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Willoughby Sharp (1936-2008)

Willoughby Sharp was a man of art, in the old fashioned sense Thomas Craven meant it. He was fully committed to every facet of a life spent waiting on the muse, wherever it would lead him, from the meanest squalor and confusion to the grandest scene of triumph. Student of art history, filmmaker, curator, publisher, artist, performer, professor, gallery dealer, Mighty Mogul of Media Art – he was protean. And he cut a swath.

His widow Pamela sent along the wry, humoresque obituary written of him in the New York Times, and I was not surprised to read of his vaunted remote connection to Scottish nobility. Willoughby was a dominator. A Park Avenue boy, he should have been one among those who have recently destroyed our national financial system. Instead he took a happy wrong turn. He became a prominent “black sheep,” a flagrant, generous, possibly once-wealthy pied piper.

When I knew him in the mid-1970s he was riding high, probably near the top of his game. To run into him at an opening was to be swept into a kind of one-man social maelstrom. He was invariably accompanied by a lovely young woman or two – (a venerable New York tradition, I found, when I discovered Baird Jones doing the same years later, “parading the debs” through bohemia) – and surrounded by a comet tail of exhilarated, intoxicated, anxious looking folk who all hoped he’d lead them to a party. His sometime point man, Arnold Wechsler, for some years had a printed list. This would come in handy, since Willoughby was also deft at ditching his great gobs of followers when the door to the magic event proved tight.

To say that Willoughby Sharp was social – well, is a bear Catholic? does the Pope shit in the woods? In his presence I would quickly find myself thrown face to face with the unlikeliest of folk (whoever happened to be at hand, I reckon), our encounters salted by a brief provocative remark or friendly gibe – directors of art institutes in England, young East European performance artistes, all with the same glazed look in their eyes, and none of them with/ or of/ any real interest to any other of the delirious flotsam of New York’s artworld with whom they might find themselves momentarily flung by Sinbad Sharp the Sociophile.

Those were great nights, not a one of which do I remember. Nights full of the full fun spectrum of glittering art people, liquor, reefer, other stuff for those who were into it. To find Willoughby out on the town could make your night. He was not only a connector, he was an exciter. I’ve known connectors, and exciters. But no one who combined the roles like Willoughby, and who was always on, and on full parade.

Why wasn’t he king? Or a crowned prince of the artworld?

Hmm… The 1980s seemed made for Willoughby. But despite that his outsized personality was a perfect match for the times, and despite his having a TV show on Manhattan Cable produced by the franchise, he somehow seemed to have missed the boat. He wasn’t in the thick of it, as he had been when he and Liza Bear had been producing Avalanche in the 1970s. By the 1980s Willoughby was simply a showman, a TV host. I believe he was made for better things.

Willoughby entered into the later phase of his life, a reflective phase over his last ten years, as I concluded my adventures as a graduate student. As I wrote, I began slowly to form an idea why, despite his full-on engagements in the artworld of the 1980s, that things hadn’t worked out for him as they might have. He was no longer properly understood, nor was he respected.

Willoughby was an avant-gardeist. He knew Marcel Duchamp, Yves Klein, and Joseph Beuys. And he believed in them. He gave a talk at SVA in the later ‘90s about the work he’d done in the ‘60s, curating the Earth Art show at Cornell. As his voice swelled pronouncing the dogmas of systems art that had driven his curatorial work, I realized I was hearing the authentic voice of the avant-garde – artists who had to fight for their ideas, who needed to be loud, clever, and combative to cut through the fogs of modernism. For the modernists themselves had been like that as they contested academic realism. (Which always resurges; as it has now.) I told every art historian I knew that they had to get together with Willoughby if they wanted to know anything about the ‘60s and ‘70s. A couple of them actually did, thank Clio.

Art is a game of war, and Willoughby had been a warrior. He had crusaded for the art and artists he believed in – and, as Avalanche’s determinedly monographic head shot covers announce, this was a matter of artists first.

And he was an artist, too! I saw him in diapers in a crib at 112 Greene Street. He’d removed his front teeth, dropped acid, and looked and acted really scary. Mike Smith’s Baby Icky was a bourgeois creature – and far more successful – compared to the self-infantilized Willoughby Sharp.

When I first met Willoughby, it was at the Avalanche loft in a building in Soho. I had come on an errand for Artforum to write a roundup article on artists’ magazines, and had been sent to interview Willoughby and Liza Bear. After a brief conversation, wherein my purposes became clear, Willoughby became incensed. He rose up in full dander to tell me where to get off. Liza handed me a note, perhaps as an act of pity – I have it somewhere, since it struck me as a cardinal maxim of the New York artworld at the time (and most likely now) – “those who know, KNOW.”

Those who don’t, God help them, because we have already forgotten.

Now, 30 years later, maybe I know. Avalanche was challenging Artforum, and not just in its square format. For John Coplans, Artforum editor and ex-South African army officer, to send an intern to interview those who considered themselves his principal rivals was in the manner of an insult. I did a few other hits jobs for John, acting as his torpedo in New York… It was okay. I could shoot straight.

But after missing fire that time at Avalanche, I grew closer to Willoughby than I ever could to John.

Then, in 1974 in Soho, Willoughby was in his element. As a TV host in the 1980s, he was just another Buffalo Bill looking for Indians to round out his show. He didn’t really get that postmodern jive, that irony, that gender-bent decadence. He didn’t savvy the return to figuration and traditional media. He tried to play along. But in his gallery, his taste seemed unsure, his shows in the main uncompelling.

Well, yes, he did sell me a Mark Lombardi print for $300. And he was close enough to that major, albeit ill-fated artist to tell me what he thought were the sordid facts behind his death…

Willoughby was indifferent to politics. CIA? Uninterested, I think. He was in on the founding of the Art Workers Coalition in ‘69, one of the first people whom Takis called when he planned his intervention into the Museum of Modern Art to repossess his artwork. But Willoughby, the connected curator of technology art, was thrown off that collective horse early on. He was trying to broker some kind of back room deal, as per the usual modus operandi, when democracy intervened, the group swelled, and one thing led to another. But still, he was fearless, and avid for action. Before the AWC, Willoughby told me, he had been the “cultural commissar” of the Youth International Party. Inspired by Hans Haacke's work in the Air Art show he had curated, Willoughby arranged for white balloons to be used in a Yippie Happening in Central Park.

I heard a rumor that he took acid when he appeared on a panel of art critics around that time, took off his clothes and crawled along the table. I believe it. I like to believe it. Because he could do it. He would do it. He was game.