The Stuart Sherman Spectacleby Liz Axelrod
Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: The Works of Stuart Sherman
(NYU Steinhardt, 2011)
Stuart Sherman’s friends—Yolanda Hawkins, John Hagan, and John Matturri—spent countless hours reading, cataloguing, viewing, and organizing the plays, writings, paintings, line drawings, and sculptures piled into the front closet of his sublet apartment on West 22nd Street. Going through that mountain was a labor of love and led to Beginningless Thoughts/Endless Seeing, a curated exhibition at New York University’s 80WSE Gallery in the winter of 2009, and an art book/catalogue of personal reminiscences, descriptions of his plays, and re-prints of his drawings, paintings, and collages. The book, released this month, beautifully and lovingly illustrates the man and his work, but just barely manages to scrape the heart of Sherman’s creative genius.
Best know for his series of 20 short, experimental plays titled the Spectacles, Sherman led a rich existence on the fringe of the New York avant-garde contemporary art/theater scene from the late ’60s to the early ’90s. His folding TV tabletop performances, some on street corners, some staged in theaters with sparse props and even sparser dialogue and action, gave the audience and the player room to view and live in his alternate world of frozen moments and beautiful human gestures. He gave his actors active roles in the design and implementation of the pieces, but also kept tight control of the performance. He assembled a group of varied players that included actor/visual artist Kate Manheim, writer/playwright/director Richard Foreman, and writer/poet Stefan Brecht. He knew well that he would have to give these actors and artists the freedom to create their own performances and, in keeping with his open but controlled direction, he provided clues and then tightly supervised all they brought to the stage.
Painter Powers Boothe says of his work with Sherman, “I was always amazed at how well he could integrate work and image, or text and object, so that a meaning would emerge that had 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—it was spectacular.”
Yolanda Hawkins writes of her early work with him and his first set of directions for her: “He set out definite parameters, for example, not much speaking, no emoting. … He called his theater the Quotidian Foundation, in part perhaps because he planned to make art everyday and to make the everyday into art.” Thus a tabletop could become the basis for a set, a set could be a street corner, and mannerisms, from prolonged sneezes to exaggerated moans and exhaled breaths, were used to illustrate his concept of “performers becoming surrogate props and props becoming surrogate performers.”
I had the pleasure of meeting these wonderful performers and friends of Sherman at the book release for Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing on December 2. Over prosecco and Pellegrino we discussed Sherman and their remembrances of his work, character, and legacy. I also met Julian Bittiner, the book’s designer, who told me he created the typeface based on Sherman’s geometrical drawings featured in the book. The color blue was one of Sherman’s favored preferences for both lighting and art. Bittiner recalled that Sherman “was like a satellite resonating out to a constellation of people, bringing them together and arranging them in the sky.”
John Hagan said, “watching Stuart perform, and performing with him, evoked a range of reactions. His meticulous attention to structure in his pursuit of abstract, somewhat cerebral aims could seem to border on the obsessive; but his love of humor—both dry and outrageous, as well as outrageously dry—revealed someone who reveled in going for the laugh. Is it any surprise that he considered doing stand-up comedy?”
Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing features not only friends and colleagues of Sherman reminiscing about the man and his work, but also many reproductions of his minimalist drawings and graphic word art. His prolific works include line drawings of pencils, paintings of pens, elaborate graphs, Venn-like diagrams, and images of page upon page of drawn and type-faced letters. His later collage works seem aimed at illuminating the world to the terrors of the AIDS epidemic and the worsening political climate. His titles were mini-poems in themselves: “Blurred Bull Tears Out Of Unfocused Crowd But Red Line Clearly Triumphs,” “Child In Flight From Low Flying Planes, Trees Advancing, 2/6/96,” “Death In The Late, Late, Late, Late Afternoon. 2/28/96,” and “Rock Face. Seen Under Microscope. Retains Its Size: Sky Collapses For Lack Of Evidence: White Paper Goes Blank 10/16/96.”
In his lifetime, Sherman received numerous prizes for his work, including a Guggenheim Fellowship, an Obie, the Prix de Rome, and NAFTA grants. He lived mostly below the radar, and spent his life roaming the world in search of new experiences. He died with barely enough in his estate to pay his taxes. Much of his body of work, which includes film and video, can be found at the Museum of Modern Art, the Billy Rose Theatre Collection at Lincoln Center, and the Fales Library at N.Y.U.
His legacy continues. Artist/writer/filmmaker Robin Deacon told me how he met Sherman in the mid 1990s at Cardiff University at Wales where Sherman was a visiting lecturer. Deacon, who found his work “completely impenetrable and utterly compelling, spent three years researching and mounting a series of performances of his solo Spectacles, recreating the “tabletop” pieces, culminating in Deacon’s 2010 recreation of Sherman’s “Hamlet” at the Chelsea Theater in London.
Interspersed throughout the book are smaller, mustard-colored pages of quotes from Sherman—pieces of writing found in his notes that illuminate the man and may provide clues to his brilliant minimalist process.
The quote that struck me hard, after having spent the evening listening to his friends tell tales of the artist, left me wondering how much I missed by not knowing Sherman’s work earlier: “Bright as the light is, it is not as bright as it was before this sentence diminished it.”