Willoughby Sharp, "Reappearance: Archival Artifacts, Articles, Drawings, JPEGS, Memorabilia, Objects, Paintings, Photographs, Relics, Residue and other Exotica." Sept. 6-Oct. 6, 2007, at Mitchell Algus Gallery, 511 West 25th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001
Willoughby Sharp, "Then & Now," in "New in Practice Projects, Fall 2007," Sept. 9-Nov. 25, 2007, at the Sculpture Center, 44-19 Purves Street, Long Island City, N.Y. 11101
The valiant art dealer Mitchell Algus again has done our memory-challenged art world a service with his current show devoted to the cutting-edge performance art works from the 1970s by Willoughby Sharp. During the heyday of the Body Art, performance and video art movements, Sharp was known for theatrical actions that tapped, and aroused, extreme emotions: wailing uncontrollably with the pain of heartbreak; taking LSD while wearing a diaper in a crib in order to "recapture" his lost child; locking himself in a spinning industrial clothes dryer while imagining his parents making love. Now 71, Sharp has made a dozen or so new photo-and-text works based on these performances of more than 30 years ago.
Though few may have seen his original video performances, almost everyone in the art world has seen and heard of Sharp -- a tall, imposing figure, dressed all in black, including his everpresent hat. In his Manhattan high school days, he set up a party-locating social network via telephone, a precursor of networking websites like Facebook. He studied art history at Brown and Columbia, and early on engaged in dialogues with Albert Einstein, and later with Yves Klein, Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Beuys, who convinced Sharp that what was important was art which engaged the mind more than the eye. Ever since then he’s been dedicated to what’s often called "communications art."
Along with Liza Béar, Sharp invented Avalanche magazine, which changed the face of the New York artworld, introducing major figures from Europe (like Beuys) and championing avant-garde art forms of video, performance and conceptual art. From 1970 to 1976 the pair published and edited 13 issues of a now-rare, black-and-white document of artistic production.
What’s more, Bear and Sharp skipped hiring the critics, moving instead right to the source, making interviews with artists and information about their projects mainstays of the publication. Following Willoughby’s inclination to explore art that stimulates the mind, Avalanche concentrated on practitioners of the conceptual. Carl Andre, Bas Jan Ader, Alice Aycock, Bill Beckley, General Idea, Hans Haacke, Bruce Nauman, Dennis Oppenheim, Yvonne Rainer, Keith Sonnier, Robert Smithson, Lawrence Weiner and William Wegman all were among its contributors.
But Sharp’s activities weren’t limited to print. The 1970s was a time of multimedia ferment, with artists experimenting with the then-nascent video, as well as film and other forms of telecommunications. Sharp began working with Super 8 and 16 mm film in 1967 and quickly moved on to television, cable and the interactive projects he called "video performance."
Before Avalanche, starting in 1970 and continuing through 1974, Sharp produced a series of videotaped dialogues with Bruce Nauman, Joseph Beuys, Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Lowell Darling and Dennis Oppenheim. In the late 1970s, Sharp organized projects that mingled information gathered from a salad of computers, fax transmissions and Slow-Scan TV. In 1979, he implemented MASERS (Mobile Artists Satellite Earth Receiving Stations), which allowed him to scan global satellite television programming and show it on a monitor.
Others were also experimenting with new media. Remember Douglas Davis? Woody and Steina Vesulka? Global Village? Electronic Arts Intermix? In 1977, Davis, Nam June Paik and Joseph Beuys opened Documenta 6 with a live telecast whose finale consisted of Davis ostensibly trying to break through the TV screen into your living room. That same year, using satellite transmissions, Sharp and Bear coproduced with Keith Sonnier Send/Receive, the first transcontinental satellite work by artists. It featured a 15-hour interactive transmission between San Francisco (at ArtCom/La Mamelle Inc.) and New York (at the Center for New Art Activities). After Avalanche, I think that Sharp’s work in globally collaborative interactive telecommunications is his most significant contribution to the evolution of the avant-garde.
Super 8 mm and 16 mm film, so ubiquitous in the 1960s, were made technologically obsolete overnight by the portable video camera. Willoughby’s early existential and highly autobiographical performance videos in the 1970s, like those of Chris Burden, seemed so transgressive, so outrageous, so experimental. Now they appear as exercises in rather idealistic and often self-indulgent innocence -- both political and theatrical. Willoughby has defined video performance as an artistic activity in which the camera always mediates between artist and viewer. The audience sees the event only as it is filmed, and has no direct contact with the artist. It definitely is not what he calls "video painting," a category into which he consigns Bill Viola’s video poems, since they employ video as a sort of one-way substitute for conventional film. Sharp’s recent piece, Then & Now (made in collaboration with his wife and creative partner, Pamela Smith), currently installed at the Sculpture Center as part of its New in Practice Projects show, is an elaborate Proustian reprise, the artist’s own A la recherche du temps perdu that amalgamates over 40 years of his work and his personal life.
