-- A Cyberspace Review Of The Arts

Volume 17.9
November 25, 2009

Robert Sievert
Editorial Associates:
Eva Sievert


Publisher and Webmaster:
ETAOIN / Gordon Fitch
Artezine is a New York City - based review of the Arts and Culture by artists for artists.

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click on picture for press release

Stuart Sherman Reappears

— by Gordon Fitch

Appearing Now!

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 Gallery; 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

(3) Performances of Several Plays by Stuart Sherman
  Emily Harvey Foundation
537 Broadway, 2nd Floor, New York, NY 10012
December 4 - December 7, 2009
7:30pm on Dec. 4, 5, and 7; 4pm on Dec. 6.
See for more information.

I'll now do my best to tell you what the two gallery shows are like.

(1) 80WSE

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. In the 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. For example, 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 Conway's Life, 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, much more. 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?

Back to the Front

Street Art Report

Taller Artifex at Blue Mountain Gallery

David Mollet at the Bowery Gallery

Socrates Goes To The Country

German Art at Blue Mountain Gallery

Lousie Guerin at Blue Mountain Gallery

Nicolas Carone at Washburn Gallery

Diana Manister: Visual Poetry

A New Format

Artezine 16

Artezine 15

Artezine 14

Artezine 13



November 25, 2009