No. 6 – Buenos Aires, September 2004.
James Bidgood lives secluded in New York, he doesn’t want to be interviewed or to know anything about the art world. He suffers from “post-traumatic stress” because of producers who stole his film, edited it and erased his name. A fascinating story told by Laura Batkis.
James Bidgood produced Pink Narcissus in the early ’60s, one of the first pornographic films with an aesthetic linked to glamour that places him, like the glam rock of David Bowie’s beginnings, among the most interesting artists of this style. Why wasn’t the work of this author known? Especially since it’s today so widely copied by artists and photographers? Who knows. Like any official story, art history is only one version, among others, of the choice of a critic, the manipulation of the market and the imposition of dubious canons of quality that the public meekly, and without option of defending itself, obediently obeys. If Bidgood’s work was obscene and pornographic at the time, today, many art icons such as Pierre et Gilles and Jeff Koons owe a lot to, and are direct heirs of the “Bidgood aesthetic”.
James Bidgood’s production is very scarce and powerful. His films and photographs were made between 1963 and 1970, in bodybuilding magazines, before the appearance of the so-called explicit pornography. In weekly magazines such as Physique or Musclebody, he developed a sexual imagery through metaphors full of glamorous paradises, with beautiful Ephebos wrapped in gauze, glitter and a whole saga referencing the fantastic imagery of fairy tales.
Born in Wisconsin in 1933, he settled in New York at the age of 18 and earned a place working as a drag queen at Club 82 in Manhattan. At the beginning he only prepared his routines, but later he began to design the sets and costumes. It was then when he decided to study art at Parsons School of Design. In the meantime, he earned a living as a photographer. What shaped his personal style was the attention to detail and the invention of stories. Each series involved a specific topic, a narrative in which he allowed a broader possibility in the reading of the image. This is why in his photographs the viewer can concentrate on the oiled muscles of the models or be fascinated by an enchanting world in which sex is just a part of a romantic adventure. There are some series closely linked to the psychedelia of the art of the time. In Nude Painters, the models pose in front of a colorful mural taken directly from the aesthetics of pop art. And in another series, Richie and Jom show their half-naked bodies against a background of multiple black dots that generate the visual sensations of virtual movement common to op art.
The environment where the artist set up his productions was always a small room in his apartment; he never had what one would call a professional studio. In 1962 he met his favorite model, Bobby Kendall, a teenager with full lips and black eyes. And it was with him as the main character with whom he took on his most ambitious project, the erotic film Pink Narcissus, on which he worked for six and a half years, and which today constitutes a cult object in homoerotic filmography. The film is a full ritual of adoration of the young male body, based on the myth of Narcissus as an allegorical journey from innocent naivety to the discovery of sexuality.
Executed with an absolutely rudimentary technique, the entire film, like his photos, was made on the set of a room in his own apartment. There are no outdoor scenes, and it is precisely the artificiality of the environment that produces an environment of false luxury and mystery, with plastic landscapes and silks hung from fans to simulate clouds, fabric flowers and transparent cellophane doors.
Pink Narcissus is James Bidgood’s masterpiece, but it was also the beginning of a nightmare that pushed him to his personal destruction. The crisis happened with the arrival of apparent benefactors who offered to produce the film, and transfer the format from 8mm to 16mm. During this process, many of the original shots were lost. The production company Sherpix decided to invest money in the film on the condition that the artist had to finish it as soon as possible in order to start distributing it. But Bidgood’s time, with his obsessive attention to detail, exceeded the agreed time, and one day Sherpix disappeared, taking the film to edit it without the director’s participation.
In 1971 the film was released in 35 mm, and in the credits Bidgood’s name was replaced by “Anonymous”. It circulated through a large number of gay film festivals around the world, under the rumor that the author was someone who wanted to keep his homosexuality hidden. In 1994, the distributor Strand Releasing produced a new version for film, in which only the name of the leading actor, Bobby Kendall, appeared.
Fallen into a deep depression, in 1985 Bidgood destroyed sketches and remaining copies of his film. Although he acknowledges being the author of the Pink Narcissus, he does not feel responsible for the edition that today circulates neither in the Festivals or in video, and prefers that the “Anonymous” as director be preserved.
Today, James Bidgood lives secluded somewhere in New York. He wants no connection with the art market. He works designing costumes for plays such as The Importance of Being Earnest or Cyrano. For the last couple of years, he has been writing an autobiography in the style of a dramatic comedy, from his beginnings as a drag queen to the moment his partner died. Today many artists around the world admire his work, appropriate it and quote him for the relevance of a style that in the late twentieth century combined the sophisticated atmosphere of his work with certain topics of kitsch and popular subtaste.
Pierre & Gilles
This French duo has been working together since 1977. Their photos are direct shots, hand painted. Mythological and religious scenes with a kitsch setting, full of elements from India, Morocco, Sri Lanka and the Maldives.
Born in New York in 1955, he became known in the city when in 1991 he married the queen of porn, Ilona Staller, and later exhibited his series Made in Heaven. In the center of a set that looks like Disneyland, he had himself photographed in every sexual position imaginable with Cicciolina. Informally, this meant something like “I fuck my wife and sell you the photo”. And he sold them all.
BY LAURA BATKIS