The dozen pieces in "Reappearance" are also collaborations with Pamela Smith, to whom Sharp dedicates the show. They combine hand-written narratives, photographs, diagrams and various props into assemblages that revisit his peripatetic performances from the early 1970s. These performances were usually based on Sharp’s own intellectual encounters, solipsistic personal traumas and life events. Referring to his 1970 work, "EINSTEIN’S Eye," represented at Algus by hand-printed text combined with a still photo of the artist’s eyeball, Sharp explains how he was inspired by an auspicious tea he had with Albert Einstein in Princeton, N.J., when he was 17.
"He infected me with a cosmic connectedness to my place in the world. By 1970, I had decided that video would be my main expressive medium. It was well suited to showcase my performative talents while it also allowed me to explore my growing understanding of new electronic technologies.
"I had my right eye videotaped by a recently released, state-of-the-art SONY portable video system, the 3400 "Porta-Pac" series.
"After the 30 minute reel-to-reel videotape was shot, it was replayed for a small, especially invited audience on a black/white TV monitor.
By placing a rectangular mirror at a right angle to the TV set in the darkened space, I created an electronic, two-eyed, ghost-like apotheosis that radiated a stark, but dynamic, eerie aura."
Willoughby’s performances in black and white seem often to have depended on shock value and an assumption of artistic permissiveness as they set about to break emotional and physical taboos. STAY!, which Sharp enacted at 10 pm one night at the University of Oklahoma in October 1974, sounded pretty scary then. Today, when an MIT student bedecked with a live computer circuit board is stopped at gunpoint by security at the Boston airport, STAY would get Willoughby arrested in a nanosecond.
Here’s how he describes it in the Algus installation, where the following text is paired with a photograph of the event:
America’s "Wild West" has always been strange to me. I tend to avoid confrontation, conflict and violence. At this period, I worked with my girlfriend, Kirsten Bates, and my assistant, Tom Miller.
The professor who had invited us to Norman wore ten-gallon cowboy hats and was an avid gun collector. He showed me one: an ivory-handled 22 which I asked to borrow for my performance.
The availability of the pistol and the turbulent western atmosphere inspired me to conceive of a new work, A Seduction, later titled STAY!
The performance area was a large basketball gym and an adjoining smaller room. Just before the show, I put the gun under a mattress in the small room, along with a video camera on a fixed tripod and a TV monitor so that we both could see what the audience was seeing.
Then I asked a student, Anna, to assist me in executing the piece. I explained to her that all she would have to do would be to go into the backroom and "act naturally."
As we left the gym, Tom quietly locked the doors, and stood, arms-crossed, under the black/white TV monitor which I had placed above the door so that the audience could see what was happening between Anna in the back room.
We started to seriously kiss. I put my hands under her white, cable-stitched, turtleneck sweater on her substantial breasts. We were obviously VERY into it. (You could hear the heavy breathing.) After our passion grew, in order to get Anna to resist me, I hit her sharply with my open right hand. The audience could hear the slap. And we could hear the audience's vocal reaction: "Oh, my God!"
That made the situation change dramatically. She pushed me off her and started to fight with me. I defended myself by putting my hands over my face. After a short struggle, I found the gun with my right hand, pulled it out from under the mattress, pointed it a few inches away from her inflamed face, and fired a single shot.
As I had carefully timed it on my watch to the exact moment that the recording videotape came to an abrupt end.
And in the gym the audience's monitor went abruptly to snow and nothing was visible.
The "Show" was over!
And no one could see us or what was happening. The audience of about 80 yelled, quickly got out of their chairs, pushed Tom aside, and broke through the door looking for us. They found Anna and I seated upright on the bed. She was unhurt. . . but quite confused. I was silent.
The students were outraged. They wanted Anna to bring "attempted rape" charges against me.
We also discover at Algus that Willoughby made Saskia, the performance about his daughter’s birth, while he was on LSD. (Shades of the freewheeling, mind-expanding 1970s when Carlos Castaneda was obligatory reading and the late great maverick Hunter Thompson was a culture hero.) Combat Zone, performed while the artist was on acid, definitively ended a problematic love affair. His performances also dramatized sheer stamina as well as intimate and violent incidents. In Guilty (1974), he videotaped himself punishing himself for his sins by imprisoning himself in an abandoned meat locker at the University of Wisconsin. Inside<->Out was Sharp’s 300-hour performance at 122 Greene Street in November, 1974. Here, he videotaped himself living for three weeks in a 4 x 8 ft. box that contained not much more than a foam mattress. He found out he didn’t much miss the usual material comforts.
These pieces evoke nostalgia for a bygone era, one where artists on the prowl for the cutting edge aggressively expanded the definitions of art and rejected bourgeois thinking along with cultural tradition. The goal was to break out into new modes of expression through the any and all arenas being offered by rapidly changing technologies. In the process Willoughby and his peers challenged their own boundaries and the patience of a small but receptive public. Seeing Sharp’s installations now allows us not only to appreciate the results of his high-octane ambitions but also to revisit a part of the past that almost instantly was overwhelmed by the future.
ALEXANDRA ANDERSON-SPIVY is a New York art critic who is writing the biography of the Baron de Meyer.