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The Genderfuck Art of Stephen Varble: A Conversation with Curator David Getsy

by Nell Beck

An essay from the Spring 2019 issue.

by Nell Beck | Field Notes | Spring 2019

Jimmy DeSana, Untitled (Stephen Varble performing Gutter Art with onlooker), 1975. © Jimmy DeSana Trust.

In 1976, Stephen Varble got out of his limousine and entered Chemical Bank in the West Village of New York to settle a fraudulent withdrawal from his bank account. Wearing a gown of fishing net embellished with sequins and fake dollar-bills, breasts made of condoms filled with cow’s blood, and a toy jet-fighter as a codpiece, Varble silently stormed the bank. A cardboard speech bubble that read, “Even though you may be forged – Chemical still banks best!” was suspended over his head. When he was told by the manager that he could not be helped, Varble punctured one of the condoms under his gown, and used the blood that poured from it to write a check for “none million dollars.” To applause from the customers, Varble turned towards the door and wordlessly exited the bank. He had been wearing only one shoe, to “symbolize his economic loss.” He climbed back into the limousine and drove away.

It was almost by accident that David Getsy, OC ‘95, a professor at the Art Institute of Chicago, stumbled upon the work of Varble while doing research for his upcoming book on a different artist, Scott Burton:

“I came across an unpublished interview where Burton was talking about the role of sexuality in the arts,” Getsy says. “He said one of the most radical artists of the seventies was Stephen Varble. He explained one of these performances where Varble spilled milk at an art gallery out of one of his dresses, and I had just never heard of this person. And I thought I knew my stuff! So I filed it away as a name to pay attention to.”

Since his death in 1984, Varble had been largely forgotten by the art world, due in part to his own steadfast rejection of self-promotion and publicity. By the time that Getsy, by then a distinguished professor of art history, had first heard of him, Varble was almost completely wiped from the art world’s short memory. In 2011, Getsy was asked by the arts organization Visual AIDS to curate an online gallery of slides, which included photographs of Varble. It was this that finally pushed Getsy to try to answer the question that had been plaguing him: who, really, was Stephen Varble?

Getsy embarked on what would evolve into a years-long project culminating in three exhibitions on the work and history of Varble. Currently, ONE Archives Foundation Gallery in West Hollywood, California, is showing “The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day,” until May 17.

“Varble himself had never had a museum exhibition,” Getsy says. “His last exhibition was over 30 years ago; nothing had been written about him in an art publication since, like, 1977.” Instead, much of Varble’s work was kept in the personal collections of the people he had shared his life with. Films were stored in closets, photographs were packed in boxes, pieces of costumes were tucked away in basements; Varble was scattered all over the place.

For Getsy, this unconventional approach to research involving real people rather than collections was both rewarding for his work and a moving personal experience. “What was great about this process was that even though it required a different kind of research practice, it became very much an emotional, a lived practice… more and more people were excited and honored to share their stories and their memories,” says Getsy. “It didn’t feel like work. It felt like discovery.”

Most likely, that is how Varble would have wanted to be remembered. During his lifetime, he was decidedly opposed to any forms of institutionalization or elitism; a steadfast refusal to conform is what drove much of his work. Would Varble have been happy to see his work displayed in galleries now, if he had been so determined to avoid them in the ’70s? Perhaps not. But, as Getsy argues, Varble’s work is too meaningful to allow it to be lost. “I think that’s the one cautionary tale,” Getsy says. “No matter how self-determined, DIY, oppositional, [it’s important] to be like, ‘What is not just the impact today… but what is the way you think about what the legacy will be of this work? How will it be remembered?” As stirring as it is to deny the legitimacy of institutions, the messages found in Varble’s work deserve a platform today. It feels paradoxical to try to honor an artist who so firmly denied recognition of any sort; yet if Varble preferred anonymity and oppositionality in his life, the significance of his work now reaches beyond that.

***

Stephen Varble was born in Owensboro, Kentucky, in 1946 to a staunchly Christian family. Growing up, he was a choirboy. Varble’s upbringing instilled a deep sense of religiosity in him, one that would carry him through much of his work in his adult life. “My parents wanted me to be a missionary,” he once said, “but I became a monster instead.”

While studying English at the University of Kentucky, Varble immersed himself in Lexington’s LGBT scene by joining the Pagan Babies, a queer theater group. He moved to New York in 1969 and received an MFA in directing from Columbia University in 1971.

Varble soon began to move into the world of 1970s New York performance art, particularly through his burgeoning romantic and collaborative relationship with the influential Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks. It was this relationship, as well as inspiration he found in the groundbreaking work of the filmmaker Jack Smith, that allowed Varble to establish himself as a major figure of seventies queer art.

Varble’s work revolved around disruption and garbage. He constantly placed himself in spaces where he was not welcome, and was an outright challenger of gender binaries, capitalist structures, and the elitism of the art world. He only grew more radical with time. Hendricks largely influenced Varble’s transition from film to theater and performance art. One of the earliest examples of this evolution is seen in Varble’s “Blind Walks;” dressed in all-white and walking blindfolded through the streets of New York, Varble would blast Stevie Wonder songs from a cassette tape recorder and carry a blank board strapped to his arm, Jesus-like. Moving through the city without sight put Varble in an incredibly vulnerable position – yet this was only the beginning of a long career of fearless disruption.

