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Stuart Sherman Reappears
— by Gordon Fitch
Stuart Sherman was primarily known in the '80s and
'90s as a performance artist. His performances, called
"Spectacles", perhaps ironically in that they involved
small objects and gestures and were hardly spectacular
in the sense of "large, grandiose", often took
place in front of very small audiences and its
materials were set out on a folding table of the
sort one puts one's TV dinner on. The
performances were gesturally a kind of mix of
magicians' business and Dada. Since Sherman's
death in 2001, they remain to us now only in the
form of writeups and videos. They did not turn
out to be a route to fame and fortune.
But besides performance art, Sherman went in for
writing, drawing, sculpture, playwriting, and
movie-making -- and I may have left something out.
Much of this was hidden away, forgotten along with
the man and his performances. Now, however, we
have several simultaneous opportunities to
observe his polymathic work; it is being revived
in a variety of
venues. There is a show of drawings, writings,
sculpture, collage, and videos at NYU's 80WSE
there are videos and works by other artists in the
same aura as Sherman's at the Participant Gallery;
and various plays of his are to be performed
at the Emily Harvey Foundation in December.
First, the program:
(1) Beginningless Thought / Endless Seeing:
The Works of Stuart Sherman
80WSE: 80 Washington Square East
(Between West 4th Street and Washington Place)
Work on view October 21, 2009 -- December 19, 2009
Gallery Hours Monday-Saturday, 10-6
Curated by John Hagan, Yolanda Hawkins, and John Matturri
(2) Stuart Sherman: Nothing Up My Sleeve
253 East Houston Street,
New York, NY
212 254 4334
Work on view November 8 - December 20, 2009
Hours: Wednesday-Sunday, Noon-7
Curated by John Berger
I'll now do my best to tell you what the
two gallery shows are like.
In general, one might say Stuart Sherman's work is
the exact complement of Andy Warhol's. Warhol
famously said of his painting, "It's just what you
see. There's nothing behind it." In Sherman's
work, on the other hand, any act or item may have
a great deal behind it -- indeed, more than one
can easily decode. He started out his artistic
life as a writer, then went to drawing of a very
minimalist sort, as an adjunct to the writing, the
drawings often acting as blueprints or maps, so to
speak, of sentences or phrases.
In the area between writing and drawing, long
criss-crossed by ideograms, hieroglyphs and
alphabetic characters, Sherman
assembled letters into multi-layered patterns.
Although most of his performances involved
ready-made objects, he constructed (or deconstructed)
sculpture, and wrote and participated in plays.
Later, he created a number of collages. Many
writings (in the form of sheets attached to the
wall, and also a "library" room), drawings,
and collages are presented by the exhibition
at 80WSE, as well as a number of video monitors
showing Sherman performing Spectacles.
As noted, the Spectacles are represented to us
by video monitors; the videos were generally
taken under less than ideal conditions. The
actions taken in the performances are generally
modest and restrained; often, the movements are
rather stiff and ritualistic, as if any attempt
at either elegance or inelegance would distract
the audience from their intent. Sherman and
his assistants are almost always intent,
concentrated, deadpan, even when the ideas
being conveyed seem humorous. Viewing them
now, I got a rather hypnotic sense of watching
a Zen master at work, although in this case
the production of ideas rather than a trance
state or satori appeared to be the purpose.
As one example, during a part of one Spectacle Sherman
is wearing glasses ("spectacles"); he picks up
a blank sheet of paper, puts it in front of his
face, and puts the glasses on over it. Clearly
he can't see. Then the
glasses fall off. Now he does the same thing
with a sheet of newsprint. The same results
occur. The message thus far appears to be that the
need to write, and the need to read, obstruct
ability to see. These gestures happen very quickly, so
that one gets the idea, one might say, before
one knows it.
