An Interview with Zak Smith

In a post outlining my approach to reading Gravity’s Rainbow this time around, I mentioned artist Zak Smith’s picture book, Pictures Showing What Happens on Each Page of Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow. Zak has published a couple of other books, Pictures of Girls and We Did Porn, a memoir interspersed with several bundles of drawings and paintings. He’s got a web site at, he tweets as zaksmithsabbath, and he also has an online sketchbook here. He’s also done some work on a project with six other artists to illustrate Blood Meridian and did some drawings for a neat game/art project called Road of Knives. His story is pretty interesting. The GR illustration project led oddly enough to his introduction to the world of alt-porn, in which he performs under the name Zak Sabbath. When I asked if he’d be willing to do an interview, he was game and lightning-fast with (and gracious in) his response.

Infinite Zombies: In the introduction to Pictures Showing…, you write that you worked on the project over nine months of 14-hour days. Can you say a little something about your process, if you had a more or less standard process? Ie, did you read a few pages and meditate on them, then narrow down to an image and begin doing drafts of the work? Or something else altogether?

Zak Smith: Well I’d already read the book twice, then I started doing them in order, but after about 20 pages I decided it wasn’t working, so instead I just started sketching and whenever I started getting something I knew was in the book like “Hey, this looks kind of like a hog!” then I’d look up “hog” in the on-line index and re-read those passages and either start from scratch using what I already sketched as a guide or just finished the drawing so it fit the passage.

Then when I had done like 600 of those I went and finished the rest.

IZ: Pynchon was writing his WWII book at around the time (presumably) of the Vietnam War. You’re drawing pictures of the book during the war in Iraq, just a few years after the World Trade Center came down. Can you comment on art and war, Pynchon’s art and war, and your art and war, and what, if anything, it was like to be making art depicting (in part) a vulnerable city in wartime while living in a newly vulnerable city in a different wartime?

ZS: I know it’s terribly gauche to say this, but I didn’t feel particularly scared or vulnerable after 9/11 and neither did anybody I knew personally who wasn’t already some sort of neurotic. We were like “Ok, that sucked, but life goes on, y’know, more people die of the flu every year.” Anyone in Europe will tell you that terrorists don’t like make one successful attack and then suddenly go “Holy hell, it worked! Now we can do the same thing every day!!”

I did notice we had an oil war, a transparently criminal president and everybody was terrified and listening to extremely bad dance music so, for all intents and purposes it was 1972.

IZ: I believe I’ve read in an interview that you don’t think art ought to just be for rich people to hang on their walls. That you’ve made your illustrations available for free online and in a mass-produced book would seem to support such a position. Another author who comes up often alongside Pynchon is WIlliam Gaddis (whose JR we may take up at Infinite Zombies sometime), and one of his central concerns was mechanization and art, and reproduction of art. I wonder, tangentially, if you’ve read Gaddis or would care to articulate any thoughts about art as a mass-produced and populist concern vs. art as the domain of its privileged owners.

ZS: I read Gaddis’ The Recognitions. It was ok.

The non-populist way art is sold is the reason the art world is so conservative–in film or music or even literature you can make money and live by producing a movie for people who don’t like all the other movies out there, or music for the people who don’t like the other music out there, etc. But the art world is about selling one piece to one collector. But it has to be a “good” collector or your prices never go up to a living wage. And a “good” collector is defined as someone who liked the old art–like you become a good collector by having Felix Gonzales Torreses or Andy Warhols. So it’s very hard to make something new and make money selling it. And of course these good collectors are kinda not exactly young people, so it’s often you’re trying to sell a cultural product to someone who likes terrible old people things like jazz and West Side Story.

In like 1949 Sartre was bemoaning the fact that avant-garde music was not for the masses, not too long after that, Alan Freed had his radio show and now pretty much our whole culture has been bathed in the power of avant garde popular music thanks to the magic of mechanical reproduction and it would be so nice if art could finally advance to the point music’s been at for 60 years where the people get exposed to the new stuff and it’s all available and it all costs the same.

IZ: I know you had been involved in a project with several other artists to illustrate Blood Meridian (essentially another war book, by the way). As far as I can tell, it appears to be stalled. Is it in fact stalled or do you think it’ll pick back up?

ZS: Hard to be sure, we all had shows and things right after it went up so it kinda got back-burnered.

