The Many Spectacles of Stuart Sherman


Artist, performer, filmmaker and writer Stuart Sherman has returned to New York, concurrent with a season of performance that descends upon the city this November, courtesy of Performa. Eight years after his passing, an exhibition at NYU’s 80WSE gallery brings together the first extensive sampling of Sherman’s prolific output. A folding table Sherman used for his tabletop performances in Washington Square Park in the 1970s announces the exhibition from the street-level windows of 80 Washington Square East.

Sherman’s early performances were short, non-narrative works he scripted and performed using simple store-bought objects, manipulating them in ways that demonstrate their use or unexpected relations to one another-he might, for example, take a cheap plastic toy from a suitcase, place it alongside another one, move them around, then put them away.  “Magic tricks without the magic,” to quote exhibition curator Yolanda Hawkins, might be the best way to describe them. Between 1975 and 1994, Sherman developed a series of nineteen “spectacles”: resolutely anti-spectacular works where everyday gestures like reading a book or sharpening a pencil are performed with deadpan concentration and understated humor. Several are on view here as filmed documentation, supplemented by contextual wall labels and quotes from the artist-not to mention cameos from the “actors,” like the TV-shaped pencil sharpener with starring turns as both symbolic TV and actual sharpener in the 1978 Eleventh Spectacle (The Erotic). (PERFORMED AT LEFT, PHOTO COURTESY ESTATE OF THE ARTIST).

The seven gallery spaces hold a variegated body of work loosely organized by medium and format. There are drawings and collages, poetry and journal entries, one-act plays and attendant props, even a wall of public art proposals. The galleries are flanked by a reading room of photocopied material and reading-related visuals, like the photographic still from the 1980 Twelfth Spectacle (Language), where paper takes human shape by being stuck against a face and held in place with Sherman’s signature round glasses.

As the title of the exhibition hints, concepts and objects were often interchangeable in Sherman’s writerly approach to thinking and seeing. The diagram-like drawings, which Richard Foreman called “renderings of the rhythms of his mind’s struggle with the flux of things,” are studies of this process. Using drafting tools and colored inks, Sherman produced pared-down drawings that are mathematical in their precision but extremely subjective. Death of Heart is a row of six small shapes: interlocking triangle decrease in number as they are gradually boxed into interlocking squares. Other drawings, like the lone Book on Bookshelf depicted with just four straight lines, are just inexplicably funny in their pathos.

Sherman has long been a respected name in experimental theater and performance art. But true to his eccentric, low-key aesthetic, Sherman remains what one critic called an “avant-garde performance artist’s avant-garde performance artist.” A closer look reveals how Sherman weaves strands of task-performance inherited from Yvonne Rainer and Judson Dance Theater with the Fluxus multiples of George Maciunas or the games of George Brecht (re-interpreting the Duchampian valise along the way). The present exhibition keeps a strictly archival monographic focus, but presents ample opportunity for re-contextualization of Sherman’s work.

Other events organized by curators Hawkins, John Matturri and John Hagan (all collaborators and acquaintances of Sherman during his lifetime) include a film screening hosted by Sherman scholar Bérénice Reynaud, and restagings of Sherman’s plays at the Emily Harvey Foundation Gallery. In a separate Performa-related program, Sherman is the muse behind the “Stuart Sherman: Nothing Up My Sleeve,” a group exhibition curated by artist Jonathan Berger which opens at Participant Inc. on November 8. Themed around “deception,” the show brings Sherman’s work alongside a lineup that runs from magician Harry Houdini to comedian Andy Kaufman, as well as artists such as James Lee Byars and Carol Bove. (INSTALLATION PHOTO OF 80WSE BY MEDIA FARZIN)

“Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: The Works of Stuart Sherman” is on view through December 19.  80WSE is located at 80 Washington Square East in New York.

A screening of Stuart Sherman’s film and video works, curated and hosted by Bérénice Reynaud, will take place November 11, 7 PM, at NYU’s Einstein Auditorium, 34 Stuyvesant Street, in New York.  Plays by Stuart Sherman will be presented December 4 to 7 at the Emily Harvey Foundation Gallery, 537 Broadway, 2nd floor, in New York.

“Stuart Sherman: Nothing Up My Sleeve” takes place November 8-22 at Participant Inc., 253 East Houston Street, New York.