Varble and Hendricks split in September of 1974. Following the break up, Varble developed a female alter-ego whom he dubbed Marie Debris; she would come out not only in staged performances, but also at dinner parties. In this genderqueer costume, usually composed of pieces of trash and everyday items such as chicken bones, pipe cleaners, and milk cartons, he would parade the streets of New York performing various forms of public interventions. For his series Costume Tours of New York, Varble, dressed in his brazen ensembles, led spontaneous and unauthorized gallery tours in SoHo for anyone who wished to join. These tours, like many of his performances, were largely wordless except for cooing and clicking sounds. It was a flamboyant mockery of wealth and class pretensions, as well as commentary on the blurred lines of gender identity.

Varble’s disgust with the classism and celebrity that he saw pervading the New York art scene only grew as he began to gain more recognition against his will. It was inevitable that, no matter how much he challenged the system, the system would eventually conform itself to embrace him, thereby taking away from the message he was trying to send about the perils of hierarchy. Yet Varble managed to deride the recognition he was gaining. He had only one gallery show during his lifetime, which he sabotaged brilliantly. By titling it “The Awful Art Show” and forcing the gallery to price each piece outrageously high so as to prevent anyone from buying anything, he assured the failure of his own exhibit.

But the attention didn’t abate. Varble felt his work was being more and more restrained by it all. “He became increasingly frustrated with how much the most radical actions or the most fantastical costumes would still be absorbed by the art world, by the art institution,” Getsy says. “This is the story of not just Varble, but all institutional critique and oppositional art. It’s built into the narrative of progress that contemporary art defines itself through… absorb[ing] its challenges as part of its reason for being.”

In 1977, Varble retreated from the spotlight, in part in reaction to the newfound attention, but also because he met his last partner Daniel Cahill, a married merchant marine. “Cahill helped reactivate the religiosity that had been part of Varble’s worldview since he was a teenager,” Getsy says. “It really enabled him… And actually the most strident anti-capitalist statements all come from this moment when he’s re-embracing the idea of a spiritual mission of salvation from late capitalism.” During these years, Varble was producing plenty of work—as well as being a performance artist, Varble was a novelist, playwright, and lmmaker—but he focused mostly on video, returning to the medium that had captured him early on, before first meeting Hendricks and falling into the performance world of Fluxus art. But in the midst of making his epic movie, “Journey to the Sun,” Varble got AIDS. With the film unfinished, he died on January 6, 1984, in Lenox Hill Hospital.

***

Varble in the “Demonstration Costume With Only One Shoe” for the “Chemical Bank Protest,” 1976. Credit © Greg Day

In early March of this year, HIV was cured in a man referred to as the London patient, the second such case since the global epidemic began decades ago. Nearly twelve years previously, one other person had been cured of the virus that causes AIDS. The Berlin patient, who has since been identified as Timothy Ray Brown, 52, now lives in Palm Springs, California.

Both men were also diagnosed with cancer, for which they received bone marrow transplants, and it was those transplants that ended up containing a mutation resistant to HIV. The success of the most recent case of the London patient has inspired a newfound hope that a cure for AIDS could be discovered in the near future.

The impact of the AIDS crisis on the art world was monumental. Many artists were lost far too early, but the epidemic led to the production of incredibly powerful and politically influential work. Some more well-known examples might be the AIDS logo series by the collective General Idea, or Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ slowly disappearing pile of candy, which symbolizes the loss of his partner. Today there are many artists, such as Kia LaBeija and Jonathan Molina-Garcia, who are still working to fight HIV/AIDS through their work.

Following his own death of AIDS, the crisis of the 1980s and nineties swallowed Varble’s work of gender nonconformity and replaced it with national fear-mongering and homophobia. To preserve Varble’s queer art, hidden by history, Getsy had to divert from traditional forms of research; he needed to connect with people rather than databases, friends rather than institutions. Because Varble was so opposed to museum or gallery collections, what saved Varble’s work were intimate connections more than anything else, a valuable, but fleeting, mode of conservation. Through Getsy, this memorialization was honored and then expanded upon through the current exhibitions.

Getsy talked to Hendricks, Varble’s partner when he first moved to New York, along with a plethora of others who had, in some way or another, shared a relationship with Varble. “That was what was exciting about it,” Getsy says. “To realize that it was all there, and it was held by his network of friends.”

Varble’s work comments on many of the concerns that still resonate today—anxiety around late capitalism and the false and restrictive nature of gender binaries. As Getsy says, what Varble—an outcast, a queer man who lived and died during the AIDS crisis—did so well was to take what society has “devalued or… discarded, and reclaim it and love it and give it value… I think that’s the big relevance.”

Varble’s story is one of genderfuck, of oppression, of the power that comes from radical self-expression, and of the injustice of the AIDS crisis. Getsy’s work in reviving and curating Varble’s work brings to mainstream conversation topics that were once only found in the corners of society. Varble’s gender nonconformity and his embrace of the trashy and the crude are today at center stage, and it is Getsy who is encouraging us to confront that. And as other 1970s guerilla artists and performers, like the Cockettes, Lorraine O’Grady, and Hunter Reynolds, are also being rediscovered by today’s generation, Varble now seems to fit right in.