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The Catalyst

“Man is only truly alive when he realizes he is a creative artistic being. I demand an artistic involvement in all realms of life.”
—Joseph Beuys, interviewed by Willoughby Sharp, Artforum 1969

Portrait of Willoughby Sharp in his hospital bed )after a photograph taken by Pam Smith Sharp) by Phong Bui.
Portrait of Willoughby Sharp in his hospital bed )after a photograph taken by Pam Smith Sharp) by Phong Bui.

In 1975, Willoughby Sharp, curator, publisher, writer, artist, and scion of a prominent New York financier, donned a gas mask and shut himself in a bathroom stall to the rear of a Brown University exhibition space.  For the next twenty minutes, several dozen spectators monitored Sharp over closed circuit feed as he swayed, screamed, mumbled and, after kicking through the enclosure’s wall with heavy boots, ceremoniously set ablaze the contents of a steel tub around which his legs were wrapped.  Sharp was unsuccessful at putting out the ensuing chemical fire, into which he threw the extinguisher canister, along with some nearby clothing, before spilling the contents onto the gallery floor.  That video/performance, Cough Up, was, like its protagonist, energetic, finely attuned to its environmental and cultural context, collaborative, and highly unpredictable.

In its improvisational structure and formal boundlessness, Cough Up also embodied Sharp’s commitment to the traditional avant-garde objective of a total convergence of art and life.  Sharp passed away this December in New York at the age of 72, but his activities during the last four decades provide a compelling blueprint of a life from which art could never be fully separated. 

While Sharp’s performance pieces of the 1970s marked a more delimited period of “art making,” of a piece with frequent interlocutors like Vito Acconci and Chris Burden, they were also, in a sense, too bounded.  On the one hand, it is tempting to frame Sharp in terms of work like 1975’s Full Womb (involving Sharp, a baby bottle, and an industrial dryer), or Saskia (1974, crib, baby powder, LSD)—the performances were temporally discrete, rich in psycho-sexual tension, and anticipated the bodily fascinations of the 1990s.  On the other, to fixate on these moments is to ignore the more subtle and diffuse ways in which Sharp was integrated into the most relevant practices of the ’60s and ’70s, from Black Mountain to conceptual and land art.  In short, at a time when art production was increasingly “dematerialized” and reliant, if not indiscernible, from its recording, reproduction, and transmission, Sharp both pioneered logistical means of so doing, and functioned as a vital relay and catalyst in his daily life.  Sharp’s innovation was the elevation of the immaterial but essential operations of the deeper cultures and technologies of the art world into an aesthetic practice in its own right.

Educated at Brown and abroad during the 1950s, Sharp pursued a graduate degree in art history with the eminent Meyer Shapiro at Columbia, but left the program in the early 1960s to pursue a more direct engagement with the contemporary work produced in New York and Europe at the time.  The period marked an emerging split between material, modernist painting and sculpture, driven by formalist criticism, and practices that emphasized movement, temporality, chance, and interactivity.  Sharp cast his lot early, calling for a break with object-based art in favor of less stable and less commodifiable practices that focused on new technologies and an awareness of larger interconnections.  This commitment was neither driven by Marxist political orthodoxies (Sharp did not discourage the sale of works, and at a several points ran his own gallery) nor the quixotic spiritualism of, for example, John Cage (Sharp was avowedly non-religious).  Instead, Sharp emphasized the importance of aesthetic breakthrough for its own sake, arguing the 1968 catalogue for his Air Art show that art should “not be based on the visual solution of formal artistic problems…[but should be] kinetic, immaterial, disposable, uncommercial, environmental.”

So, by 1962 Sharp began writing on, and eventually traveling with, more anti-formalist artists Robert Rauschenberg, John Cage, and Merce Cunningham, making frequent trips to Europe, especially Germany.  During this time, gallerist Leo Castelli gave Sharp a desk and access to archival material.  Sharp used the opportunity to pen a series of pieces on Rauschenberg, and to build an increasingly vast network of contacts throughout the transatlantic art world.  As early collaborator and friend Dennis Oppenheim notes, Sharp would best be described as “an artist curator,” and while many curators and gallerists were “not that comfortable with the 360 degrees of artists, Willoughby would pursue them, he preferred their company to that of art historians and philosophers.”  Indeed, Sharp’s “ledger” of contacts and date books from the ’60s indicate an insatiable urge to network, as Sharp spent that and subsequent decades shuttling to exhibitions, openings, and studios, a carrier signal between and aggregator of distinct but latently connected artistic contexts.

Drawing on a background in the kinetic and technologically-oriented art practice of New York and Europe, Sharp spent the late ’60s unifying the more progressive tendencies around him under the rubric of exhibitions concerned with elemental forces.  The transient and incendiary installation/performance of John Van Saun, for example, experimented with in situ fire, while 1968’s Air Art brought together Van Saun, Hans Haacke, Andy Warhol, and David Medalla.  Sharp’s breakthrough, however, came when Cornell curator Tom Leavitt could not secure the touring air show, and invited Sharp to curate another show in 1969, Earth Art, a definitive and early exhibition of work by, among others Haacke, Robert Smithson, Richard Long, Jan Dibbets, and Oppenheim.

