Duncan Smith

The Age of Oil, Slate, New York, 1987.

The near invisibility, online as well as off, of writer Duncan Smith (1954-1991) is a stark reminder of how thoroughly information can go missing, or never emerge at all. The barely visible traces left by Smith, who published little during his lifetime, can be easily and briefly enumerated: The Age of Oil, his 1987 book of essays, long out of print and extremely rare; a few articles in the back issues of Flash Art, Artforum, Semiotext(e) and Art & Text (most of which were reprinted in The Age of Oil); a catalogue essay for a show of graffiti art at a Munich gallery; a contribution to a book on painter Alain Jacquet, and the text (partly co-authored with Diego Cortez) for a book of photographs of Elvis Presley during his Army years in Germany. The only examples of his writing currently online are two brief essays and his translation of a text by Friedrich Schlegel on the website of Bomb Magazine, which published him while he was alive.

Oddly, Smith may be best known not for his writing but for his appearance in Eric Mitchell’s film Kidnapped (1978), an hour-long Super-8 document of No Wave Cinema viewable on YouTube. Yet even here his presence is elusive. The author of a recent article on Kidnapped is at a loss to identify Smith beyond his name: “It’s a hangout movie with Mitchell, actress and No Wave fixture Patti Astor, Mudd Club co-founder and James Chance (of The Contortions) manager Anya Phillips, Teenage Jesus and the Jerks bass player Gordon Stevenson, and the mysterious Duncan Smith.” In other discussions of Kidnapped and the downtown scene, people who are apparently unfamiliar with his writings often misidentify Smith as an artist.[1]

Still from Eric Mitchell, Kidnapped, 1978, with Duncan Smith (on right).

None of this would be worth commenting on—after all, history, even recent history, is full of forgotten authors, obscure bohemians and marginal cultural figures—were it not for the fact that Smith was a writer and theorist of striking originality. Valuable in their own right, his experiments with language paralleled and very likely influenced the work of important visual artists of the 1980s. Smith was also a candid chronicler of New York City gay life, pre and post AIDS, and a sharp-eyed observer of American popular culture. Wielding a self-invented style that pushed the strategies of post-structuralism into the realm of experimental literature, Smith mined Freud, Lacan and Derrida to pursue his own obsessive theories of language and society. Beginning in the late 1970s, long before Chris Kraus’s I Love Dick, he dared to mix confession and critical theory in a radical manner that is as close to his literary contemporaries such as Kathy Acker as to any postmodern art theorist.

Typically, Smith’s essays begin with a fragment extracted from everyday existence—a common phrase, an object, an encounter—which he then subjects to a series of variations and deformations that draw on classical rhetoric and psychoanalysis. The departure point for “Reflection on Rhetoric in Bars” is Smith and a friend being pushed out of a bar at closing time. “Why Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” unpacks the clichéd phrase of the title. The brief text “On Wit” meditates on the significance of the popping of a champagne cork.” Smith’s most favored source, however, is the entertainment industry. The first essay in The Age of Oil, for instance, offers an explanation of Elvis Presley’s propensity to give away expensive cars, which Smith traces back to the singer’s obsession with his mother and his twin brother who died at birth. As in much of Smith’s writing, “An Interpretation of Elvis’s Car Giving” hinges on proper names, and frequently resorts to italics. It opens like this:

Elvis Aaron Presley’s fantasy of physical contact with his mother, Gladys Love Smith, and his dead twin brother, Jesse Garon, forced him to keep these words muffled and secret inside himself. Their uncanny return took the shape of giving away Cadillacs. Right away the letters in Gladys haunt Graceland: both names contains g’s, l’s, a’s and d’s. Garon was privileged with a letter Elvis Aaron lacked, the crucial g that primordially differentiated Elvis’s middle name Aaron from the dead twin Garon. This g would the return later in Elvis’s life. His last girlfriend, Ginger Alden, had all the letters that Gladys and Graceland had in common.”

