A cross between a magician, a mime, a comic performer in the mode of Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin, a theatrical impresario and a high priest, Stuart Sherman was a well-known figure in the downtown avant-garde scene from the late ’70s through the early ’90s, when his career was cut short by AIDS. (He died in 2001.) Because his work has been preserved primarily as videos of performances and in stacks of casual drawings, photocopies and other scraps of paper, his legacy has gone underground. Last fall, a pair of shows brought him back to life.

At New York University’s 80WSE, curators Yolanda Hawkins, John Matturri and John Hagan, who were friends of the artist (and occasional participants in his later performances), presented “Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: The Works of Stuart Sherman,” a visually unprepossessing exhibition that documented the artist’s work in myriad genres. At Participant, “Stuart Sherman: Nothing Up My Sleeve,” curated by Jonathan Berger, focused on Sherman’s artistic genealogy and legacy.

What is most striking today about Sherman is the modesty of his ambitions—the two shows suggest a life devoted to little gestures located somewhere on the continuum between comedy and absurdity. Take, for instance, his 19 “spectacles,” the performance works for which he remains best known, thanks in part to abundant documentation. These involved the manipulation of ordinary objects—among them shoes, shirts, masking tape and miniature toy cars—in predetermined sequences. The videos of these works, though technically and visually unsophisticated, are oddly mesmerizing. We see the artist open a suitcase and arrange his props, sometimes on a folding table, sometimes on a makeshift stage. The humble things become his actors in scenarios that last between 30 seconds and several minutes and are undertaken with an expression of utmost seriousness. One spectacle shown at 80WSE includes a sequence in which the artist dons several white shirts, one on top of the other, then removes them, folds them and places them in neat piles. There is no explanation and no obvious narrative, but somehow it all makes sense.

Today, there is considerable irony in the name bestowed on these carefully choreographed actions. “Spectacle” tends to be associated either with theatrical, high-budget productions by the likes of Jeff Koons and Matthew Barney, or with the pejorative description of the triumph of media culture associated with theorist Guy Debord. Sherman’s “spectacles,” by contrast, seem to be more about seeing what is unfolding in front of you, however apparently inconsequential. This sense of the word was underscored at 80WSE by the presence of several works using the motif of a pair of spectacles.

Along with videos of and scripts for the “spectacles,” this show included samplings of Sherman’s equally low-key work in other genres. Schematic pencil drawings, charming in their austerity, related allusively to situations described by titles. Five horizontal and vertical marks, for instance, became the Song of Bird on Branch of Tree (undated). There were also collages replete with visual and verbal puns, typed serial poems tacked to the wall, documentation of somewhat more elaborate one-act plays involving other performers and referencing grand works like Hamlet, Oedipus Rex and Faust, and a group of mostly unrealized public sculptures. The exhibition ended with a section devoted to “book reviews,” which are actually snippets of diaristic writing inspired by various iconic texts.

At Participant, additional performance films were presented on better monitors and mostly in color. But the context was a group show that used Sherman as the fulcrum between the practices of a wildly heterogeneous assortment of performers and artists, including the sleight of hand of Harry Houdini, the personalities assumed by the comedian Andy Kaufman, the much more self-dramatizing performances of James Lee Byars and drag artist Vaginal Davis, the improvisatory architecture of Site Projects and the charmingly offbeat collecting habits of Carol Bove. The connections with Sherman were often elusive, but that seemed somehow appropriate for a celebration of an artist who tended to disappear into his work.

Fifteen years on, what remains interesting is the paradoxical nature of Sherman’s career. Both shows conjured a performer who eschewed persona and an impresario who produced emphatically non-spectacular spectacles. In many ways, his work runs so counter to the spirit of our moment as to seem way out ahead.

Photos: (left) Stuart Sherman: Eleventh Spectacle (The Erotic), ca. 1979, performance, Battery Park; at 80WSE. Photo John Matturri. (right) Photograph of Eighth Spectacle, 1977; at Participant. Photo Babette Mangolte.

“Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing” was at NYU’s 80WSE [Oct. 21-Dec. 19, 2009], and “Nothing Up My Sleeve” was at Participant, Inc. [Nov. 8-Dec. 20, 2009].