The Eye-Popping Spectacles of Stuart Sherman1 by John Reed

John Reed takes notes (and footnotes) on the career of art animus Stuart Sherman, using the new catalog Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing as a jumping-off point.

Stuart Erotic 35 Sm Gry Body

Eleventh Spectacle, 1978. Photograph by John Matturri courtesy Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: the Works of Stuart Sherman.

The child sews beanbags. “Why not make a business of it?” asks the adult. The commercial impulse is automatic. It is the channeling of art into market culture, and it is art’s end. In 1969, Stuart Sherman, an artist at play, wrote a related parable (with characteristic “o-o,” i.e. “spectacle” typography)2:

6/6/69: One little boy preferred stringing beads to all other amusements. But he concealed this preference from his playro-om teacher and from his play-ro-omates, because no one—not even girls—ever strung beads, and he did not want to be thought strange. To camouflage his real interest, he deliberately showed boundless enthusiasm for all the toys and utilized them with equal skill and imagination. Visitors to the playro-om often remarked the extraordinary versatility and quality of his achievements and then, when alone, dreamed of the heights of accomplishment the boy could reach if only he cared to concentrate his talent and energy on one particular plaything.3

The new catalog Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: the Works of Stuart Shermandocuments and reflects upon the performance and mixed media art of this mercurial artist, gathering archival materials from a 2009 exhibition curated by John Hagan, Yolanda Hawkins and John Matturri. Sherman (1945-2001) was an early member of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company and Richard Foreman’s Ontological-Hysteric Theatre; he matured into a wide-ranging creative force: performances, film and video, writing, drawing, collage and sculpture. The catalog compiles essays written by Sherman’s colleagues, stills from performances, and reproductions of Sherman’s drawings and collages. Entries and poems from Sherman’s journals are inset in the pages, allowing Sherman to posthumously contribute to the dialogue.

Sherman’s output, if diverse, stemmed from a single, ineffable source. He was a performance artist, a sculptor, a filmmaker, a writer, but moreover, an art animus that manifested in various mediums, imperfections intact. As Sherman wrote in an unpublished syllabus, “Meanings are infinite, I vow to intend them. Unintended meanings are welcome, if invited—i.e., made plausible and/or inevitable by your actual intentions … Art is evidence, residue, relic, momentary concretization of beginningless thought and endless seeing.”

Power Boothe, who wrestled with an overcoat in Sherman’s 1976 performance, Seventh Spectacle, saw Sherman’s work as a sum, rather than a pairing of text and image. “I was always amazed at how well he could integrate word and image, or text and object, so that a meaning would emerge that would have its own logic that depended on both. A word or phrase or an object by itself would not be enough, but a phrase and an object would come together and create another meaning that would link to the next text/object meaning.”4

Sherman drew meaning from life, rather than from a narrative about life. In what might be termed a Brechtian tradition, Sherman elaborated on a theater of living, as opposed to a theater that imitated living. Assumptions of narrative, of what a story is, of what a story should be, of what we should expect for ourselves, are constructs that weigh heavily on creative thinking; Sherman endeavored to disenthrall art and theater of cumbersome fancies.5

In his 1986 work, Brecht, Sherman selected from the entirety of Brecht’s output; in telling counterpoint, Sherman’s Chekhov, also 1986, reduced the normative exemplar to an expurgated version of The Cherry Orchard. Sherman’s resistance to received wisdom was broadly applied: he distrusted narrative and “naturalism” as much as he distrusted emotion. Sherman directed his actors, for example, not to learn how to play instruments called for by the script. In rehearsals, he would admonish, “Once more, without feeling.” The creative act was always itself, whatever its referents; Sherman was loathe to adopt conventions of “imitation.” A 1/26/91 journal entry reads: “Bright as the light is, it is not as bright as it was before this sentence diminished it.”6

This concept was extended to his theater, which he termed the “Quotidian Foundation,” and through which he extended the operative principles of theater to include the mundane, the everyday, the perpetual. In Tray Top Spectacles, he puppeted narratives with uninspiring inanimate objects. Live actors were afforded no more access to characterization; in his 1994 performance, Nineteenth Spectacle, Sherman directed Anna Kohler to perform in a German, French, Italian, and then Southern accent. Kohler, in her reflections for Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing, correlated the mindfulness of Zen Buddhism to the focus Sherman demanded of his performers. In corroboration, Sherman’s journal relates a central theme of Zen philosophy: fullness becomes emptiness becomes fullness again. 8/22/90: “Tired of neglect, the view from his window fell away, out of sight, revealing, just behind it, itself again, hoping to be seen.”7

