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Willoughby Sharp

Willoughby Sharp, a vital force in America’s postwar art world as a writer, curator, publisher, artist, and teacher, died on December 17, aged seventy-two. Artforum asked Liza Béar, who met Sharp in 1968 and shortly thereafter founded the magazine Avalanche with him, and artist Hans Haacke, who participated in several exhibitions Sharp organized, to mark his passing with their thoughts and reminiscences.

Avalanche headquarters at 93 Grand Street, New York, ca. 1973. Foreground, from left: Liza Béar and Willoughby Sharp. Background, from left: Alfonia Tims, Barry Ledoux, Christopher Lethbridge. Photo: Cosmos.

LIZA BÉAR

New York, November 8, 1968

Nixon has been elected. The CBS News Election Unit keeps a few of us expats on to do the recounts. Catapulted from London’s 1960s counterculture on my first spin across the United States, I have to do an errand before I return. An English friend in the “Air Art” show wants me to pick up his film from Willoughby Sharp.

The downtown 1 train takes me from my crash pad near Columbia to West Eighteenth Street. In my Carnaby Street threads I brave the icy crosstown wind to Gramercy Park. Willoughby—tall, striking, elemental, pageboy-cut hair, beard, navy flannel pants, and granny shirt—lets me into his pristine brownstone apartment. The landlady lives below. She winters in Mexico.

Art, wine, warmth, immediacy.

Perched on the window seat overlooking the police academy, I watch Willoughby coax small puffs of dust in graceful arcs across the floor as he talks. Ancestors came over on the Mayflower, mother danced with Ziegfeld Follies, father wrote Bermuda crime fiction, MA in art history pending at Columbia, behind on the rent: I’m rediscovering America. Student riots and military repression sabotaged the opening of Willoughby’s “Kineticism” show for the Mexican Olympics, but that hasn’t deterred him from forging ahead as an avant-garde curator; he’s now organizing a protean Earth art exhibition, the first of its kind for a museum. All the works will be site-specific outdoor installations or indoor sculptural works made from earthen materials.

In the library-bedroom, with its Le Corbusier–style pitched roof and huge skylight—it was once Amédée Ozenfant’s studio—an orderly calm reigns. A floor-to-ceiling white bookcase with sliding doors (later to acquire Brigid Polk tit prints) reveals a wealth of twentieth-century-art books, all alphabetical, and a signed Duchamp Rotorelief—an amazingly lucky find at the local hardware store.

He shows me the hundred-page monograph on Günther Uecker (with its single-nail multiple) that he produced with Paul Maenz, and the impeccable catalogues for his traveling “Air Art” show and “Light/Motion/Space” at the Walker. He holds them and turns the pages delicately, with respect, as someone who knows and appreciates the print medium.

November 13, 1968

One of Willoughby’s favorite terms of approbation is the German word sachlich—matter-of-fact, no-nonsense, real, to the point. I can see why: He is direct, straightforward, without pettiness or guile. His life force is contagious. Jumping into a cab on Third Avenue, I exclaim, “Why don’t we work together?” He says, “You’ve done magazines. Let’s do one.”

We decide on a black-and-white photo-journal devoted to the new art emerging from the United States and Europe, using only firsthand source material, with documents by artists and interviews as text. As we develop the format we add an exhaustive eight-page news section, including one-liners with boldface names, to be as up-to-date as possible, and a listing of current art publications—in particular, artists’ books. Advertising is to be wrapped front and back around the editorial content.

November 14, 1968

The next day, Willoughby’s rare collection of Dadaist, Surrealist, and other magazines is laid out on the wood floor in a long row. Willoughby is especially keen on early Life photo spreads. Tellingly, he points out a 1939 issue with a face shot of Joe DiMaggio on the cover; close-up portraits of artists’ faces will become a trademark of the magazine.

After consulting with the printer, we finally settle on a 9 3⁄8–by–9 3⁄8–inch square format, bigger than the “Air Art” catalogue and smaller than Artforum, because that will give us the largest number of squares for the paper used on a sheet-fed press.

That same morning, Willoughby is thrilled to receive a firm booking for “Earth Art” from Cornell University’s art museum in Ithaca, New York. I’m entranced by the conceptual reach, the flight from the studio, the political ramifications of anti-object art—its drastic departure from precedent. A cut in the desert: The art is fresh, challenges the clean boundaries of category. We’ll devote the magazine’s first issue to Earth art.

Willoughby Sharp holding the May 1, 1939, issue of Life magazine, New York, 1974. Photo: Gwenn Thomas.

November 25, 1968

We go to the opening of “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age” at the Museum of Modern Art. Significantly, in January 1969 it’s to become the site of a political action we organize pronto when Willoughby gets a phone call from Takis, who is challenging the right of MoMA to include one of his “Telemagnetic” sculptures in the exhibition without his consent (even though the museum owns the work). In full public view, Takis cuts the cord and carries the piece into the Sculpture Garden, where Willoughby and others sit on the ground and guard it; I’ve called the press. With other artists and critics including Hans Haacke, Tom Lloyd, Tsai, and John Perreault, we soon draft thirteen demands to the museum. This action must have touched a nerve; it precipitates an artists’ rights movement and the formation of the Art Workers Coalition.

