LOS ANGELES — If you’ve lived in New York City recently, you might remember the man who always lurked around Astor Place wearing nothing but a brightly colored speedo, accented by flowers in his hair and vibrant makeup. He’d use objects from the street to make music and often danced either to his own sounds or to the sounds of the city. I recently reconsidered the Astor Place man as belonging to a longstanding tradition of fringe performance art. The first-ever retrospective of artist Stephen Varble, RUBBISH AND DREAMS: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble, at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in New York, took my realization one step further as it revealed tradition as deeply anchored in the history of the genderqueer social and political movements. Coinciding with the current tide of genderqueer movements, RUBBISH AND DREAMS curator David J. Getsy, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, traveled from the East to the West Coast, bringing Varble’s work to ONE Archive Foundation’s ONE Gallery in Los Angeles with The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, Photographs by Greg Day.
While the retrospective in New York spanned Varble’s entire career, from the early 1970s to mid-to-late 1980s, and featured films, photographs, archival material, and costumes, the ONE Gallery show hones in on Varble’s intimate photographic relationship with photographer Greg Day, who documented Varble’s performances and contributed so much to the artist’s visual legacy. As is standard for ONE Gallery exhibitions, the show is organized around a glass table containing precious archival material, from press releases Varble hand-typed for his own shows, to his beautifully intricate drawings to letters he received. All along the walls surrounding the table are photographs crystallizing in time Varble’s unique performances.
For Stephen Varble, 1970s New York was the perfect environment for challenging the status quo. Distancing himself from the social circles that made up New York’s art-world elite, Varble adopted the city streets as his stage. Varble’s approach was informed by Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks, whom he met at Columbia University and with whom he had a relationship. Yet Varble’s aesthetic was his own. As New York entered a financial crisis, mounds of trash piled up along the city’s streets. Varble used these piles of garbage as source material to create the outfits that would give birth to his alter-ego, Marie Debris.
Oscillating between the registers of male- and female-presenting, Varble conducted silent and unofficial “Costume Tours” of art galleries in SoHo and the Upper East Side, often wearing outfits tailored from leaking milk cartons, plastic pearl codpieces, egg crates, chicken bones, liquor packaging, pipe cleaners, life jackets, and cheese graters. For many gallery goers, these impromptu performances were a stroke of genius. Others, namely professionals in the art industry, were outraged that these performances were open to anyone around and not invitation-only. The politics of audience and spontaneity were at the crux of his performances. Instead of asking for viewership, he created it wherever he went, as either Marie Debris or Stephen Varble.
Varble aimed to break down gender binaries, creating a space for himself outside of a hyper-gendered world. Today, Varble’s notions of genderqueer or gender nonconforming are poignant and relevant. Back then, the word had yet to be created. He confused the borders of gender, offering passersby nothing but himself, in whatever shape he so chose.
As a pioneer of genderqueer performance, Varble attacked the elite, rolling up in a limousine in front of luxury stores on the Upper East Side, stepping out as Marie Debris, spilling kitchen utensils into the gutter, and then cleaning the utensils with black ink. Varble self-coined these performances as “Gutter Art,” that which asks why we view both the people at the lower-rung of society and the streets with disdainful superiority. Unfortunately, all that we have left of these performances are a few photographs. Getsy suggests that most performance artists canonized in art history are those who have collaborated with art institutions or given into the art market. Varble had no intention of doing so, and so he paid.
Varble began to truly set himself apart from other gender-focused 1970s performance artists with his outré 1976 performance at Chemical Bank in Sheridan Square. After hearing that someone had forged his signature and emptied out his bank account, Varble walked into the bank dressed in fake money, with breasts made out of condoms and filled with cow’s blood. He demanded his money back. When the bank teller could not comply, Varble punctured his condom-breasts, spilling blood all over the floor, and wrote checks in blood for “none-million dollars,” which he addressed to his companion at the bank, Peter Hujar. The exhibition includes a photograph Hujar took that day, evoking a time when the lax security in banks allowed artists to perform and express themselves, however outrageously (although Varble was then escorted out of the cow’s blood-filled bank by security).
While some photographs of these performances are in the exhibition, it primarily focuses on Greg Day’s documentation of Varble. Day photographed Varble in the privacy of the latter’s home, on his rooftop, or by the local street corner, in his most vulnerable moments, not long before he disappeared from public view. Day’s photographs record Varble’s experimentation with fabric; they show Varble’s transformations through costume in “before-and-after” shots; and the dangerous tricks Varble performed to optimize the end-results of his and Day’s respective creations, like placing lit matches on a loincloth and sitting atop a burning radiator as a nod to one of his sexual encounters.
It seems as if all of Varble’s performances led to a final hurrah. In 1977, Varble received an eviction notice. To celebrate, he organized a one-night-only retrospective of his work at his apartment, where the star-studded guest list, including Andy Warhol and his entourage, would embody the elitism that Varble abhorred within the art establishment. Varble entered the event wearing a magnificent pink dress that would literally be torn to shreds by the end of the night, perhaps foreshadowing his subsequent disappearance from public view.
After the retrospective, Varble moved in with his married partner Daniel Cahill in an apartment on the Upper West Side. He became a devotee of a spiritual practice that draws from the Indonesian Subud. By that time, Varble had contracted HIV; knowing his days were numbered he began work on his final unfinished opus, Journey to the Sun, a video project that features Varble etched into his fantasy — as he was up until the very end. The video features costumed performers in a surreal fable of a messianic martyr, absorbing the characters of Marie Debris and Stephen Varble into the artist’s new world of performance, a world of which only a few hours of footage remain.
After his death in 1984, Varble’s work was mostly forgotten. Working with Varble’s friends, who provided archival materials, David J. Getsy has created a beautiful and important retrospective. Getsy has given the queer community one of its founding mothers back. Hopefully his efforts will inspire more curators to rediscover artists who died of AIDS-related complications and restore their place in art- and queer history.
The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, Photographs by Greg Day continues at ONE Gallery (626 N. Robertson Blvd., Los Angeles, California) through May 17. The exhibition is curated by David J. Getsy, Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History at theSchool of the Art Institute of Chicago.