Faithful to Sherman’s art maelstrom, Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing reproduces a portfolio of Sherman’s drawings, circa 1971. The drawings—some chaotic, some regimented, but all in a graph paper, clip-art hand—further Sherman’s argument of cultural emancipation. The drawing style, a self-assured anxiety, recalls a ’70s and ’80s movement in abstraction to alleviate “deep space” with physically felt lines. In 1974, in reference to a New York gallery show by Judy Rifka, Jeremy Gilbert-Rolfe wrote that the artist addressed “the question most crucial to painting in general at the present time: the question as to how far the—currently compromised—abstract ‘depth’ of pictorial space can be newly considered—retrieved—through attention to the material basis of the conventions on which that experience of ‘depth’ relies.”8

​Judy Rifka

Judy Rifka. Untitled, 1974. Acrylic on Cardboard / 43 × 44 inches.9

Mel Bochner Threshold Body

Mel Bochner. Threshold, 1982. Charcoal and conte on sized canvas / 86×112 inches.10

Abstraction, as Sherman’s treats it, is a prototypical language, the meaning itself; truth of language, that it is what it is and not what it means, is the revelation by which we can achieve, in our physicality, some greater access to freedom. We may, by a superficially “chaotic” expression of meaning, mature from the horror of Gustave Flaubert’s bourgeois nightmare (Ils sont dans le vrai) to a Keith Haring vibration of existence. 11

B25 Frantic Body

Stuart Sherman. Frantic, undated. Marker on paper courtesy Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: the Works of Stuart Sherman.

B24 Potted Plant Body

Stuart Sherman. Potted Plant, undated. Marker on paper courtesy Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: the Works of Stuart Sherman.

B26 Orgy Body

Stuart Sherman. Orgy, undated. Marker on paper courtesy Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: the Works of Stuart Sherman.

B16 Ils Sont Body

Stuart Sherman. Ils sont dans le vrai ils sont dans le vrai, (Flaubert), 1971. Marker on paper courtesy Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: the Works of Stuart Sherman.

B19 Thinking Man Body

Stuart Sherman. Thinking Man, 1971. Marker on paper.

B20 Bleeding Man Body

Stuart Sherman. Bleeding Man, 1971. Marker on paper.

B22 Untitled Body

Stuart Sherman. Untitled, undated Marker on paper.

B21 Unregenrate Sinner Body

Stuart Sherman. Unregenerate Sinner, 1971. Marker on paper courtesy Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: the Works of Stuart Sherman.

B12 Deus Ex Machina Body

Stuart Sherman. Deux Ex Machina, 1971. Marker on paper courtesy Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: the Works of Stuart Sherman.

Painting81 3 Body

Keith Haring. Untitled, 1981. Acrylic on Vinyl, 96—96 inches.

The collages and poetry included in Beginningless Thought/Endless call attention to Sherman’s alignment with then-contemporary trends in Language poetry and East Village art. His poetry seeks meaning in the fissures of disjunction, in the interruptions of comprehension. Linda G. Schulze writes in “The Pinball Wizard” (an “appreciation” in Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing): “Sherman teases words apart as an act of re-creation, manipulating the ordinary so that it transcends its own ordinariness.” In the introduction to her collected essays, The Language of Inquiry, Language poet Lyn Hejinian distills a poetics that could apply as neatly to Sherman’s writings as to his theater:

Language is nothing but meanings, and meanings are nothing but a flow of contexts. Such contexts rarely coalesce into images, rarely come to terms. They are transitions, transmutations, the endless radiating of denotation into relation.12

Sherman’s collages recall multi-media work by David Wojnarowicz, who provides an apposite consideration of transition and freedom in his memoir Close to the Knives:

Transition is always a relief. Destination means death to me. If I could figure out a way to remain forever in transition, in the disconnected and unfamiliar, I could remain in a state of perpetual freedom.13
F19 Stopped On Body

Stuart Sherman. Stopped on a Dime: Penny Eclipses Dollar but not George Washington, 1996. Courtesy Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: the Works of Stuart Sherman.

