The Art of Jack Smith

As Collectors Warm to His Work, A Legal Battle Begins

Detail of a drawing by Smith, circa 1969.

hide captionDetail of a drawing by Smith, circa 1969. Smith is considered one of the original multimedia artists, working in film, photography, sketches, sculpture, collage and costume design.

Collection of Maria Antoinette and Edwin Ruda, from the book Jack Smith & Maria Antoinette, Blue Chip Publishing, 2003

Jack Smith was a multimedia artist before the terms became common. He shot photographs, made films, sculptures, collages and costumes. He was popular among artists; Andy Warhol called him a major influence and Federico Fellini was a fan.

But Smith was never a financial success. When he died of AIDS in 1989, he was broke and his studio was in shambles.

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After his death, friends and admirers set up The Plaster Foundation to preserve Smith's art. The foundation's lawyer, Mary Dorman, say Smith's friends saved his art from the trash.

Smith was estranged from his family. In a sworn affidavit, Smith's sister Mary Sue Slater said she avoided her brother because her husband feared their son might be tainted by Smith's homosexuality.

According to Dorman, when Smith died, Slater claimed jewelry, a table and negotiable bonds, but abandoned everything else. (Slater declined an NPR request for an interview).

But that abandoned artwork is rising in value. There are several books out about Smith's life, and three New York galleries have shown his work this fall.

And now, as David D'Arcy reports, the family that rarely saw Smith wants his art back.

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