IZ: Although they’re both very morbid, dark books, GR and Blood Meridian are also very different stylistically. Does that influence the way you approach the books differently as a visual artist?

ZS: Yeah, I mean Pynchon–I only realized this after I was done–was well-suited to the project I did. His work is full of these hallucinatory hard-to-pin-down sentences. Try that with other authors? What are you going to draw–Humbert talking to Charlotte for the ninth page in a row? It’d look like a storyboard.

So when I got to Blood Meridian I didn’t want to just endlessly do Cowboy In Landscape, so unlike GR–which I did as literally as possible–I did a kind of did a time change and sex change–I made all the marauders female space pirates. Each of the 6 people on that project did it in a different way. Some went literal, some went abstract, some went surreal.

IZ: Thinking of GR and Blood Meridian and also of much of the porn you describe in We Did Porn, it seems pretty clear that artistically, you’re drawn to grit. Have you done or considered doing work that wasn’t so full of grit, and if not, why? Too easy? Too hard? Just not interesting? Can we look forward to a Zak Smith rendering of The Velveteen Rabbit?

ZS: I like cute things. But grit just…it’s just real to me, I guess. I make pictures the way I do because they’re realer, visceral.

I mean, if you have kids, your house is a fucking mess. If you are heterosexual and male and single, your house is a fucking mess. But if you turn on Full House, it’s immaculate. Things which feel faked have less impact–and they seem condescending. Like we know life isn’t like that. Turn on a Wong-Kar Wai movie and you see all the actual chaos of human life there and it’s extremely affecting.

IZ: Can you comment on the relationship between porn and art? You write a bit in We Did Porn about good, innovative art and bad art that makes people hate art, and you draw a line connecting bad art and bad porn. Like you, I bristle at the sort of bad art you describe (e.g. a quote written in ketchup across a photo of a starlet), but I also don’t know enough about porn (pretty vanilla over here) to understand what makes, say, a movie in which people have sex on the hood of a car non-art porn and a similar movie but with goat’s blood and tattoos art-porn. You get a triple gold star if you can relate this back to Gravity’s Rainbow, quadruple if you can do it without introducing any plot spoilers. (This is a serious question. I worry that it sounds like trolling, but I’m not in any way trolling; I just don’t grok the distinction.)

ZS: I can’t. I don’t think there is “good porn”–it’s subjective.  Incidentally, I never claimed any of the movies I am in are any good. Though sometimes the directors are ambitious–and that means the same in porn as any other medium–they were trying hard to get a specific thing. Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. I don’t care, I don’t watch much porn. I just like having sex.

IZ: Many who will participate in the GR read first became acquainted with the site through a group read of Infinite Jest a few years ago. You’ve expressed admiration for Wallace. In We Did Porn, you wrote a bit about the Adult Video News awards. What’s your take on Wallace’s essay on the event and the broader topic?

ZS: One of the reasons I got inspired to write We Did Porn is because two of my favorite authors–Martin Amis and DFW–had written about it and seemed to completely ignore the central issues. Martin Amis because–bless him–his fiction-writer modus operandi is to make very simple characters but then explore their simplicity in depth and he kinda transfers that to his nonfiction (which I loooooove reading but I don’t trust for a second), Wallace because he has this sort of creepy, probably religious, possibly midwestern lacuna about sex. (Made pretty clear in his Kenyon College speech). Like in one review he calls John Updike out:

It’s that he persists in the bizarre, adolescent belief that getting to have sex with whomever one wants whenever one wants to is a cure for human despair.

And I think: Whomever–and put that “ever” in italics. Whenever? That is completely a cure for human despair. Entirely. All the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders right now. Then after that Marilyn Monroe and Jayne Mansfield at the same time and then Helen of Troy and every SI swimsuit issue model and anyone not cured of human despair after that is just being a spoiled brat.

So these are my favorite writers in English–aside from Pynchon–and they have taken on this subject and they each made a witty weekend of it without talking about the grit: the fact that fucking is really good and, at least for most male heterosexuals, it is pretty much the gravitational center of our entire lives (something Amis is usually not so timid about) and how really porn is not just a terrible, funny, sad, frightening industry but also this place full of women who actually do act exactly the way you always wished women acted, sometimes, often when the cameras aren’t even running. And how that is unbelievably strange. So I had to write it.