The Tableau-Vivant Photography of Steven Arnold
Born in Oakland, California in May of 1943, Steven F. Arnold was an American multidisciplinary artist. A protege of Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali, he was a photographer, filmmaker, painter, illustrator, set and costume designer, and assemblage artist. Encouraged in his fantasies by his parents, Arnold at a young age devoted himself to the art of transformation, dressed himself and others in costume and built puppets and theater sets to perform shows for the neighborhood children.
Arnold entered Oakland’s Technical High School in the autumn of 1956. There he met Pandora who would become his muse, collaborator and lifelong friend. This inseparable pair of artists and performers were eventually mentored by their high school art teacher, Violet Chew, who encouraged her students to use their art as a means to explore and solve the problems they faced. By introducing the young Arnold to art history, antique shopping and Eastern spiritual traditions, Chew made a lasting impact on his philosophy and art. She also introduced Arnold to her friend, the painter Ira Yeager, a true Bohemian renowned for his landscapes and scenes of Native Americans, and lifelong partner of lawyer and ceramic artist George Hellyer.
After graduation in the spring of 1961, Steven Arnold attended the San Francisco Art Institute on a full scholarship. After earning perfect grades for two years, he took a break in the summer of 1963 to study in Paris at the École des Beaux-Arts. Feeling confined by its traditional curriculum, Arnold along with several American classmates rented villas on Formentera, an island off the coast of Spain. For several months, the group lived communally, took LSD, explored the island, and experimented with costumes and paints. Arnold returned to San Francisco in the fall of 1964 and resumed his studies at the Art Institute where he wrote, designed and directed three short films in the following two years.
Arnold’s final student film before receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts degree was “Messages, Messages”. Influenced by Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel and German Expressionism, this journey of the psyche through the unconscious starred jazz poet Ruth Weiss and premiered to critical acclaim at New York’s Regis Hotel. After receiving invitations to several international film festivals, Arnold and his collaborator Michael Weiss screened the film and a rare collection of early surrealist films at the Palace Theater in San Francisco’s North Beach. This evening film show led to “Arnold’s Nocturnal Dreamshows”, weekly midnight movie showcases that became nationally popular in the 1970s. Through performances at these midnight showings, the psychedelic San Francisco drag troupe, “The Cockettes”, was launched into underground fame. Arnold became one of the original group of rock poster artists and created some of the first posters for the famed Matrix nightclub on Fillmore Street.
In 1970 while finishing his Master in Fine Arts, Steven Arnold began filming his “Luminous Procuress”. This 1971 film of bizarre, mystical and sexual vignettes won Arnold the 1972 New Director’s Award at the International Film Festival in San Francisco. With this success, Arnold’s work was shown at an extended exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art; he also received a second invitation to the Cannes’Director’s Fortnight. Impressed with the film, Salvador Dali arranged a private screening for special guests from New York’s elite. In 1974 as a favorite of Dali, Arnold began to study with him in Spain and eventually became a member of Dali’s Court of Miracles, which included such notables as David Bowie, Marianne Faithful, Mick Jagger, French singer Amanda Lear, and American supermodel Peggy Ann Freeman.
From 1982 to 1989, Arnold worked through his Los Angeles photographic studio and west coast salon, Zanzibar. Through this new form of expression, he designed and shot tableau-vivants for four books. Tableau-vivants are carefully posed scenes of one or more actors or models, usually costumed, who are theatrically placed amid props or scenery. Many thousands of these photographs and negatives were never published in his lifetime and are housed in Los Angeles’s Steve Arnold Museum and Archive. Arnold cultured many close friendships with other kindred spirits among whom were actress Ellen Burstyn, know for her portrayals of complicated women in dramas, and fashion designer and critic Simon Doonan, now the husband of ceramic potter and interior designer Jonathan Adler.
Steven Arnold gleaned inspiration for his work from his dreams, fine art masterpieces, world religions, sexuality, Jungian archetypes and social attitudes and excesses. He would work through both night and day to sketch his dreams and visions into a growing collection of sketchbooks. These sketches formed the basis of his photographic work and the large body of paintings and assemblage sculptures produced from 1990. Steven Arnold, an artist who never pursued fame, status, or wealth, was an integral figure in the American counterculture for thirty years. Diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 at the height of his popularity, Arnold died from complications due to the virus in August of 1994 in West Hollywood, California, at the age of fifty-one.
Steven Arnold’s works are in the collections of New York’s Whitney Museum and Museum of Modern Art, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Oakland Museum of California, the ONE National Gay and Lesbian Archive and Museum in Los Angeles, the Cincinnati Art Museum, and Germany’s Frankfurter Kunstverein. His work continues to be exhibited worldwide and was the subject of director Vishnu Dass’s 2019 documentary “Steven Arnold: Heavenly Bodies”.
Notes: The Steven Arnold Museum and Archives’s website is located at: https://stevenarnoldarchive.com
An article entitled “Illumination Procured: Steven Arnold and the Body Electric”, written by Steve Seid for the University of California, Berkeley, Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA), discusses Arnold’s “Luminous Procuress” and the participants involved. This article can be found at: https://bampfa.org/page/illumination-procured-steven-arnold-and-body-eclectic
Top Insert Image: Don Weinstein, “Steven F. Arnold”, Date Unknown, Gelatin Silver Print, Don Weinstein Photography
Second Insert Image: Steven F. Arnold, “Pandora’s Offering”, 1982, Gelatin Silver Print, The Steven Arnold Museum and Archives
Third Insert Image: Steven F. Arnold, “Kunga Brings My Crown of Dreams”, 1983, Gelatin Silver Print, The Steven Arnold Museum and Archives
Bottom Insert Image: Steven F. Arnold, “Self Portrait”, 1987, Gelatin Silver Print, The Steven Arnold Museum and Archives