Art Shmart: That Which Cuts Us Deepest

Nikki Sansone

Colgate imagine, if you can, your professors giddy with glee. Imagine them in their restrained, trying-to-be-professional but dying to scream like they were in the throes of Beatle-mania demeanor. This is only a sense of what the hype was like surrounding Willoughby Sharp’s reception on October 31.

In case you have not frequented the Clifford Gallery, located on the bottom floor of Little Hall, Sharp’s exhibit entitled “Retrospection” is exactly that — a retrospection of the life and work that is Willoughby Sharp. It is a breadth of work and presence that is, without a doubt, larger than life.

It’s noteworthy to add at this point that Sharp’s “Retrospection” is only larger than life because Sharp himself is a larger presence than the life he currently leads. A tall figure clad in black, hunched over so that his Amish bowl hat seemed to flow into the tangle of gray hairs that flowed over the curves of his shoulders, Sharp is but a mere shell of his former self. It is hard to imagine the man that once dropped acid and rolled from a forklift to the bottom of a hill in a tin drum still exists beyond the rattling airy voice that was projected from his body during the opening reception for “Retrospection.” After being diagnosed with stage four throat cancer, Sharp underwent invasive surgery and now speaks with the aid of a device. Scenes from this episode in Sharp’s life are documented in the room immediately to your right before entering the main room of Clifford Gallery.

Sharp has worked with some of the biggest names in modern art history. In the middle of completing his Ph.D at Columbia University, Sharp left school to take up residence in Germany, where he met art legend Joseph Beuys and later became instrumental in Beuys’s introduction to the U.S. In February of 1969, Sharp was asked by Hans Haacke to present a three-part video installation entitled “Earthscopes” at Cooper Union, N.Y. He has had more than twenty solo exhibitions at museums and art galleries, curated even more, started his own short-lived magazine called Avalanche and has been named recipient to countless awards and grants.

For a man of so many accomplishments though, Sharp’s work does not seem to have the “he’s-got-it-all-together” feeling that one might think would be inherent to such a busy and successful artist. In fact, Sharp’s work, quite interestingly, represents the opposite; “Retrospection” is about a man when he, quite simply, falls apart.

“Retrospection” is simple enough in its presentation. Co-curated by professor of Art and Art History Dewitt Godfrey, the Clifford Gallery is lined with pictures from Sharp’s previous performances and explanations below handwritten by Sharp explaining the circumstances under which the performance was conceived and executed.

Amongst some of the most memorable, and poignant, of these performances include many drawn from real life, wherein Sharp tries to connect with estranged daughter Saskia, or cries while holding the letter that details his breakup from his at the time beloved K. Piner.

“What I learned from doing this work was basically that I was always on, ‘always performing,'” Sharp writes under pictures of his 1974 performance, “Inside Out.” “I was a performative being and as such, ‘a work of art.’ This was a life changing realization the consequences of which I am still dealing with today.”

Sharp hones his pain, triumphs, and curiosities into his work – this much is certain. But he does not stop there: the exhibit clearly invites us to connect to him and experience these trials alongside him. The shaky writing of a man trying to explain to an audience of strangers pieces of his life so personal to him he felt compelled to put himself in danger for the integrity of art is a painstaking invitation to view our own lives, our own ‘work of art.’ The exhibit even includes a live webcam view of the gallery that can be accessed from all over the world, so that visitors to the gallery do, in fact, become part of the piece. The webcam is an extension from deep within the shell of a man that, against all odds, will never go quietly into the dark.

To view “Retrospection” via live webcam, go to http://merz.colgate.edu/current.html and click “Live camera.”