Bad Moon Rising By Wojnarowicz Body

David Wojnarowicz. Bad Moon Rising, 1989 Mixed Media.

1/16/93 (originally published in Sherman’s The Quotidian Review)

Children’s mittens

Gather wo-ol

Around small hands

Whose cold touch resembles flu’s

But not by much,

Unless you cotton

?o grown-up gloves

Concealing warmth

Instead of fingers.

——-

“Killed in action,”

So the line of duty goes—

But having gone,

“Went” went with it,

Leaving us here

?o mourn “passing” ’s passing.

——-

Young bucks age

Old time’s

Valueless decree:

?ax yourself

With understanding,

Let others pay

For nothing

’s ventured,

Nothing’s gained—

Save honor.

 

“Range” (from Necromance by Rae Armantrout, Sun & Moon, 1991)

 

There cloud moves in front of cloud, and above, suggesting

a deep breath, enormous range—such that a young girl

could leave home.

 

Long wind. Birds splutter and croak.

The difference now, she explains, is that she does not

lose consciousness when another takes the floor.

 

Who felt the vertigo of bouncing when he saw the fly

land on the leaf?

 

Who said, “Unnatural?”

 

The actress—the nun—the kid—the gatekeeper.

 

One harps continually

because she may have missed her cue.

 

“One notion, recognizable, with temperament and bluster

for real.”14

 

Stuart’s work, and perhaps all creative enterprise, might be reduced to the invocation of awe and love: a worship of life and the relationships in it. In 1978, Sherman repurposed a gift of mechanical teeth, bought several more pairs, and set them clapping in his performance, Eleventh Spectacle (The Erotic)15:

Stuart Eleventh Body

Stuart Sherman in Eleventh Spectacle (1978) Photograph by Babette Mangolte courtesy Nothing Up My Sleeve: An Exhibition Based on the Work of Stuart Sherman.

The impulse—worship, awe—is common to myth, religion, and big Hollywood movies. But Sherman, as evidenced in his last major stage performance, Stations of the Cross: The Passion of Stuart (2000), takes care to emphasize the unmonumentality of his unmission. His “spectacles,” and his grand overture to Christ, are decidedly unspectacular. The message, its delivery and deliverance, is essential to the meaning of the message. We are never to forget who we are, what we are doing. By this design, Sherman’s body of work resists piecemeal discussion, short essays and catalogue categories. The subjectivity of review, to be adequately acknowledged, would require a performance of its own. (There is plenty to divulge about the subjectivity of this writer: I’ve attended several events, pumping people for thoughts; I assigned a writer for another venue, thinking to glean there, but I haven’t yet opened the .doc; I lost an envelope, and made Jonathan Berger, who curated Nothing Up My Sleeve, An Exhibition Based on the Work of Stuart Sherman, send me two catalogues; I mentioned my own mother, above, the artist Judy Rifka, to self-acknowledge a suspect memory—in the company of one of my parents, I would have been about nine, Sherman showed me a tray of clacking mechanical teeth.)16

Sherman Spectacles Body

Stuart Sherman. Time-Spectacles, 1984. Courtesy Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: the Works of Stuart Sherman.

In his 1982 film, Typewriting (pertaining to Stefan Brecht), Sherman visits the life of Bertolt’s son. Stefan doesn’t make an appearance; instead, a succession of quotidian objects and moments render a portrait that is nine-tenths meditation. Identity is a transmuting weave of immediacy. John Matturri writes, in Stuart Sherman Makes a Spectacle of Himself (originally published in1978, reprinted in 1997 in De Kade, and in 2010’s Nothing Up My Sleeve):

For Sherman, making a spectacle of himself does not mean adopting a role, but publicly manifesting thinking. He has created a theater of intricate structure in which he can continually re-enact, in the privacy of creation and in public performance, participation in the ordering process and the inevitable loss of that order. It is this process which he represents as his essential self, and, in his work, Sherman devises an arena in which he can enact that selfhood with a particular clarity and exhibit it to the world.

