Events > 2003

27 Sep. 2003

Opening for Musco: 1969-1997

Joshua White and Michael Smith

“So are you guys a marketing company?” This is just one reaction from an uninitiated Art Metropole visitor upon encountering Michael Smith and Joshua White’s installation. MUSCO 1969-1997 is the history of a comically pathetic fictitious lighting design company that dramatically transforms Art Metropole’s front space into a visual archive. Highlights include a ten minute MUSCO promotional video from the 80’s produced in the 90’s, catalogues, light bulbs, lighting accesories and paraphernalia accompanied by large photographic documentation of MUSCO’s not-so-illustrious history.

Born and raised in New York City, Joshua White studied theater and design at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) and filmmaking at the University of Southern California. After college, he returned to New York and became interested in multi-media, especially creating multiple projector/lighting and slide shows. Soon thereafter he started designing environments for the first generation of NY discotheques. In 1967, as the idea of synesthesia between music and light was becoming part of the culture, he founded the Joshua Light Show. JLS was a group of artists who performed together, improvising multi-media projections in live concert venues. While much of their work was created for classical music and jazz, a major turning point came with the opening of Bill Graham’s Fillmore East on Manhattan’s Lower East Side in the spring of 1968.

The Joshua Light Show were resident artists at Fillmore East and performed live behind all the major musical artists of the time: Frank Zappa, Janis Joplin, The Grateful Dead, The Doors, The Who, Jefferson Airplane, and Jimi Hendrix. They also performed at Lincoln Center, Carnegie Hall, Tanglewood, and other renowned music venues. During this same period, JLS toured Europe and created the legendary party scene for John Schlesinger’s film, Midnight Cowboy. After performing at Woodstock and observing the explosive growth of audiences for popular music, White invented Joshua Television, an electronic light show using large screen video projection. Then, as network television discovered rock and roll, White segued into a full-time television-directing career.

For the next thirty years, White worked as director on an eclectic range of shows such as Seinfeld, The Jerry Lewis Telethon, The Max Headroom Show, Club MTV, New York Philharmonic Young Peoples Concerts, and The TV Food Network. He received an Emmy nomination for an ABC special starring Cat Stevens. In addition, White continued to work with art and artists; he directed the O Superman video for Laurie Anderson, created a light show for Bette Midler’s film, The Rose, and staged the first rock concert ever at Radio City Music Hall.

In recent years, the Joshua Light Show has received renewed attention in the art world. White collaborated with artist Gary Panter, regenerating spectacular light shows at The Anthology Film Archives, NY (2004) and for the exhibition, Visual Music: Synesthesia in Art and Music Since 1900, organized by the Hirshhorn Museum, Washington D.C., (2005), which also toured to the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. In 2006, the Tate Museum/Liverpool featured the JLS in their Summer of Love exhibition, which toured throughout Europe and to the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. In 2008, a JLS Liquid Loops film will be included in Traces du Sacre at the Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris.

Joshua White and Michael Smith met in 1988 and started working together on Mike’s Kiddie Show (1990) and Doug and Mike’s Adult Entertainment (1991), both of which White directed. In 1997, White and Smith created Mus-Co: 1969-1997 at the Lauren Wittels Gallery in New York. Since then, the two artists have jointly created Open House (1999), The QuinQuag Arts and Wellness Centre Touring Exhibition (2001), Take Off Your Pants! (2005), and the design for this exhibition, Mike’s World, as well as its orientation room and timeline.

Raised in Chicago, Michael Smith graduated from Colorado College in 1973 with a degree in painting and the beginnings of an extensive network in New York’s creative community, gained while participating in the Whitney Museum Independent Study Program in 1970 and 1973. Smith’s older brother, Howard, was an abstract painter as well, and his example greatly influenced the young artist. But Smith was also intrigued by the performance art of Vito Acconci, William Wegman, and Richard Foreman, among others involved in avant-garde pursuits. Soon after graduation, he began watching comedy acts at The Pickle in Chicago with an eye for developing his own performance style. In contrast to many of his contemporaries, who explored minimalism, feminism, repetition, ritual and endurance in their works, Smith wanted to entertain. In 1975 he gave his first public performance, called Comedy Hour, in his own studio and in 1978-1980 he began working with video.

During the first two decades of his career, Smith performed in fine art and popular venues alike. His is an extensive performance and exhibition history that begins in the late 1970s, with venues as varied as Franklin Furnace, The Kitchen, Caroline’s Comedy Club, CBGBs, Dance Theatre Workshop, Cinemax, the Whitney, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles, the New Museum, the Pompidou Center, and, in recent years, sites in São Paolo, Copenhagen, Milan, and London, among others.

Since 1979, the majority of Smith’s work has centered on his extraordinarily prescient and sympathetic character, the naïve and somewhat inept Everyman, Mike, who is the focus of this exhibition. Smith’s other recurring performance persona is Baby Ikki, whose bizarre and precipitous infancy is marked by conspicuous facial hair, oversized diapers, and undersized sunglasses. To elaborate these performances, which were created both for the stage and for video, Smith has generated a huge corpus of work, collaborating with a wide range of artists in many media. In addition to the time-based works, he and his collaborators have broken new ground in immersive installation art, and, working solo, he has produced several artists books and an impressive corpus of drawings and sketches that detail the creative process. Many of these were published recently in MICHAEL SMITH Drawings: Simple, Obscure and Obtuse (NY: Regency Arts Press, 2007).

Throughout his career, Smith has been actively engaged as a lecturer, critic, artist, and instructor at a number of prestigious institutions, among them Yale University, the Royal Danish Academy, and UCLA. Smith currently serves as Associate Professor of Studio Art at the University of Texas at Austin, where he has been teaching performance art since 2001. In 2007 Smith received The Louis Comfort Tiffany Foundation award and The New York Foundation for the Arts (NYFA) honored both he and Joshua White for their multi-disciplinary work; Smith has received numerous other fellowships and awards, including those from the MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies (2005-6), Art Matters Inc (1996, 1990, 1987), the National Endowment for the Arts (1991, 1983, 1982, 1978), and the Guggenheim Foundation (1985).


1: Michael Smith explains some of the finer points of his retail lighting experience.
2: Perfomance artist Johanna Householder and others bask in MUSCO's visual heritage.
3: Michael Smith and Peggy Gale converse over psychedelic slides.

  1. Opening for Musco: 1969-1997
  2. Opening for Musco: 1969-1997
  3. Opening for Musco: 1969-1997