It is unfair and inexplicable that the figure of Steven Arnold, an eclectic and highly refined artist and influencer ante litteram, has remained so little known: it is only in recent years that people have begun to recognize his exceptional weight, from his visionary work to his central role in the cultural scene of the 30-year period from the 1960s to the 1990s.
Born on May 18, 1943, in Oakland, California, Steven showed a creative nature early on: as a child he spent hours locked in the attic of his home playing with puppets, for which he constructed elaborate costumes. In a sense he never stopped doing this until the end of his life, although by then, instead of puppets, he now had flesh-and-blood models and spectacular sets that he personally composed.
In high school Steven met Pandora (who was to become his muse, collaborator, and best friend), with whom he spent afternoons in his bedroom losing himself in reveries fueled by joints, mysticism, and playful cross-dressing.
In 1961, Arnold won a scholarship to the San Francisco Art Institute. In the summer of 1963 he made a move to Paris, studying at the École des Beaux-Arts, but soon becoming bored, he moved to Formentera where he stayed for three months in a hippie commune. There he tried LSD for the first time, an experience that changed his life, as he later recounted: “this new drug was so euphoric and visionary, so positive and mind expanding. I ascended to another dimension, one so beautiful and spiritual that I was never the same.”
Upon returning to the United States, he devoted himself to his passion for filmmaking, and from the start the prospects were encouraging: his graduation short film, Messages, Messages, was screened at Cannes and other prestigious festivals
For the premiere in San Francisco in February 1968, Arnold decided that he would go big and, together with his collaborator Michael Wiese, rented the Palace Theatre for one evening; in addition to his short film, the evening included screenings of a number of French films selected by Arnold (including works by Méliès and Man Ray). The initiative was a resounding success, with 2,000 tickets sold, so much so that the theater managers suggested that Arnold curate a weekly film review.
Thus, a month later, the Nocturnal Dream Show was born, the very first example of a midnight movies review in history.
The themed evenings, complete with dress code, that Arnold organized at the Palace were not only a chance to see extremely rare films − such silent masterpieces as Metropolis, Betty Boop cartoons, old surrealist films, early twentieth-century pornography − but they soon became a cult phenomenon and a fixture for the Bay Area’s hippie counterculture.
The Nocturnal Dream Shows were also the moment when Steven Arnold’s ability to act as an “attractor” emerged, as he created crazy and colorful happenings, capable of bringing different worlds together: in the audience, among kids smoking pot or engaging in free love, it was not uncommon to run into actors, artists and writers of the caliber of George Harrison, Ellen Burstyn, Janis Joplin, Truman Capote or Tennessee Williams.
During those years Arnold, while staying out of the spotlight, had a major influence on fashion and visual culture: not only did he design some of the first rock posters for the famous Matrix nightclub (where the “San Francisco sound” was historically born), or invented the look that would be made famous a few years later by Tim Curry in the Rocky Horror Picture Show, but he also gave for the first time the opportunity to perform on a stage to The Cockettes, a drag and psychedelic theater collective that immediately became a cornerstone of the San Francisco underground scene.
Meanwhile, Arnold also continued his directing career, signing in 1971 Luminous Procuress, an experimental and lysergic feature film that once again was acclaimed at the Cannes Film Festival.
Two years later, Arnold met Salvador Dali at the St. Regis Hotel in New York, where the Surrealist painter was residing with his entourage. Dali, who was certainly not known for the generosity of his compliments, exploded into unprecedented enthusiasm when he saw Arnold’s work. He rented the hotel’s huge ballroom to screen Luminous Procuress; the entire New York elite, including Andy Warhol, attended the event.
From that moment on, Arnold became his protégé. He often sat at Dali’s feet like an adept before his guru, or by his side during dinner, and soon the two became inseparable. In the alternate reality they created together, they spent hours devising fantastical garments, dreamlike designs and surreal inventions
The following year Dalí invited him to Spain to work on the decorations of his Theater-Museum in Figueres. After attending the opening, he definitely became a favorite of Dali, who called him the Prince of his Court of Miracles — that is, the parterre of stars who revolved around him, from Amanda Lear to Marianne Faithfull, from Mick Jagger to David Bowie.
It was after his experience with Salvador Dali in the mid-1970s that Steven Arnold found his most congenial medium of expression: photography.
He rented an abandoned pretzel factory in Los Angeles, which he renamed Zanzibar Studios and turned into his laboratory. There he began shooting his extraordinary black-and-white tableau vivants, creating elaborate, baroque sets from the endless props and clothes he had collected over the years.
Steven Arnold’s photographs, to which he ascribed spiritual value and which he approached as meditation exercises, propose a veritable surreal cosmology in which reverence for the divine is diluted by a blunt camp humor. Here angelic and ethereal figures are depicted through a seductive, erotically charged carnality in a playful celebration of fluidity (ahead of its time). It is no coincidence that one of the deities Arnold was most fond of was Guanyin, the “drag” Buddha who is depicted in female form in parts of East Asia.
The density of the visual layout and the striking attention to detail also suggest an essential element of Arnold’s photography: even when he engages in ironic, queer reworking of religious icons, he shows no intent to shock the viewer. On the contrary, what emerges is the search for a language well-suited for his generation, capable of approaching mysticism and the sacred in a joyful and imaginative way. The images on which his pictures are based, in fact, often came to him in his dreams or during meditation; transposing these visions thus became a shamanic, almost priestly act, and at the same time theatrical, as if he was staging the unrepresentable.
From time to time inspired by his dream world, religions and Jungian archetypes, Arnold produced a vast body of photographs, sketches, sculptures and assemblages. At the same time he cultivated extensive social relationships, and his studio soon became a new hub for gatherings, daily parties and aperitifs attended by famous names and emerging artists.
Unfortunately, in 1988, just when he was at the height of his popularity, Arnold received the most dreaded diagnosis, that of AIDS.
In this excerpt from an interview with Ellen Burstyn, his close friend, we see him address the subject with the grace and irony that were his hallmarks.
After his death in 1994, Steven Arnold’s name and work remained relatively unknown to the general public for a long time.
Recently, thanks in part to the work of Vishnu Dass, director of the Steven Arnold Museum and Archives (and author of a documentary about the artist’s eccentric and unconventional life), his importance is beginning to be recognized — not only as a visual artist of great originality, but as a pioneering figure in queer culture as well. As Dass himself stated in an interview, “the things that he was really nurturing and fostering in his studio spaces are what people are fighting for in the culture at large today; and he had already made that a reality within the walls of his studios in the Sixties.”
Here is the wonderful Instagram page of the Steven Arnold Archives.