New York

Stuart Sherman

80WSE Gallery

The influence of Stuart Sherman, although he was largely forgotten after his death from AIDS in 2001, runs deep and wide. The first comprehensive exhibition of his work, curated by John Hagan, Yolanda Hawkins, and John Matturri at New York University’s 80WSE Gallery, was at once an archive and a memorial, but most of all a celebration of an important artist who, thanks to those who knew him personally and others attracted to his practice, never drifted into total obscurity.

Sherman’s best-known pieces are his outstanding short performances, which he initially showed to small audiences in his apartment, starting in 1975 with Stuart Sherman Makes a Spectacle of Himself. He went on to stage these spectacles (as he called them) on street corners and in theater lobbies and parks, and documented them in videos and photographs with the help of friends, among them filmmaker Babette Mangolte. (At least once, he also performed in a comedy club, and he attempted to stage a performance outside the 1976 Democratic National Convention before police intervened.) Mostly scripted, the spectacles generally appear as ad hoc, rapid, and complicated interchanges of everyday objects on a TV tray, and it’s easy to become mesmerized, even transfixed, while watching them. For Sherman, the performances were a way of dealing with language, which he considered his primary concern; the more private activities of drawing and making collages from magazines were another. Both approaches represent systematic means of visualizing grammatical relationships, but also ways of undoing order.

Never before exhibited, Sherman’s ideographic and “schematic” renderings of letters and symbols made with ink on paper from the early ’70s on were also on view (mostly retrieved from cardboard boxes he bequeathed to theater historian Stefan Brecht). They too illuminate his fixation on the fugitive qualities of words. The standardized, personal vocabulary he created through geometric shapes and colored inks is an illuminating corollary to the spectacles, sharing their desire to push meaning and logic. Indeed, the relationship between these facets of Sherman’s work—along with his singular visual scripts, plays, and sculptures, as well as his audio works and Keatonesque black-and-white films (the latter were largely absent from the show for space reasons)—deserves further study and institutional attention. (A concurrent exhibition “inspired” by Sherman and curated by Jonathan Berger at Participant Inc. could count as a step in this direction, although it both corroborated and obscured Sherman’s significance; the show included objects by everyone from Harry Houdini to Andy Kaufman. Still, as a reflection on Sherman’s own mystifying and quasi-mystical practice, it successfully forged a bridge between his art and that of an assortment of shamanesque figures.)

The title of the 80WSE show, “Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing,” was lifted from the syllabus of a class Sherman taught, and it speaks to the ways in which he used actions and objects as an impetus for transformation and self-examination. The eccentric glasses that he wore in several punning advertisements for the spectacles offer a telling example. One of these ads, made for The Eleventh Spectacle: The Erotic, 1979, has the word eye gracing a lens. Whether a sign of autonomy, tautology, or the construction of the artists’ biography (and probably all three), the ambiguity points to the more palpable magic of Sherman’s practice, his symbiotic view of art and life. “The work is creation itself, but then I feel newly created. I think it’s incumbent upon us to participate in the creation of the world, to feel oneself at the center of creation,” he said. Most people who know Sherman’s work note that it’s extremely difficult to talk about and hard to describe, critique, or merely convey to others––and yet, in his absence, we must.

Lauren O’Neill-Butler