Willoughby Sharp, 1936 – 2008
Willoughby Sharp leaves a legacy that will take many years to catalogue and integrate into the annals of the art world. His wife, the inestimable Pamela Seymour Smith Sharp, will do us all a great service in meeting this task with her keen grace and insight. Like few of his contemporaries, the late self proclaimed “mighty mogul” grasped both ends of the twentieth century and circled them together in a great arc, linking up not only the generations of Duchamp and the Dadaists with the conceptual giants of the sixties and seventies, but adding his own special electronic fire, his innate understanding of the digital era as manifested in his early experiments with film, video and globally oriented simulcast transmissions. He was a pioneer in print, with his seminal publication Avalanche that he co created with his partner Liza Bear, and a pioneer in vision, exploring the interplay of every part of the art world whether as art historian, critic, artist, interlocutor, talk show host, curator, gallerist, teacher, mentor, collaborator and many other roles yet to be assimilated by his public.
Sharp’s uncanny ability to recognize talent and to see history in the making was a great gift. He saw very early on the genius in so many artists that are today’s glitterati that it seems unfair to single out only a few. Nonetheless, his identification of Joseph Beuys as a brilliant and unique voice that should be heard in this country helped to bring a new audience to this giant in a very special way. In addition to nurturing the careers of several generations of artists, Sharp also mentored all manner of young writers, gallery assistants who learned the ropes under his raucous tutelage, denizens of the demi monde surrounding the art and club scene of the East Village explosion, and numerous collectors, all of whom gained a great deal of insight and a sense of historical continuum by simply hanging around while Sharp put it all together, ruminating out loud in a semi-continuous conversation that lasted for several decades.
Sharp’s style of interview was an interrogation, his fearless questions puncturing the façade of his subject in a relentless manner that might have offended were it not so clear that it was his passion rather than rudeness that made him so driven in pursuit of answers. In a late eighties interview with Leo Castelli, Sharp asks him several times to account for himself; he badgers Castelli, demanding, “What do you think your greatest contribution to art has been?” When Castelli demurs that he has no idea, that he was lucky, Sharp objects and insists, “But that’s not a contribution, luck isn’t a contribution. What have you given? What has your life changed? What have you made?” Talking about the seminal moments in which the Pop Art movement literally gained shape and form, Sharp is able to draw a detailed discussion from Castelli, as he does with all his subjects, because he speaks with the authority of one who was there, who witnessed, and he carries on his cross examination as if the questions of what makes great art great is one of the deepest secrets ever to be wrested from human lips, one that he alone can find – if only he is determined enough.
This is the reason that people loved Willoughby Sharp, because like perhaps no other person in the US and European art scene of the past forty or more years, he moved heaven and earth – literally – to bring the true gift of art home to us all. He was not a perfect man, but he had a perfect passion and a set of skills and talents that were perfectly matched to the task, concretizing the ineffable of what beats at the heart of the contemporary art scene just long enough for the rest of us to follow along. He will be sorely missed.