In December 1977, Mario Montez, Puerto Rican drag darling of the Downtown scene, got on a bus and left New York for good. After two decades of working on stage and screen—star of Jack Smith's Flaming Creatures, Normal Love, No President; star in over a dozen Andy Warhol films; star of José Rodriguez-Soltero's Life, Death and Assumption of Lupe Vélez—he left only one friend his contact details. The instruction: to tell no one where he was going or if he would ever be back.
Charles Ludlam hadn’t called him for months. The city was freezing. 1977 was a rough year for New Yorkers. Energy blackouts in the dead of winter began to take a toll on Mario’s optimism. His partner at the time encouraged him to put drag away; they both boarded the bus with all of his possessions carefully packed in boxes below. It was a new beginning yet bittersweet. The early years of "gay cancer" began to consume New York. Even as Mario was doing Ludlam’s Bluebeard, the disease had become a topic of speculation for everyone in the cast. They were told it was not treatable. Throat problems and rashes were appearing but had not yet been linked to a virus. With this in the back of his head, Mario left. His boyfriend split in ’78—returning to New York and falling victim only a few years later to AIDS. Of the years following, Mario’s exile from crumbling Gotham saved the person behind the Mario persona, but meant silencing a character that came to signify a complex relationship to the city he left and the friends who would perish in his absence, like long-time collaborator Jack Smith.
In April 2010 I began collaborating with Mario on a series of videos and photographs following my introduction to him during the Mario Montez conference at Columbia University. During the conference I learned that he never did drag other than for artistic purposes in photographs, films and theatre. My first idea was to re-stage Warhol's Mario Banana. In his living room, we styled him as closely to the original as possible, positioning him within the original frame, using the same direction of lighting, and doing multiple takes until we got it just right. As reference, we used a booklet that the late curator Callie Angell had made him with photographic stills of Warhol films he’d been in. It took a pile of bananas before we got it perfect—and like a good sequel, the result is over the top. The peel hits his nose several times. The eyelashes flutter more than ever. This was the first time since the late 70s that Mario, in full drag, had collaborated with an artist, and I appreciate that he extended that honor to me.
The video portrait of Mario is part of a volume I started working on in 2009 that re-stage Warhol’s screen tests using the original subjects. In 13 Most Beautiful/Screen Tests Revisited the subjects perform again, 45 years after their first sitting with Warhol. The works approximate the art-historical lighting, frame and playback speed of the originals. Subjects include Mario Montez, Billy Linich [Name], Ivy Nicholson, Ultraviolet, Bibbe Hansen, Penelope Palmer, Jonas Mekas, Sally Kirkland, Randy Bourscheidt, Steve Balkin, Taylor Mead, John Giorno and Mary Woronov. I found my way to this project through my interest in archives and archiving. Although photography has been my passion for a decade, my interest in different processes and media began four years ago when I started exploring how to rework YouTube videos into installation formats. This kind of action, the downloading, projecting and fracturing of the recordings with prisms and mirrors, playing them individually or in groups, in-sync or out-of-sync, and putting this into a space for an audience, gave my time-warpy thinking an outlet. How I learned to look at archives and use them as material informed my approach to the screen tests. In these, the sitter is the material rather than appropriating an existing recording.