Steven Arnold | Rachel Rosenthal

As part of Torrance Art Museum’s work to provide online resources to replace live exhibitions during the COVID-19 pandemic, each member of the Staff (I am their Outreach Specialist) is writing personal essays about works of art and artists that have influenced their own aesthetic.

I chose as my first essay to write about the incredible work of Steven Arnold and the photograph he took of my performance art mentor Rachel Rosenthal. I invite you to read about it – either at the Torrance Art Museum website or in the blog below.

Steven Arnold
Untitled (Rachel Rosenthal)
1985
Vintage Silver Gelatin Photograph

At the grand opening of Centre Pompidou’s 2006 exhibition “Los Angeles 1955-1985: Birth of an Artistic Capital”, I was immediately captivated by the power and intimacy of the black and white photography of Steven Arnold. While he was an unknown to me, I would discover just how great, albeit quiet his influence upon the general culture and my life had already been. The exploration of mysticism, archetypes and queer aesthetics through his elaborately composed scenarios using recycled materials and an eclectic mix of found items that combine photography, body painting and assemblage art continues to resonate vividly with my own work and that of many creative peers. 

At the Pompidou, I would discover that Arnold had taken the iconic portrait of his friend and my mentor, performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, in angel wings that was on view in the front window of her office and performance studio. I had always admired the image, but never knew the whole story of its creator. More invested in his artistic output and act of creation than any formal career recognition, Steven Arnold died of AIDS in 1994, leaving his estate in the hands of friend Stephanie Farago, whom was in attendance at the Pompidou opening and championing a new book of his works and aiming to create a documentary film with the extensive archives she kept in Hawaii. That film is now an inspiring reality, narrated by Angelica Houston, called Steven Arnold: Heavenly Bodies which premiered in 2019 at MOCA as part of LA’s LBGTQ Film Festival, OUTFEST. It was directed by Vishnu Dass, a young man with a fascinating story of his own, who is carrying forward the late Farago’s mission of bringing Arnold to greater recognition and the archive’s move to NYC. When Arnold knew he was dying, he spent all his time and energy in his few final years merely shooting images of his models and creations, without developing or printing – and now, thanks to a resurgence of interest and the funding of various artistic institutions, never before seen work is now surfacing.

Arnold got his start as a student of film at the San Francisco Art Institute, where just before graduation in 1968, he premiered his critically successful student art film at the nearby Palace Theatre at midnight alongside works of Man Ray and Georges Méliès. This led to Arnold hosting a regular series of midnight art house and cult film screenings called the Nocturnal Dreamshow, which in turn would become a film phenomenon in urban centers nationally known as Midnight Movies. It also spawned a hippie counterculture drag troupe known as the Cockettes, whom performed live theatrical spectacles before and between film screenings. A documentary film about the troupe premiered at OUTFEST in 2002, which heavily influenced my own interest to transition from work in the Hollywood film industry toward performance art and begin training with Rachel Rosenthal later that autumn.

Arnold went on to direct a film with the Cockettes, called Luminous Procuress, which caught the attention of Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol. Arnold became a protege of Dali and helped him to design and create the Teatro-Museo Dali in Figueres, Spain. Upon return to the states, Arnold moved to LA, where disappointed by attempts to work his aesthetics into the mainstream film industry went on to create his own body of still photographic work. He gathered found objects from his neighborhood to compose artistic sets, spending some time to lay them out in various arrangements on his studio floor. He would then invite friends over for a long dinner conversation and preparation before having them lie on the floor inside his compositions, where he would quickly photograph them from above on a ladder.

Revisiting my first experience with his work, the 1985 photograph “Untitled (Rachel Rosenthal)” brings up a variety of observations. First, there is the level the piece works directly as an iconic representation of an angel, with Rosenthal’s arms outstretched in a manner that is warm and welcoming while being theatrical and mystical. Unlike some of Arnold’s other scenarios, it is a rather simply adorned piece, with much brilliance in the restraint for the focus on the figure. Rosenthal is boldly lit at center with massive wings that angle outward beyond the edges of the photo. The bundle of tulle over her body seems both intricately placed and thrown together randomly – simultaneously energized and frenetic, yet soft and comforting. She is surrounded in a dark black void peppered with a few pearl-like stars. The image also represents the kind of commanding force of nature that Rosenthal herself was. She crafted performance artworks that intelligently dug into her audience’s psyche while delivering works that could condemn petty human action while still offering an uplifting message. Arnold created a whole body of work involving angels, for they reflected his need to express photographic memorials for friends dying during the AIDS epidemic as a way to transform his pain and mythologize their ascension. It is a fitting example of how art can provide much needed solace in times of crisis, both helping the community to move onward and to leave lasting messages that will inspire future generations in ways as Arnold has in mine. 

More about Steven at: https://stevenarnoldarchive.com/

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