean Genet, Kenneth Anger, Thundercrack, Andy Milligan, Black Lizard Jack Smith’s Beautiful Creatures and Normal Love, the Kuchar Brothers, Pink Narcissus, etc.—it’s not all that long of a list). But Steven Arnold? Nope, doesn’t ring a bell.
Steven Arnold, who died in 1994, is one of the greatest—albeit, admittedly rather unfairly obscure—avant garde photographic geniuses America has ever produced. First I stumbled across his 1971 cult movie Luminous Procuress—a jaw-dropping surrealist film praised by both Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol—on Vimeo (I was researching something on The Cockettes) and then I was positively stunned by what I saw on display at the exhaustive website about his work, The Steven Arnold Archive, maintained by Stephanie Farago (a wonderful artist in her own right).
Here’s a slightly abridged version of Arnold’s bio from the site:
Steven Arnold (1943–1994) was a California-based multi-media artist, spiritualist, gender bender, and protegee of Salvador Dali. His work consisted of drawings, paintings, rock and film posters, makeup design, costume design, set design, photography and film.
Steven also played an instrumental role in giving The Cockettes, the famed psychedelic San Francisco drag troupe, their first chance to perform on stage in exchange for free tickets to his “Nocturnal Dream Show” – which was among the first-ever Midnight Movie showcases. This launched The Cockettes into underground fame.
Early in his career, Steven also nurtured a prolific creative relationship with pioneer of the wearable art movement Kaisik Wong which lasted until Kaisik’s death in 1989. Their work together included the production and design of a play titled Dragonfly, and several tableaux vivant photography collaborations. Throughout his life, Steven’s eccentric modes of expression led him to the upper-crust of both coasts, including encounters, in some cases lifelong friendships, with the likes of Vogue’s Diana Vreeland, actress Ellen Burstyn, psychedelic explorer Timothy Leary, Jay Leno, The Cars, George Harrison, Blondie‘s Debbie Harry, Divine, and Warhol Superstar Holly Woodlawn.
Among Steven’s most notable early works is a rarely-seen film gem titled Luminous Procuress, starring Pandora and featuring The Cockettes, which was lauded by Salvador Dali, and Andy Warhol, among others. In fact, Dali was so impressed with the film, that he invited Steven, Pandora (Steven’s muse, and the film’s star), Kaisik Wong, and their entourage to help him open his Dali Theater-Museum in Figueres, Spain. Luminous Procuress was edited and scored by electronic music forefather Warner Jepson. The film continues to be screened worldwide, including showings at the Tate Modern, London, and CPH:DOX, Denmark. Steven’s films have been recently featured Museum of the Moving Image, the Tate Modern, London, and the List Visual Art Center Film Night at MIT.
Although his early film work garnered him much attention, Steven was best known for his exquisite, surreal, black & white tableau vivant photography produced from the old pretzel factory he called Zanzibar Studios in Los Angeles. His photography has been exhibited at the Tate Modern, London; the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris; and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles; among others. Steven Arnold’s works are in the collections of the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; Frankfurter Kunstverein, Frankfurt, Germany; the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), New York; Cinematheque Francaise, Paris, France; the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SF MoMA); the Oakland Museum of California; and the Cincinnati Art Museum. His works are in the private collections of: Mikhail Baryshnikov, Ellen Burstyn, Cher, Salvador Dali, Goldie Hawn, Yves St. Laurent, Diana Vreeland, and many others. Steven published three books of photography during his lifetime: Reliquaries, with a foreword by Ellen Burstyn, Epiphanies, with afterword by James Leo Herlihy, and Angels of Night. Steven Arnold Stemmle Edition, a photographic retrospective, was published posthumously.
Steven Arnold’s work exists at a delicate intersection of Luis Buñuel, Ken Anger,The Rocky Horror Picture Show, 50’s Hollywood glamour photography, Pink Narcissus, Joel-Peter Witkin and Jack Smith. I’ve never seen anything else even remotely like it, although I can also see an influence Arnold’s work might have had on Rocky Schenk’s wonderfully artsy portraits and the highly-styled portraiture landscapes of Josef Astor.
Steven Arnold, in his own words:
“I interview myself all day long – Doesn’t everyone? Rant and rave about bliss, the creative process angels listening to higher message-appreciation of one’s gifts. The best way to elevate consciousness is to do the work with love. Love is sharing the message.”
“Art is revolution or it’s nothing.”
For more information on the life and work of Steven Arnold, visit The Steven Arnold Archive. I recommend downloading the PDF file of the proposed coffee table book on Arnold which you can find here.
A new exhibit, Steven Arnold: Cabinet of Curiosities, a retrospective of this groundbreaking yet under-recognized queer artist will be on display through January 12, 2013 at the ONE National Gay & Lesbian Archives, 626 North Robertson Boulevard in West Hollywood. The exhibition celebrates Arnold’s radical imagination, presenting many of his tableaux vivant photographs alongside never before exhibited drawings, sketchbooks, paintings and original poster art. In conjunction with the exhibition, ONE will screen Arnold’s four films, including Luminous Procuress on the exhibit’s closing day, Saturday, January 12, 2013
Below, Luminous Procuress (you can purchase all of Arnold’s films on DVD and support The Steven Arnold Archive):
Arnold’s 1967 short, The Liberation of Mannique Mechanique: