Luca Lo Pinto

A dialogue with Willoughby Sharp

from NERO n.11 october/november 2006 Willoughby Sharp defines himself as a “transcontinental cultural catalyst”. Perhaps no other term is more appropriate for someone who founded Avalanche (one of the most important magazines of the avant-garde), curated experimental exhibitions such as “Videoperformance” and “Pier 18”, video-interviewed artists like Vito Acconci, Chris Burden, Bruce Nauman and Dennis Oppenheim (to name only the most well-known), was a great friend and collaborator of Joseph Beuys, and participated in historic exhibitions like “Information”. At the venerable age of 70, Willoughby is a living testimony of the New York artistic avant-garde of the 1960s and 1970s, and still very active today.

Luca: First of all, I’m curious to know how you came into the New York art world... Analysing all that you have done, it’s impossible to separate your figure from this city...

Willoughby: I am a second generation New Yorker. I was born there in 1936. I didn’t “come into” the New York art world. I was born into it. Nurtured by Abstract Expressionism, and the frequent trips I took to Europe between 1957 and 1967, I grew to become a transcontinental cultural catalyst. In March 1964, when I was a PhD candidate in Art History with Meyer Shapiro at Columbia University, I curated my first exhibition and the first exhibition of Pop Art. After having personal contact with some of the leading Abstract Expressionists, like Barney Newman whose Park Avenue studio I went to with Alfred Schmela in the early ’60s, I had already gone back and forth to Europe many times. Over Christmas in 1957 and early 1958, I had my first meetings with Joseph Beuys in Dusseldorf. After I curated the first exhibition of Pop Art at Columbia University in 1964, I went to Europe again, as I had done every summer since 1957. In London I met Peter Blake, Joe Tilson and David Hockney, along with the younger generation of artists like David Medalla, Paul Keeler, Guy Brett and Gustav Metzger who formed the nucleus of the Signals group. In 1968, to celebrate the Olympic games in Mexico, I was invited to curate the exhibition, “Kineticism, Sculpture and Environmental Situations”. In this exhibition of 18 international artists from about a dozen different countries, I realized Lucio Fontana’s last environmental neon sculpture.

Luca: Did you have connections with Italy?

Willoughby: I first went to Italy in 1959 with my wife Renata. Basically we did the tourist thing and unfortunately I did not meet my two favorite Italian artists: Lucio Fontana and Piero Manzoni, since we stayed only in Rome.
In 1964, I made a pilgrimage with Günther Uecker and the photographer Lothar Volleh to visit Lucio Fontana in Milan. Besides seeing Fontana, I also spent a lot of time with Nanda Vigo who gave me valuable information and photographic documentation on her lover, Piero Manzoni.
In the mid-sixties, when I became consumed with Kineticism, I sought out members of the two Italian kinetic groups – particularly Boreani. We corresponded, I showed some of the artists and I bought some of their works, which I still have in my collection. On August 2, 1972, I interviewed Jannis Kounellis in his studio in via di Santo Spirito in Rome. The interview was for the ‘Performance issue’ of Avalanche. During the Avalanche years I became friendly with Lucio Amelio who was an advertiser in Avalanche, as was Toselli and Sperone who I also met at that time.
I was Amelio’s houseguest in Naples and became friendly with Mario Merz, his wife, and a number of other members of Arte Povera. It was at that time that I also met Germano Celant.

Luca: How did you meet Joseph Beuys? That meeting must have been important to you. You decided to put his face on the cover of the very first issue of Avalanche...

Willoughby: Joseph Beuys and I met shortly after I first went to Düsseldorf for Christmas in 1957, at the invitation of my future wife, Renata Hengeler. They were both part of a tiny art world there and saw each other frequently at museum and gallery openings, or just on the street. From 1957 until Joseph died on my 50th birthday on January 23, 1986, we came together frequently to do at least two-dozen projects like “Videoperformance”, 112 Greene Street Workshop, New York (1974), for which he did his famous “Public Dialogue at the New School, NY”. Even in the summer of 1970, when I chose the Shunk-Kender portrait of Joseph for the cover of the first issue of Avalanche, he seemed to me to be the most significant European artist since Marcel Duchamp.

Luca: If I’m not mistaken, you were the link between Beuys and the United States...
Willoughby: Phil Lieder, the editor of Artforum, commissioned me to go to Germany in the fall of 1969 to interview Beuys for Artforum. The interview was eight pages long in the December 1969 issue. At “Documenta 5” Beuys just occupied a room and everyone who was interested engaged him in a dialogue. Ronald Feldman, Caroline Tisdale and David Medalla were among the many people Beuys touched at that time. Then Ronald Feldman commissioned me to do a Videoview which constituted Beuys’ first show in New York in 1973, but Joseph wasn’t’ there because he was opposed to the war in Vietnam. The first time that he came to New York was at my request to participate in “Videoperformance” in 1974. Ronald Feldman paid for his trip and all his expenses.

Luca: I’m curious to know what the project “Videoperformance” consisted of. Almost no documentation exists...

Willoughby: Like so many of my independently curated exhibitions, the “Videoperformance” exhibition is not sufficiently well known, in spite of the fact that we published a 36-page tabloid catalogue about it in Avalanche (newspaper Volume 1). Ten artists each did a one-evening performance: Vito Acconci, Robert Bell, Joseph Beuys, Ulrike Rosenbach, Dennis Oppenheim, Keith Sonnier, Richard Serra, Chris Burden, Willoughby Sharp, and William Wegman. Jeffrey Lew, the owner of a building in the center of what was to be SoHo, located at 112 Greene Street, had an approximately 50x100 foot, very rough ground floor exhibition space where most of the cutting edge SoHo artists eventually showed their work. “Videoperformance” was the first exhibition that I curated in which I also included my own work. I did this because I had coined the word “videoperformance” and I was trying to give people an idea of the great possibilities that exist when you interface video and performance art. One art emerges. And, I must say, it sustains.

Luca: What did Chris Burden do?

Willoughby: Chris Burden did a piece called “Back to You”, his first in New York, on January 16, 1974 from 9:00 to 9:20 p.m. He put his naked-torso body into a video installation consisting of a 9-inch monitor, two 18-inch monitors, a single camera and a microphone. For props, he covered a piece of plywood with a white sheet and placed it on two sawhorses that held his stretched-out body. At his right elbow was a 12-inch circular aluminium bowl with a handful of clear plastic-topped pushpins in alcohol with a hand-written sign: “Please push pins into my body”. Burden was in the building’s rickety freight elevator in the basement. When the piece began, the elevator went up to the first floor where a group of over 100 people watched. Liza Bear made a request for volunteers. Larry Bell volunteered and was escorted to the elevator. As he entered it, the video camera went on. Bell stuck four pushpins into Burden’s stomach and the fifth into his big toe. The audience could see this live on the monitors. Afterwards, the elevator went back to the basement. Bell stepped back into the crowd and the monitors were switched off.

Luca: How did you develop the idea of using video as a tool for interviews? 

Willoughby: I am very curious. When I want to know something, I ask the people I think can best answer my questions. My central interest in life is art. I have interviewed artists practically all my life. In 1966 I produced a film for WDR German Television called “Pop Art Usa” in which I interviewed the Pop artists: Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg, and two famous art dealers, Leo Castelli and Sidney Janus. Just after Sony introduced the Porta-Pac video recording system, I bought one and I started interviewing artists I was working with in 1970: Bruce Nauman, Vito Acconci, Joseph Beuys, Chris Burden, Dennis Oppenheim, and others. Tomorrow, Pamela Seymour Smith, my partner, and I are going to Videoview Dennis [Oppenheim] in his Franklin Street studio about his new land art works. I have done 6 or 7 audio interviews with Dennis and this is my third Videoview with him.

Luca: You were part of the first generation of conceptual artists. Are there any young artists you would like to collaborate with? You should consider doing a new series of Videoviews with young artists...

Willoughby: While Pamela and I were in Berlin this year, we conducted Videoviews of younger artists: Serkan Ozkaya, Eric Smith and Janos Fodor. We also conducted Videoviews in Berlin and in Italy with artists and others of my generation: David Medalla, Vincent Trasov (Mr. Peanut), Peter Fend; and, in Italy, Guido Strazza, an abstract painter who lives in Rome who will soon be 85. We also did two Videoviews with Paul Maenz (the famous German art dealer), who was responsible for bringing both the Arte Povera and Transavanguardia artists to international recognition.

Luca: With regards to your curatorial projects, I’m very interested in “Pier 18”, could you tell me something about it? I find the contrast between a space like MoMA and a pier very funny...

Willoughby: In December 1970, as an independent curator having no connection to MoMA, I asked Shunk-Kender, the famous photography team who took the picture of Yves Klein jumping off a roof, if they would photograph artists I intended to invite to execute works on a deserted New York pier, Pier 18. When they agreed, I eventually invited 28 artists to do work there. For example, I ran into Mel Bochner on the Lexington Avenue subway, we struck up a conversation going downtown on the express train and by the time we had reached 14th Street, I had asked him to be in the show and scribbled Shunk-Kender’s phone number on a scrap of paper. I never had a programmatic list of who I wanted in the show. It grew out of my daily life and my mood when I met artists whom I knew. After I gave the artists Shunk-Kender’s phone number, I never inquired from S-K who they were working with, nor did they call me – with one or two exceptions. I went down with Liza Bear to help Richard Serra with his work, which, characteristically, took two days. Most of the pieces were done in a matter of hours. Some were done in just a few minutes. If you ask me now what I was thinking about, it was partly Carl Andre’s idea of post-studio sculpture and it was another one of my attempts to subvert the museum-gallery structure. Originally, the show was curated at the invitation of Helene Weiner, (now co-director of Metro Pictures, New York) who was working at the Pomona College art gallery where I helped her create a show of Robert Cummings and William Wegman. I told her about my Pier 18 show and she said that she would like to have it at Pomona. That did not happen. Paradoxically, during the summer of 1971, Kynaston McShine, the MoMA curator who had organized the “Information” show the previous year, happened to visit Shunk-Kender’s Westbeth Studio and saw some of the 620 photographs of the 28 artists that eventually participated. Without consulting me, MoMA took the photos and mounted the show in one of their earliest project series exhibition spaces. I found out about it by word of mouth, as it was being hung. The wall plaque that they had did not even credit me for having curated the Pier 18 show. I made sure they changed it so that I was credited as the curator.

Luca: Are you still in contact with some of these artists and with people from that period?

Willoughby: Very much so. Many of them live in New York and I run into them frequently out and about, almost every day – Lawrence Weiner and his wife Alice, Hans Haacke and his wife Linda, Joan Jonas, Dennis Oppenheim and Amy Plumb, Ronald and Frayda Feldman, Bill Beckley and his wife Laurie Johenning, Colette, Les Levine and his wife Catherine, and lots of others.

Luca: How did the idea of creating a magazine like Avalanche come about?

Willoughby: Avalanche was started as a publication for artists to speak about their work without the intervention of art historians, critics and curators. Like the Videoviews, Avalanche focused on multiple-paged sections showing the artist talking about his or her work. No other art magazine did that at the time. Liza Bear, with whom I co-founded Avalanche in November 1968, and I were both committed to that idea. I designed the magazine myself - under the anagram/pseudonym Boris Wall Gruphy (Willoughby Sharp). It should also be noted that Avalanche was a work by artists for artists. The artists drove the magazine, not the advertisers. We got the advertising pages after the rest of the magazine was finished. That’s why all the ads are wrapped around the editorial sections, not interspersed through them. The reason for which I founded Avalanche is because I wanted the artists to talk about themselves without being manipulated by curators and gallerists.

Luca: Your total freedom of working in different roles (artist, curator, critic, gallerist, publisher) is now quite common... Perhaps with the last Berlin Biennial, curated by an artist (Maurizio Cattelan), we can say that we have arrived at an institutional affirmation. What can you say about it? Do you find many connections between the working methodologies of your generation with the present one? 

Willoughby: I think about myself now as a “cultural catalyst”.  That includes all my activities as an artist, curator, publisher, etc. It’s good that artists like Maurizio Cattelan are assuming more cultural responsibilities. Perhaps the big difference between the ’60s and now is that today there is a larger audience for almost every kind of art. Now, there are so many more venues to show work that reach a global audience. Artists are over-running the galleries, museums, art fairs, biennales, not to mention the Internet! Years ago the audience for an artist’s work was mostly other artists, especially in the pre-SoHo days in New York. Often there was no serious documentation.  An event or exhibition happened and it became part of the artist’s oral discourse. Today’s global art world is mostly market-driven. Today the art world is blending with the fashion world, which brings in another big audience. I am not against the market. But I am against the corporatisation of contemporary art.  

Luca: You were one of the first artists to use new communication technologies (fax, computers, Internet) in an artistic way and with an artistic purpose... I find it very hard to work with these kinds of mediums... Can you tell me something about your projects like “Send/Receive Satellite Network”?

Willoughby: It is extremely difficult to work with new transmission technologies. They change every day. And when one “tool” or technology changes, the relationship between all the others also changes. It’s almost impossible to keep up with this kind of technological change. But I have tried. I coined the word TeleCulture in 1977 to describe the interaction of you and I (the culture) and new telecommunication technologies. I’m inspired by the pioneering work of “artists” like Hertz, Marconi and others. “Two-Way Demo”, which was a collaborative project of “Send/Receive Network”, consisted of two groups of artists. One group, including of Terry Fox, Alan Scarritt and others, worked at the NASA Ames facility in San Francisco. The other group, which consisted of Keith Sonnier, Liza Bear, Duff Schweninger and myself, worked in the shadow of the World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan. NASA let us use their mobile satellite up-and-down link housed in a small polished aluminium bread truck for three days. Using this technology, and a connective infrared link that Duff and I had found to deliver the signal into cable TV in the New York end, we sent live interactive satellite-delivered television between New York and San Francisco. There was a split screen on the television with an artist in San Francisco appearing on one side and an artist in New York appearing on the other. As artists, we were interested in interactivity in real time, which the new communication technology provided. The Manhattan Cable Company had only delivered television programs – one way – to an audience.  After “Two-Way Demo”, Manhattan Cable learned that it could also receive live television programming. The artists’ initiative resulted in the corporation learning something new about their own system.

Luca: What are you doing now? Are you working on new projects?

Willoughby: Pamela and I collaborate on almost everything now and we find ourselves very busy. Last year we started a business called sharp.smith. Sharp dot Smith. The dot indicates that it is a new media company. Aside from the Videoviews, Pamela has initiated an oral history project with me called “The Videobook: Willoughby Sharp’s Oral Art History”. This project will cover my activities in the art world from the late ’50s until today and will be published as primary source material for cultural and art historians.
In Berlin this year I became a gallery artist. I made my first painting and object sculpture when I had a show at Galerie Kunstpunkt Berlin. Also in Berlin, Pamela and I had a joint show of my work and her photographs at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien. Then we went to Italy and worked together on my show “In Luce di Lucio” dedicated to Lucio Fontana. We’re currently represented in the Independents Liverpool Biennial show with a videoperformance piece called ”Not Willoughby, but”. We have both just received grants from ZKM in Karlsruhe for 2007 and 2008.
On December 11, I will be on a panel at MoMA discussing artist-run avant-garde magazines. We will reserve a ticket for you. One more thing, Pamela and I can be reached at sharp.smith@earthlink.net.