With their bric-a-brac materials and seemingly haphazard construction, it’s a feat that any of Curtis Cuffie’s sculptures, on view at Galerie Buchholz, still exist. Cuffie was born in 1955 in South Carolina and moved to New York as a teenager. Between the 1980s and 1996, he lived intermittently on the streets of the East Village, near Cooper Union and the Bowery, where he created his works. He became part of the downtown scene, befriending artists such as David Hammons, who advocated for his art.
Cuffie collected trash and found objects, which he assembled into sculptures that he displayed on sidewalks, traffic medians, and chain-link fences. Subject to interference by the city’s police and sanitation departments, the weather, and the artist’s own interventions or changes, his works sometimes existed for a few days or less before new assemblages would crop up overnight. He embraced the uncertainty of his environs, knowingly erecting sculptures in areas subject to police raids.
Cuffie’s playful and inventive constructions in the show’s 14 works invite viewers to perceive a sense of the body. In “Red Dress,” a jaunty peacock feather suggests an eye, while a red, ruffled tutu evokes lips. Some of the works recall the figure in their verticality alone, relying on the viewer to fill in the missing parts.
While the sculptures in the gallery command a sense of place, the weathered textiles and precariousness allude to their ephemerality. One untitled work (c. 1992–2000) consists of a metal chair with its legs removed, slim metal tubing reclining in its seat, and a thin strip of fabric slashed across like caution tape. This work merges the artist’s own precarious condition, as a Black man who spent time unhoused, with a firm desire to occupy public space, despite consistent threats or risks to his life and livelihood.
Artist Pope.L has spoken of “have-not-ness,” a condition of vulnerability that originates from having little to no income and/or being non-White in the United States. Cuffie’s works embody this tension, announcing their lack, as in “Every House Deserves a Happy Home, Every Home Deserves a Happy Family” (1996), while displaying the excess of New Yorkers’ trash.
The humor of the works is tempered by a sense of sadness. They are defined by both the materials that comprise them and what they lack. The number of extant works by Cuffie is unknown. These works exist as memories of a collective history of New York’s 1980s and ’90s downtown scene. Photographic documentation lends permanence to a body of work that resists it, but above all Cuffie’s sculptures lay bare the excesses of material culture while providing respite from the hardships of his, and others’, lives in his objects’ transformations.
Curtis Cuffie continues at Galerie Buchholz (17 East 82nd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan) through May 20. The exhibition was curated by Scott Portnoy. The artist’s first monograph will be published in June by Blank Forms in collaboration with Galerie Buchholz.