Or, as told by Sherman, 1/3/94:

 

The shallowness of one’s view depends on the depth of one’s need for glasses as seen from the perspective of a sightless bystander.1

____________________________________________________________________________________

Notes:

1. I wonder if I’ll get away with that.

2. I sewed as a child, with much of the same intensity that my daughter, now 7.5, sews. I learned how to sew in P.S. 41, in the West Village, very near to Sherman’s then and now domain; his retrospective in 2009, at NYU’s Gray Gallery, was only a few blocks away from P.S. 41. Mrs. Strauchler, who gave us the sewing lesson (first grade), asked why my stiches had gotten so long: “What happened to these nice short ones?” I would have kept them short if I’d known to. I thought I’d found a short cut. Each year, I sewed my own Halloween costumes: consistently too small.

3. Parables are rather a convenient methodology of avoidance, aren’t they? I carefully sidestep value judgments of Sherman’s drawings and poetry, because it seems beside the point. One of the misfortunes of our age is specialization, the need for it, but, alternately, it is very difficult to experientially master multiple fields of interest. Perhaps my failing, and one I don’t own up to in the above discussion, but I can’t help but think of Stuart as a performer, and a performer first.

4. I’m really kind of the wrong guy to write this, huh? I was only a kid for much of Stuart’s performance career. On the other hand, I was downtown, circulating in the same tribe. And my knowledge of the period—broad stroke, not particularly detailed—is perhaps ideally suited to make sense of something that isn’t easy to make sense of. The question, then, is whether or not we were supposed to do that.

5. Ok, I’m writing about Sherman, but I’m also writing about myself. I just published a gigantic essay about “The Politics of Narrative.” You can go read it, if you’re so inclined, at therumpus.com. I warn you, however, it’s even longer than the piece you’re reading.

6. Sherman was palsy with Stefan Brecht. I keep wondering if Stefan had money. He died in 2009. Oh, also, Chekhov is extraordinarily boring and predictable; cutting extensively is an elegant solution for an informed, contemporary audience. Gun on the wall, first act, please don’t make me sit through three more acts. Oh, and “naturalism” isn’t natural. Refer back to my note on “Paragraph 6.”

7. One of the curators had me make corrections here. This isn’t what it says in the catalog.

8. Ok, as I write these notes, I’m changing one edit back to more like I had it. That was the one place I thought I’d compromised too much. If it happens again, I’ll tell you. “A self-assured anxiety” took me a long time to come up with. It works well enough, but better describes my mother’s drawing style.

9. It’s hard to see this, but the black paint is constructed of taped lines on taped lines on taped lines. Very sculptural, geometric. It really does relate to the Sherman drawings.

10. I wanted something like this. Believe me, there was a lot to choose from. Many 80s artists with working with geometric layering.

11. Keith was my mother’s friend. Both of my parents lost close friends. AIDS was a cultural holocaust. I sometimes doubt the national culture survived.

12. It was much too easy to find a quote that said what I was looking for.

13. A little gimicky, to put these two works next to each other. A startling juxtaposition, though I confess the two works don’t share too much. Money sucks is hardly a common ground. But the collages of Sherman and Wojnarowicz do relate, I swear that’s true, even if I couldn’t find an honest way to demonstrate it.

14. I was surprised how well these two poems fit together. I thought it was another trick, but now I’m not so sure.

15. I cut a whole bit with a religious bent. Principles of Gnosticism, repackaged top purpose. Mostly stuff I think; but I’m rather certain that Sherman was on the same wavelength. I still feel the gap, the missing argument, but it would have been another 1000 words. Ok, ok, another 500. But I’m already 1057 words over my wordcount, and with these footnotes, add on another 800 or so.

16. Ok, I’m pretty sure I remember him showing me the teeth, but I could be making it up. Walter Robinson, at about that time, gave me a mechanical Tweety bird. A wind-up jumping yellow bird, Snoopy’s friend, “Tweety.” I keep thinking Sherman looked like my uncle, Norman, who died in a scuba accident, in 1988. Like Sherman, Norman was creepy, brilliant and arguably handsome—but he was also fat, irritating, directionless, and without charm.

17. I do scoot out of here, don’t I? I always try to avoid those grating summations. Clint at BOMB seems to have let me get away with it. Does gnaw at me a bit; I wonder if I’m being lazy. But a summation of a summation, ugh, isn’t that bound to be superficial, and wrong?

John Reed is author of the novels A Still Small Voice, Snowball’s Chance, The Whole, All The World’s A Grave: A New Play by William Shakespeare, and Tales of Woe.

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