December 10, 1968

We have an understanding: Radical work calls for a radical approach. No intermediaries. Let those who make the work explain what they’re doing and why, in their own terms. We favor investigative dialogue over pronouncements. Our first interview together is with Carl Andre. By contrast with his tightly wrought manifestos, Willoughby is a natural interviewer, thoroughly at ease, insightful, quick on the draw, neither obsequious nor supercilious but responsive, on the level. A few weeks later, we start a roundtable discussion with Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim, and Robert Smithson, examining their sculptural concerns in relation to making and to place.

We have an understanding, but no financing. Between Willoughby’s curatorial trips and my editorial job at Evergreen Review, we use sweat equity in lieu of capital. We work side by side at the long black Formica table in Gramercy Park, editing transcripts and assembling the contents. For many of the artists it is the first time they have done an in-depth interview; exposure in the magazine often precedes a one-person show in a gallery or museum. With word of a new artists’ magazine spreading at Max’s Kansas City and beyond, mail increases dramatically. Among the early unsolicited submissions are exciting works by Vito Acconci, Terry Fox, and William Wegman, who are all to be featured in subsequent issues.

Spring 1969

The seminal exhibition “When Attitudes Become Form” at the Bern Kunsthalle closes in April. The photographers Shunk-Kender return from Europe with installation photographs of Joseph Beuys’s Fettecke (Fat Corner), including a stunning black-and-white portrait of Beuys himself. That becomes our first cover.

Willoughby has known Beuys since 1958. He identifies strongly with Beuys’s open-mindedness and nonconformist stance and, later, makes a Beuys hat part of his style. He may have internalized two of Beuys’s central tenets: that any action done well can be a work of art, and that everyone has creative potential (the “everyone is an artist” maxim); to the very end of his life, he is supportive of the creative efforts of a host of art-world friends and acquaintances. Or perhaps Beuysian precepts have merely reinforced Willoughby’s own generosity of spirit. Still, as manifest in his December 1969 Artforum interview, he is also attuned to the mythical and idiosyncratic aspects of Beuys’s oeuvre.

During summer weekends, we have access to production equipment upstate in a barn near New Paltz, through artist Richard Hogle. For the first issue, I set the type with changeable Univers golf ball fonts on an IBM Selectric. Willoughby designs the layout, boldly and with great flair, working on each artist’s section individually, using the principles of Bauhaus design. Rather than have only the customary single image of the finished piece, we often use lavish photo spreads of work in progress and take a cinematic approach to layout through the use of multiple angles, close-ups, and serial photography.

Brainstorming one night, we reject Willoughby’s first proposed name for the magazine, Earthworm, in favor of the more evocative and typographically pleasing Avalanche, with its French derivation and feminine final e.


Willoughby Sharp interviews Joseph Beuys in 1972.

January 11, 1974

Beuys makes his first visit to the United States, having previously refused to come in protest against the Vietnam War. He gives a Public Dialogue at the New School. A transcript of the first hour is published soon afterward in Avalanche 9. “Willoughby’s friendship with Beuys was a real friendship,” art dealer Ronald Feldman will later recall. He had sponsored Willoughby’s 1972 “videoview” with Beuys and he showed it together with drawings by Beuys at his gallery in January 1973. “When Joseph spoke of Willoughby, it was always with great respect, and generally with a smile. He loved him.”

The issue with the Beuys transcript is the first in Avalanche’s new format. Largely because of rising paper costs, it has become an eleven-by-seventeen-inch newspaper, which it stays for its remaining five issues through 1976. The magazine is acclaimed by the international art community. The Kölnischer Kunstverein gave it an exhibition in 1973, “Avalanche: The Evolution of an Avant-Garde Magazine,” with six large graphic panels that Willoughby and I assembled. Leo Castelli has called Avalanche “a work of art.”

Nevertheless, Willoughby is seriously questioning his identity and his public image, partly fueled by his own (ironic) ads in the magazine proclaiming “Willoughby Sharp . . . mighty media mogul of the art scene.” Being an astute interviewer in both print and video, a highly original graphic designer, and a visionary curator presumably isn’t enough, despite the artist’s touch on every front. He embarks on a wildly gyrating series of video performances on LSD that explore autobiographical situations and take him into another realm.

The entire run of Avalanche will be reprinted by Primary Information this fall.

Liza Béar is the author of Beyond the Frame: Dialogues with World Filmmakers (Praeger, 2007), a contributing editor at Bomb, and a filmmaker.

© Liza Béar 2009

Willoughby Sharp (center) at “Slow-Motion,” an exhibition of kinetic art that he curated for Rutgers University, NJ, 1967. Photo: Hans Haacke.

