My late friend Steven Arnold was a visionary surrealist filmmaker, artist, set and costume designer, jewelry designer and overall counter-culturist whose works can be seen in the collections of the Whitney Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, the Cinematheque Française in Paris, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, among others.
I’m Ellen Burstyn, and I met Steven, oh, somewhere in the late ‘70s, yeah I would say ‘78. He was brought to my home where I was doing a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream outside in my garden. He was brought to my home by a close friend of both of ours, and he videotaped the production.
And we became friends immediately. Vast, deep friends. He really felt more like a brother than a friend.
Steven’s film Messages, Messages premiered in San Francisco in 1969 at the Palace Theater in North Beach, where he later was hired to program called Nocturnal Dream Shows, a first-in-the-nation series of midnight movies.
The avant-garde drag troupe “The Cockettes” got their big break there and later launched legendary gay artists Divine and Sylvester. Messages Messages was presented at the Cannes Film Festival’s prestigious Director’s Fortnight in 1970.
At the Whitney Museum screening of his second film Luminous Procuress, Steven met iconic surrealist artist Salvador Dali and he soon became his friend and protégé. According to Vishnu Dass, director of the Steven Arnold Museum and Archive, Dali inspired Steven to “translate his dreams, visions and fantasies into art.”
The result was Steven’s trademark series of tableaux-vivant, which were produced in his Los Angeles studio called Zanzabar which became a hangout for visual artists, musicians, designers, drag queens, hustlers and others outside the cultural mainstream. And me, by the way.
These theatrically staged black-and-white photographs seemingly sprung from his sub-conscious mind. They are elaborately constructed — often campy — homages to imagined queer gods and goddesses. Spectacular, playful dreamworlds filled with imagery of non-binary sexuality, mythology, inter-connected spirituality, and divinity.
Perhaps not surprising for a man whose childhood bedroom was decorated in the style of Louis XIV, who as a teenager smoked opium and marijuana and drank champagne and cough syrup, and who lived for months on the Spanish island of Formentera, where he and friends took LSD daily, lived in caves and experimented with painting and costumes.
A documentary film about Steven and his art, Steven Arnold: Heavenly Bodies, was released in 2019, narrated by Angelica Huston.
Steven was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988, and passed away in 1994.
When he died, he was laid out in a friend’s home and decorated with flowers. He had a gardenia between his big toe and his next toe. He had beautiful artifacts around him.
He was like that for three days, as so many of his friends came and sat with him. When the men came to take him away for burial and introduced themselves, one of them was named Angel.