Legendary Willoughby Sharp Gallery Storefront Rediscovered on Spring Street

Posted on: January 21st, 2014 at 10:24 am by

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Photo: Lori Greenberg

Atop the entrance of the new Sergio Davila Boutique at 8 Spring Street, an old, familiar sign caught our eye (along with, it turns out, the attention of a MoMA curator. But, we’ll get to that part a bit later).

The unearthed sign was for the Willoughby Sharp Gallery, which existed from 1988 – 1991. For those who were around back then – and who braved the neighborhood around Spring and Bowery (hard to believe but yes, it was pretty sketchy around there at the time) – the sight of the rediscovered sign brought back many memories of the downtown art scene from that time.

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Robin Winters installation at the Willoughby Sharp gallery, ca 1988. As part of the installation, the artist consulted in the gallery on any topic for the course of a month (Winters pictured in back of gallery, behind desk). Photo: Robin Winters Studio.

Willoughby Sharp (1936 – 2008) was an internationally known artist, independent curator, independent publisher, gallerist, teacher, author and telecom activist, whose video and film work is in the permanent collections of MoMA, the Guggenheim and The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, among others.

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Left: Leo Castelli, Right: Willoughby Sharp, 1989, double portrait taken at The Willoughby Sharp Gallery in 1989. Photo: Willoughby Sharp Estate.

Born in New York City, he also lived in a building on Eldridge Street during most of the 1980s, which had been owned at the time by the artist Jenny Holzer. The building was populated mostly by artists, including the punk-feminist writer Kathy Acker, and, oh yeah, a couple of future Boogie contributors.

Sharp also had a public access cable tv show (The Willoughby Sharp Show), where he showcased people who were immersed in the exploding 1980s arts scene. Stephen Saban (of Details magazine fame) was often a sidekick on the cable program. Boogie contributor and architect/designer David Bergman remembers going to a local bar with Sharp and other friends to watch the show, because “nobody in the neighborhood could afford cable tv at that point.”

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The Willoughby Sharp Show, circa 1965-86. L-R: Willoughby Sharp, Beauregard Houston-Montgomery, Stephen Saban. Set design and fabrication by James Hong. Photo: Willoughby Sharp Estate.

This reporter had covered the East Village, Lower East Side and Soho art world of the 1980s and remembers Sharp quite fondly. He was always easy to spot at a crowded art opening with his signature black hat.

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Willoughby Sharp at Mark Sink’s opening at the Willoughby Sharp Gallery, 1989. Photo: Tom Warren.

After seeing the sign recently, we decided to investigate. How did it suddenly appear again? Did the owner know who Sharp was? Did Sharp’s friends and relatives know that the sign was back?

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Willoughby Sharp: Double Portrait (Blue), 1985, by Gregg Smith, American, Willoughby Sharp Gallery artist.
Digital-born drawing using Artronics software. Photo: Willoughby Sharp Estate.

Since the store was closed when we spied the sign, we decided to return a few days later to get some info. In the meantime, old media and new media collided in a moment of serendipity: a MoMA curator had also walked by the storefront, recognized the sign, and posted it on Facebook.

After reading the 200-plus comments and memories about Sharp and his gallery, we made a date to meet his widow, Pamela Seymour Smith Sharp (director of the Willoughby Sharp Estate and archives) at the storefront the next day.

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Pamela Seymour Smith Sharp and Duff Schweninger, in front of the unearthed sign. Photo: Lori Greenberg.

Pamela brought along artist Duff Schweninger, who had been friends with Willoughby Sharp since 1971 (during his heady performance art days). This reporter had brought along another one of Willoughby’s old friends. There was quite an exchange of colorful stories, encompassing the past 40-odd years.

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Right: Sergio Davila, owner of Sergio Davila Boutique. Photo: Lori Greenberg.

Sergio Davila, the boutique owner, was quite enthused about this impromptu visit, graciously supplying chairs for everyone to sit and talk, and letting us have a peek at the back room where Sharp had lived during the gallery’s heyday. Davila explained that he had not known who Sharp was, but when he discovered the sign during the recent store construction, he felt that it represented the history of the neighborhood, so he decided to keep it. Davila added that the sign has become quite the conversation piece, with at least a few people per week stopping into the store to share their stories about Willoughby Sharp.

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Display at Sergio Davila Boutique. Photo: Lori Greenberg.

Davila has another store in Lima, Peru, in what had previously been a 1920s hotel, and explained that he loved buildings with a sense of history. By the way, Davila’s clothing is quite beautiful, so it’s worth a visit for both the history and the shopping.

(Above: a clip from the first broadcast of “Willoughby’s World,” an early online show from 1998.)

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Flash Art News, 1989. Note how the neighborhood was referred to as “Little Italy, east of Soho.” The term “NoLIta” had not been coined yet, and the Bowery was far from booming. Photo: Willoughby Sharp Estate.

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