For most gallery-and museum-goers, I believe
the collages will be the most accessible. One
of the staples of Surrealism is the placing
of ordinary objects in unfamiliar surroundings,
relations, and juxtapositions; obviously,
collage, especially of the sort where the raw
materials are popular magazines or books,
lends itself to this purpose.
case of Sherman's collages, some seem to have
been inspired by odd phrases we
use in daily life. People familiar with this
kind of art will feel they know right where
they are. Moreover, Sherman seems to take more
interest with the sensual possiblities of
design in the collages than with the drawings.
The drawings will probably be another matter
and may take some getting used to.
Generally, there is little attempt at
sensuality or nuance in them; one might
say Sherman was as deadpan as a draftsman as
he was as a performance artist.
in "Bleeding Man" a man is represented by a
black X and his bleeding as a linked red X.
The X's are of the same size, just as the
geometrical extent of blood in the human body
is the same size as the body itself -- we are
reminded of the lacy diagrams of the circulatory
system we see in anatomy books.
The blood and
the man are shadows or reflections of one another.
Bleeding is a sign of injury, black of death; has
the man been killed? It is characteristic of
these drawings to set off chain reactions of
thought which extend in many directions.
In another drawing we are given the four
elements as a series of squares containing
circles: red, brown, blue -- and the fourth
is missing. But of course -- the air is clear,
and it's all around us. We've fallen into
the drawing and become part of it. The
humor of the surprise in this drawing is
typical of many of them; obviously, one
should have known.
The production of complex connections from simple
rules is also evident from an video of a series
of related drawings made on translucent paper
which have been animated for the benefit of
the show. (You may have to get the staff to
activate the computer it is running on; it seems
to get tired and go off from time to time. If you
don't see an animation, ask; don't miss this.)
The moving appearance of the drawings strongly
reminded me of
and like Conway's Life is
generated by rules which indeed come to life. But
the delicacy of Sherman's drawing in time makes
the blocky quality of the mathematical game look
rather brash. You must see this at the gallery;
it does not come over well enough when wrung
through a digital camera and a succession of
computers to present in capsule form here.
(I couldn't help wondering, given the extensive
interest in assemblages of numbers and letters,
whether Sherman was involved with Kabbalistic
thought or study. No one seems to recall or
have come across explicit references to the
Kabbalah in his work, however.)
Besides the collages and the drawings, there
are rooms devoted to sculpture and to drama;
the drama room contains videos of some of
Sherman's plays, some objects from performances,
and a number of photographs. The sculpture
includes Sherman's "eyeglasses", a staple of the
Spectacles, and some other objects, for example
a carefully lacquered straight chair which has
been disassembled, the parts then being arranged
in a new, rather glyphic order.
On the whole, while the show seems unassuming,
the thought behind the drawings, collages and
performances seems vast, even overwhelming.
Clearly, the show can only scratch the surface,
just as this review can only scratch the surface
of the show.
It is even more difficult to describe this show,
curated by John Berger,
than the one at 80WSE. The basic idea was to
present objects which are not by Stuart
Sherman but related to him in some way. There is
a great variety of evocative objects, including
several television monitors showing Sherman
Spectacles, Sherman's TV table and suitcase,
photographs of Spectacles, postcard announcing
them; a set of phographs of Harry Houdini along
with a mouth-operated lock pick, various Spiritualism
artifacts, including a "spirit trumpet", the suit
of James Lee Byars (gold lamé jacket and pants,
silk top hat, black suede slippers), two "words on
a page by Matthew Brannon (Rat and Poodle),
Kiosk (from which you can take a number and get
an object in exchange), Best Indeterminate Façade
(a series of modified photographs), a considerable amount of
material related to Andy Kaufman, a series of mysterious
gift boxes by Stephanie victor, a series of Italian posters
from the 1970s, a handmade book by Katarina Burin, ephemera
and photographs from The History of Vaginal Davis,
a set of facsimile ephemera related to Gray's Store / Gallery
circa 1922-1930, a fragrance (in small vials) and much,
For an explanation, you'll have
to visit the show at 253 Houston; a catalogue
is in preparation. Some pictures of the scene
are below, mysteriously unnamed and unexplained.
How many art shows or installations supply you
with a fragrance?