That exhibition was indicative of Sharp’s programme: the assemblage of artists was prescient, the work was non-commodifiable and porously bounded, and the exhibition underscored a connection with ecosystems beyond the gallery walls.  As Oppenheim recalls, the exhibition was also an important example of Sharp’s territoriality and confidence—as Walter de Maria slowly inscribed the words “good fuck” in a room full of raw earth, Sharp began preparing in his mind a defense of the work against would-be censors at the university.  This self-assuredness was, by many accounts, also a liability, as Sharp’s “complexity” frequently put him at odds with potential collaborators and institutional support.  As Haacke remembers, Sharp was dubbed early on “the Rasputin of the kinetic art world.”

The Earth Art exhibition was also the seedbed for the first issue of Avalanche, a magazine published from 1970-1976 with writer Liza Bear.  The publication was, during its lifespan, highly influential despite its relatively modest circulation.  As Chelsea Space curator Donald Smith suggests, Avalanche was iconic in its format and content, each issue featuring artists who would become massively influential (Bruce Nauman, Yvonne Rainer, William Wegman, Acconci).  Avalanche was also populated by interviews rather than articles, and served as a means of allowing artists to speak for and amongst themselves without critical mediation.  At a time during which information about art practice was fueled largely by journals, Avalanche was an antidote to the more formalist and commercial Artforum.  Sharp was, nevertheless, aware of the necessary interaction between art and the market, soliciting and often designing the ads for large galleries to appear in the magazine, and even dubbed himself, ambiguously, “the Mighty Mogul of the art world.”  Smith argues that Sharp also blurred the publication into a form of public art practice “inserting himself like a time bomb” into the magazine’s pages, from multiple masthead appearances to the DIY design and layout.

Avalanche was significant for its relative transparency, and its transmittive function, forging as it did networks among practitioners, and visual records of ephemeral works.  Sharp extended these tendencies throughout his work in the 1970s, most notably founding with long-time collaborator Duff Schweninger the Franklin Street Arts Center in Tribeca in 1975.  Part archive, part art community center, part live performance/exhibition space, Sharp, Schweninger, and their partners leveraged the center and its funding streams to initiate several projects that broadcasted unmediated work to larger audiences.  One, the Live Injection Point, was among the first cable programs in New York, and certainly the first run by artists, while Two Way Demo established a transcontinental satellite link for three days.  These innovative uses of technological means in the service of art practice were later adapted for more mainstream uses.  According to Schweninger, for Sharp, the recording and transmission of the work was not separable from the content.  In a sense, the medium was the message, and for Sharp constituted a radical process in its own right, as the “function of art and the avant-garde was to offer a new way of looking at things.”

For much of the ’80s and ’90s, Sharp concerned himself with this trajectory of recording, archiving, uncovering, and diffusing new aesthetic practices, from curating and teaching to documentary film making, an online gallery and a guide, The Sharp Art Report (TSAR).  Sharp adapted the internet to art production by the mid-90s, and consistently investigated the novel uses of technology and new media.  It is appropriate that he would do so, as his aesthetic vision and quotidian life somewhat anticipated and literalized the globalizing effects of technology—not only was his work focused on interconnection and exchange, but his penchant for networking and archiving were something of an analog version of current information sharing and social networking sites.

There is a photograph, taken by Pamela Seymour Smith, in which Sharp, evidently in late stages of the battle with the throat cancer that claimed his life, stares defiantly into the lens, fist raised.  In these final years, Sharp was frequently in treatment, encumbered by invasive medical equipment.  Nevertheless, he, by all accounts, adapted to these changes with characteristic tenacity, still scrupulously documenting his activities, still making film, still exhorting friends and colleagues to connect and to produce.  That photograph captures a singular mix of defiance and passion that Sharp marshaled over the years to engage and consternate those around him. 

 When, in a 1969 interview for Artforum, Sharp asked another boundary-riding practitioner, Joseph Beuys, about the artist’s legacy, the German responded that he hoped it would become clear that “Beuys understood the historical situation. He altered the course of events,” to which Sharp appended, simply, “I hope in the right direction.”  It remains unclear from the current vantage what Sharp’s longer-term legacy will be, if he moved things in the “right” direction.  There is no doubt, however, that he was a man who keenly understood the meaning of his situation, that of the many communities in which he moved, and above all the aesthetic and social potential thereof.  His absence will be greatly felt.  


Ian Bourland

Bourland is a Ph.D candidate in the Dept. of Art History at the University of Chicago.


The Brooklyn Rail

FEB 2009

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