Over the next three and a half pages—this is one of his shorter pieces—we learn how the name “Cadillac” can be read as “a virtual rebus of events in Elvis’s life” as Smith uses the brand’s three syllables (“cad” “ill” and “lac”) to uncover the rock ‘n’ roller’s hidden motivations. Elvis’s choice of Cadillacs as gifts is, in Smith’s account, over-determined. His mother, it appears, fell in love with Cadillacs when she saw a “fine lady” drive up to a hospital in one. “This very hospital,” Smith observes, “with its doctors and sophisticated medical technology could have relieved her of the death of Jesse Garon.” With his first paycheck from Colonel Parker, Elvis bought his mother a Cadillac, a car whose name, says Smith, “echoes the name Garon whose bereavement would last all the Presleys’ lives.” For Elvis, Smith speculates, the first syllable of “Cadillac” mirrors his propensity for misbehaving, sparked by his guilt for being the surviving twin: “With cad one is first struck by the association with a cad, a bad boy, a jilter. The radical innocence of a dead infant perpetually stipulated that the evils of Elvis would prove him a cad, a bad boy.” After spinning phrases around “ill” and “lac” Smith arrives, in the penultimate paragraph, at the word “car”: “This car was made possible by Colonel Parker’s deal with RCA, Elvis’s new record company. Car and RCA are anagrams. The car/Cadillac was also the RCA/Cadillac that would be able to buy his mother gifts that filled the lack of Garon.”

Cover of Private Elvis, Fey, Stuttgart, 1978.

Smith had been pondering the mystery of Elvis at least since 1978, when he contributed texts to Diego Cortez’s book Private Elvis, which contained a recently discovered trove of Army-era photographs from Elvis’s time in Germany. In his book Dead Elvis, Greil Marcus devotes several pages to Cortez and Smith’s book and quotes a passage by Smith that includes the sentence “It’s not like Elvis produced any of it, he is ex-centric to his own Elvishood,” which prompts Marcus to comment “My god, what a phrase.” (This is one of the few mentions of Smith’s writing; Dead Elvis was published in 1991, the year Smith died.)

The word “car” assumes far greater significance in “Calling All Cars,” the longest piece in The Age of Oil and, to my mind, the fullest expression of Smith’s vision. (In an afterword to The Age of Oil, Smith, who supported himself as a typist from 1978 to 1986, explains that “Calling All Cars” is the only piece in the book he “composed free from the exigencies of secretarial duties.”) Before revealing itself as an extreme venture into “cryptonymic” writing, “Calling All Cars” starts off as a conventional meditation on the symbolic function of the automobile: “No one living nowadays can avoid the pervasiveness of the car. No one can qualify their existence as independent of its influence and control.” A few pages in, however, Smith zeroes in on the word “car” and the essay takes off in unpredictable directions. When written in “allegorical majuscule,” as Smith calls it, “car” or CAR, becomes a glyph of itself: CAR forms “the constellation of The Eye, The Road and The Door. Its C speaks See. Its A speaks Road whose disappearance into the horizon resembles A’s pointed tip. And its R speaks Door whose diagonal stroke mimics the caR door when it opens.” Smith then explains that many other words are concealed within the word car and proposes to reveal them through “respelling,” which involves substituting letters:

the C can always become a CH, G, J, K, Qu and X. A can always become another vowel. . . . R can become L, since the two are ‘liquids,’ consonants that behave almost like vowels. Anything that partakes this respelling utters the CAR, however far it has driven from its source. The buried respelling of CAR within words is called the anagrammatic cryptophor.

Smith thus gives himself permission to find the word “car” embedded within a seemingly endless series of names, in particular the names of Hollywood stars. There is a “simple series” that includes “Carrol Baker, Claudia Cardinale, Kitty Carlisle, Art Carney, Leslie Caron, Leo G. Carroll, Johnny Carson,” etc., which then can “angulate in GAR” which brings in names such as Greta Garbo (“a cryptophor for ‘car beau’ or ‘beautiful car’”), Ann-Margaret, Dirk Bogarde, Humphrey Bogart, Gary Cooper.” Smith then moves on to KER (Deborah Kerr “pronounced ‘car’”), LUG (Bela Lugosi), QUEL (Raquel Welch) before pivoting to political figures: John Fitzgerald Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford (as in the make of car), Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan” which all, he says, support his “argument for the CAR as America’s supreme pleasure word.”