HANS HAACKE

I LAST COMMUNICATED with Willoughby early in November, during the opening of a retrospective exhibition of the ZERO Group’s work at Sperone Westwater Gallery in New York. It was a one-way video greeting to him at the hospice where, as it turned out, he only had a few more weeks to live. In my message—recorded and taken to him by Liza Béar—I reminisced about our first meeting in Cologne around 1965. At the time, we were both traveling in the circle of the Düsseldorf ZERO artists.

I remember Willoughby during this encounter as cutting an impressive and flamboyant figure. He brimmed with enthusiasm for the art he had recently discovered, which had not been part of his art-historical studies. Shortly afterward, Willoughby returned to New York with his German wife. I, in turn, sailed into New York Harbor for the second time—with my American wife. We connected again in the Big Apple.

Recently, I found a photo I took of Willoughby and Paul Maenz in 1966 at the opening of a show of mine at the Howard Wise Gallery on Fifty-seventh Street. Wise exhibited artists who worked with motion and physical processes, explored light and optical phenomena, and used new technologies. They were generally referred to as “kinetic,” a label that sounded “cool” at the time (even if today it makes our eyes roll). For ZERO, the Parisian Groupe de Recherche d’Art Visuel, and similar artists—many not from the United States—this gallery was a natural New York platform.

Willoughby wholeheartedly embraced this wing of the 1960s avant-garde. That same year, he and Maenz (who was working in New York as a graphic designer at the time) founded the Kineticism Press, whose first publication was a small monograph on Günther Uecker, one of the three core ZERO artists. With verve, Willoughby also began organizing exhibitions, often accompanied by slim catalogues with his writings. One such article, “Luminism and Kineticism,” was included in Gregory Battcock’s widely distributed Minimal Art: A Critical Anthology (1968). In this piece, Willoughby boldly declared “the art of light and movement” to be “the only totally new art of our time,” which would “facilitate our acclimation to the rapidly changing kinetic climate of our age.” In the following years, I participated in several of his exhibitions in unlikely places. I developed new outdoor works for “Kinetic Environments I and II”two one-day events in Central Park in 1967. A year later, I participated in “Air Art,” which opened at the YM/YWHA in Philadelphia before going on tour. Among his friends and admirers, Willoughby became known as the “Rasputin of kinetic art.”

Even though, in the early ’60s, the Cuban missile crisis and the newly erected wall cutting through Germany were signs of an intensification of the cold war, and the assassination of John F. Kennedy shocked America and the world, the artists Willoughby associated with were of a generation no longer haunted by World War II or existentialist angst. We looked to the future with relative confidence and thought of our works, perhaps naively, as contributing to a more humane and egalitarian world, accessible to audiences outside the gated communities of traditional art reception. Toward the end of the decade, however, as the Vietnam War came into the home of almost every family in this country, and oppressive social structures increasingly frustrated younger generations, the mood soured.

In New York in January 1969, perhaps inspired by the student revolts in Paris, where he lived, the Greek artist Takis, accompanied by Willoughby, Liza, and a few friends, kidnapped a work of his that had been included, against his wishes, in “The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age” at the Museum of Modern Art. A few days later, several of his stablemates from the Howard Wise Gallery and some others met in Willoughby’s apartment to draft a list of artists’ rights for presentation to MoMA. Within a very short time, this small group grew exponentially. Calling themselves the Art Workers Coalition, these artists challenged major New York museums with petitions, often backed by demonstrations, sit-ins, and guerrilla actions. In addition to demanding artists’ rights, the coalition called on institutions to open their programs to black artists and women and to make admission affordable to everyone. It also attacked the boards of trustees for being part of an establishment complicit with the Vietnam War.

Parallel to this growing social and political activism, “Earth Art,” an exhibition curated by Willoughby, opened in February 1969 at the Cornell University Art Museum. I remember flying to snow-covered Ithaca with Willoughby and my fellow artists, two of whom had come from Europe. Few of us had brought premade objects, so we set to work, both inside the museum and in the freezing outdoors. It was the first exhibition of so-called Land or Earth art to include non-American artists, an event unthinkable without Willoughby’s enterprising spirit, passionate commitment, charm, and organizational energy.

The periodical Avalanche, which Willoughby and Liza launched in the fall of 1970, has likewise won an entry in the index of art history. It was square-shaped like Artforum, but smaller and in many respects taking a different approach: Strictly black-and-white, it carried no art criticism and no exhibition reviews. Instead, aside from gallery advertisements, the magazine’s pages were filled almost exclusively with images and words from artists: photographs, writings and statements, transcripts of discussions they had among one another and of interviews conducted by Willoughby and Liza.

Initially following many of the participants in the “Earth Art” exhibition, the magazine soon branched out to include figures bracketed with frustratingly leveling labels such as Minimal art, body art, performance, gender-related art, and video. These artists, many of whom were from Canada and Europe, were featured on the magazine’s covers—as was a Weimaraner, on one occasion. Looking back at old issues, I am reminded that Avalanche represented a significant segment of the artists of my generation I was close to. Many have since become part of the canon of contemporary art.

The masthead of the ninth issue (May/June 1974), the first in tabloid format, lists Willoughby as “artist-in-residence.”

Hans Haacke is a New York–based artist.