A tireless hunter, Smith detects variations (of which I give here only a small sampling) on the word “car” everywhere he looks, in the brand names of cars (Cougar, Mercury) and as well as in the names of stars (Harrison Ford, Burt Reynolds (as in Oldsmobile), Chevy Chase, while Rex Harrison’s first name is a homonym for “wrecks” and car-related words inhabit the names of various actors and actresses: “lane” (Burt Lancaster), “road” (Barbara Rhodes) “way” (Faye Dunaway) “tire” (John MacIntire). Even anagrams of “tire” within names qualifies names on his list: Fred Astaire, Marlene Dietrich, Barbara Streisand, as do variations on “oil.”

For the next 22 pages, Smith ventures ever further in his quest for cryptrograms, roping in not only Hollywood stars, but also fashion designers, the terminology of the cosmetics industry, drug-taking and disco-dancing. Along the way there are cameos by Plato, John DeLorean and Bill Blass, and a prophetic passage on the melding of humans and machines through prosthetic surgery. Nothing holds him back. It’s as if each more improbable connection, each further respelling, drives him—now I am falling under the spell—to a still more extreme connection, a more oblique cryptogram. Often metaphors inspire micro-narratives, sentences that could be lines from a film script: coffee is “what those truckers quaff when they stop for gas”, celebrities drive “loaded with drugs as their cars are loaded with oil” and “the sound created by the stylus associates with the sound created by the car. Whether our radios are on or not, the sound happens all the time. Nearly everyone lives near a road from which issues the sound of tires grating down the pavement.” His italic-ridden sentences can drift to the edge of abstract poetry: “The ca in car is an echo of go. (And an echo of go is in echo.) The ca (r) must go.”

As happens periodically in his essays, Smith incorporates aspects of his social life into “Calling All Cars.” Having posited a relationship between cars and vinyl records (which are made from oil, the focus of another great essay, “On the Current Symbolic Status of Oil”), Smith recalls how ”various New York discos I’ve visited, such as Studio 54, the Saint, the Roxy, mimic this car/road stylus/groove idea.” Thinking about what he calls the “’fast lanes’ of gay society,” Smith observes that the “‘tight jeans’ crowd, those addicted to improbable surfaces, oil-derived music, stimulants, muscles, amyl nitrate (a snorted drug that smells like oil), smoking tar-rife faggots (cigarettes) appear to have assimilated the car-ideal quite thoroughly.”

There are no footnotes in “Calling All Cars,” but in a brief parenthetical sentence toward the end, Smith drops a hint about the source of his cryptogrammatic method: Jacques Derrida’s essay “Fors,” first published as an introduction to Nicolas Abraham and Maria Torok’s Cryptonymie: Le verbier de l’Homme aux loups (a text Smith also cites in Private Elvis). (An English translation of “Fors” was published in the Georgia Review in 1977; in 1986, the University of Minnesota Press published a translation of Abraham and Torok’s book under the title The Wolf Man’s Magic Word, with Derrida’s foreward,)  In Cryptonymie, Abraham and Torok propose what they call “psychoanalytic listening” as a means to uncover buried structures. Focusing on Freud’s “Wolf Man” case they examine the linguistic mechanisms of repression. In a tour de force of deconstruction, Derrida admiringly analyzes Abraham and Torok’s method, their quest for “rhymes” that will allow them to decipher clues to repressed memories, their notion of the divided self as a crypt from which only strangely encoded words can escape. In a crucial sentence, Derrida writes that since a certain word was “forbidden because it would betray the scene of the encrypted desire” it could only be “replaced not by a single other word, nor by a thing, but by translations, into words or into rebus symptoms . . . . Cryptonomy would thus not consist in representing-hiding one word by another, one thing by another, a thing by a word or a word by a thing, but by picking out in the extended series of allosemes, a term that then…is translated into a synonym.” It seems to have been Smith’s conviction that a similar cryptonomic process was at work throughout American society, and that it was his task to track down the repressed content, the encrypted desires, for the health of the culture.

In “Turning the Urn” (Flash Art, Summer 1988), an especially valuable text because it includes Smith’s most explicit description of his methods, Smith shifts from Hollywood to the artworld. Practicing what he now calls “emblematic criticism,” Smith subjects the names of artists to procedures based on rhetorical devices: “hypogram, anagram, antonomasia, paronomasia, cryptophor, and homonym.” A cryptophor, he explains, “is a figure that secretly haunts a word or name, as ‘black’ Bleckner, ‘quiet’ Basquiat, ‘shard’ Scharf, ‘hearing’ Haring, ‘jacket’ Jacquet, ‘garish’ Garet.” He adds several dozen homonyms, names that have secondary meanings, which he separates into categories (names that are also names of colors, names that can also be verbs, names that are adjectives). In some cases, it is the visual appearance of the artists’ names that he subjects to an “emblematic” reading (similar to how he found car-related forms in CAR): “Pollock’s l’s loom throughout his Blue Poles or de Kooning’s o’s in the breasts of his Women series. Silent is the t in Basquiat, yet it surfaces in the corners of his eccentrically framed canvases.”


Jean-Michel Basquiat, CPRKR, 1982, acrylic, oil paintstick and paper collage on canvas with exposed wood supports and twine, 60 by 40 inches.

As much as I enjoy and admire Smith’s name games, there are times when his quest for cryptophors leads not to thought-provoking connections but only to associations that seem arbitrary. “Black” doesn’t strike me as specific to Ross Bleckner, nor “hearing” relevant to Keith Haring, though possibly “garish” encapsulates an aspect of Jedd Garet’s early 1980s paintings. The notion that doubled letters in Pollock’s and DeKooning’s names resemble motifs in their paintings, however, I find hard to take seriously. But just as I am about to dismiss “emblematic criticism” tout court, I reread the sentence “Silent is the t in Basquiat, yet it surfaces in the corners of his eccentrically framed canvases” and suddenly I have to pause. While I am not convinced that Basquiat unconsciously used projecting wooden supports because they resembled the silent “t” at the end of his name, I am at least willing to consider the possibility, and while I am doing so I find myself paying fresh attention to an important aspect of Basquiat’s work (the exposed wood supports), reflecting on the Francophone aspect of his Afro-Caribbean heritage, and, last but not least, thinking about how the prevalence of words, of letters, in his paintings may, intentionally or not, be echoed by the crossed slats of wood at the corners of paintings such as LNAPRK (1982) and CPRKR (1982).

Jean-Michel Basquiat and Duncan Smith. It’s a pairing that has nagged at me for a long time. Their overlaps, their shared strategies, their common vocabularies may constitute one of the most striking writer-artist encounters of recent decades. But as far as I know, no one has speculated in writing about the relationship between Smith’s writing and Basquiat’s art. I’m not sure exactly why. Perhaps because of the deep obscurity of Smith’s legacy, and perhaps because, apart from the brief mention in “Turning the Urn,” Smith never wrote about Basquiat’s art. (By the time that “Turning the Urn” was published, Smith was HIV positive and no longer living in New York City. The byline of the Flash Art article reads: “Duncan Smith is a writer who is pursuing a Ph.D in Classics at Cornell University.” Basquiat died that same year, 1988.)

But if one knows about Smith’s life in New York, about his proximity to Basquiat, it’s impossible to read his essay “On the Current Symbolic Status of Oil” and not come away convinced that the two must have exchanged ideas, must have influenced each another, must have thought the same thoughts.

Here is a passage from “On the Current Symbolic Status of Oil”:

In another vein, without oil there would be no art. In art, there’s the word tar, an anagram. Tar is derived from oil. Painters, of course, use oil to make their art. There are many kinds of oil, or many tars: vinyl, records, acrylic, etc. Artists need tar. Artists/musicians need tar/oil, the same kind of oil that’s involved in the manufacture of records, Painters and musicians employ different art forms or they use different tar forms. Some of them can become a star after becoming successful with their art made of tar, such tar allowing them to goe [sic] far. The anagrams arts/stars/tars are crucial to the symbols that determine an identification in our culture.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1981, acrylic, oil and oilstick on wood panel, 35 by 18 inches.

It’s well known that Basquiat used the word “tar” on his SAMO tags, and inscribed the word onto many paintings and drawings. The word was crucial enough to him that it figured in the name of a record label he created (Tartown), and that he used it instead of his own name on the buzzer of his SoHo loft and wrote it on the door of an old refrigerator (later to be venerated as an iconic artwork). It’s also well known that he was deeply involved with vinyl records, collecting them, transcribing material from covers of his favorite LPs onto his paintings. Further, cars were one of the most frequently recurring motifs in his art. Generally associated with a childhood incident when Basquiat was hospitalized after being struck by a car, the car motif is also open to non-biographical readings. Smith’s immersion in exactly this vocabulary, these materials, his embrace of similar metaphors, makes passages in his writing seem like commentaries on Basquiat’s paintings.

At the same time that Smith was emerging as a writer (1980-1982), publishing texts in Bomb, Semiotexte and File that articulated and put into practice his theory of language, Basquiat was emerging as a painter, one who was increasingly focused on writing. As Basquiat expert Richard Marshall observed (In Word Only, Cheim and Read, 2005), “by 1982, Basquiat was obsessed with words, and they appeared everywhere, often as the sole visual content of a work.” Because both were drawn to materiality of language, often involving the visual impact of capital letters, Basquiat and Smith were traveling similar paths, even without their common fascination with “tar,” a fascination which, of course, involved different experiences: the blackness of the substance, its connotations in the history of American slavery and racism (the term “tar baby,” for instance), would have meant different things to Basquiat, a black man, than to Smith, a white man.

Jean-Michel Basquiat, Untitled, 1981, acrylic, oilstick and metallic spray enamel on canvas, 68 by 103 inches.

It’s conceivable that Smith did have the work of Basquiat in mind when he was writing “On the Current Symbolic Status of Oil,” though its publication dates to 1980, a year that saw Basquiat only beginning to transition from his street-based work as SAMO to an artist exhibiting paintings in galleries and museums, and, by Smith’s own account, had been written in 1979 (“I wrote this essay during the hostage crisis in Iran,” Smith says on page 69.) It’s also conceivable that Basquiat had read some of Smith’s texts, and had conversations with him. They certainly knew each other. Diego Cortez, Smith’s collaborator on Private Elvis, is by most accounts the person who first presented Basquiat’s work to the artworld (in the 1981 P.S.1 show “New York-New Wave,” in which Smith was included on the list of participants). Smith was friendly with Patti Astor, who also appeared with him in Kidnapped and who, in 1981, opened Fun Gallery, the first gallery to show graffiti-affiliated artists, including Basquiat. As it happens, Smith provided the occasion for what is possibly the first meeting of the downtown and uptown art scenes. In a 2012 interview Astor recalls that it began when she met Fred Brathwaite, an artist, filmmaker and rapper better known as Fab Five Freddy.

Underground U.S.A. [a film by Eric Mitchell] was running as the midnight movie there for about six months. This is the end of 1980, and no one downtown had heard of rap music, break dancing or graffiti art. It did not exist. We had no idea it was going on. It was all going on in the South Bronx and in Brooklyn. Fab had dragged Futura and a couple of other guys down to see the movie. So the next day, I think it was… I was really hung over, I remember… Duncan Smith, who was a poet-philosopher, was having a big party at his loft for the 100th birthday of Stéphane Mallarmé, the poet. He was serving vodka and cucumber sandwiches. So we’re there, and I see this black guy… which was not that usual on the scene… with the porkpie hat and the shades and everything, and I’m like, “Woah, who’s that?” And of course, everyone was too cool to introduce us. It was a birthday party, so Fred took a little paper plate and he walked up to me and said, “Patti Astor, you’re my favorite movie star. Can I have your autograph?” And I said, “Oh, yeah, of course! You must be my new best friend.” And of course, that’s what he was, and that’s how it really all started.

What a beautiful thing to know: the marriage of downtown avant-garde to uptown hip-hop – out of which so much late 20th century creativity sprang – was a birthday party for Mallarmé. There is so much more to be said about Duncan Smith, both his writings and his place in and influence on the New York artworld. I haven’t mentioned his activity as a poet, nor his involvement with the music scene, nor even touched on Days in the Clouds, an unpublished collection of his essays from 1987 to 1991 in which he writes at length, and heartbreakingly, about his battle with AIDS, his experiences as a gay man in New York, and his departure from the city, initially for Cornell to work on his Ph.D, then to Portland, Oregon, where he died. For now, more than a quarter century after his death, it is perhaps enough to break, if only slightly, the silence that has far too long enveloped him and his writing.


[Many, many thanks to David Ebony for answering my questions about Duncan Smith, and for providing me with hard-to-find material. R.R.]








[1] Smith did make art for a time, photo/text pieces in which he added words to found photographs, usually 8-by-10 photographs of movie stars.