Stephen Varble: The Street Was His Stage, the Dress Was His Weapon

Jimmy DeSana, “Untitled (Stephen Varble Destroying His Blue and Green Corrugated Paper Dress for the Camera),” 1975; silver gelatin print (2018).

The 1970s, when New York City’s budget tanked and trash piled up in the streets, was a golden age of downtown performance art. And no artist shone brighter, or better commanded the street as a stage, or made more transformative use of trash, than Stephen Varble.

If you happened to be in SoHo on a Saturday in 1975 you might have seen him suddenly appear, dressed in a robe made from chicken bones, tea bags and six-pack holders, for one of his “Costume Tours” of art galleries. And if you followed him — and you did; he was magnetic — as he led you from Leo Castelli to Holly Solomon to some poster shop or other, swooning with mock-delight as he went, you knew you were seeing something you wouldn’t forget.

Then, within a few years, he was gone — rumored, when he was remembered, to be living uptown, reclusive, attached to a mystical cult until he died in 1984. Soon, for the amnesiac art world, he was gone entirely from the historical record, to which he has now, at long last, been restored by the exhibition “Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble” at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in Manhattan.

Curated by David J. Getsy, a professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, the show is a model of how to reconstruct and revivify a performing career through archival matter: that is, through bits and pieces — photographs, video clips, letters, drawings. If the result is essentially a reliquary display (an idea that might have appealed to Varble, who had a messianic streak), it works. Art-object-wise, the show is thin; spirit-wise, it’s rich.

Varble was born in 1946 in Owensboro, Ky. His family was religious; he sang in a church choir. “My parents wanted me to be a missionary,” he would later note. “But I became a monster instead.” As a student at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, he was immersed in that city’s long-established L.G.B.T. scene, which included a queer theater group, the Pagan Babies.

In 1969, he went to New York to study film at Columbia University, but moved in the direction of live theater after meeting, and hero-worshiping, the gay performer and director Jack Smith and beginning a relationship, romantic and collaborative, with the Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks.

From Smith, Varble learned the alchemical process of transmuting base material — the discarded, the despised, the degraded and degradable — into theater. From Hendricks, he learned to make everyday people, the unsuspecting and unpaying public, his primary audience.

During this period, Varble wrote some comically surreal plays. In one, “Silent Prayer,” a mute, paralyzed Vietnam veteran is the central character, surrounded by a gabby family and watched over by a mute God. (There’s a video of the production on the Leslie-Lohman website.)

He also did his first street performances, for one of which he walked blindfolded through Manhattan. And he designed the first of his extravagant costumes, a one-of-a-kind of caftan patched together from hundreds of photographic slides taken (without permission) from Hendricks’ personal files. It was when their relationship ended, in 1974, that Varble began his solo career.

For it, he adopted a female persona named Marie Debris, though as Mr. Getsy points out, Varble’s work wasn’t drag in the conventional cross-dressing sense, or “gay art,” which was often defined from a predominantly masculine perspective in the immediate post-Stonewall years. His intention was to stretch and break down the very idea of binary identities, confuse the concept of gender, leave it optional. And this goal puts him well in the framework of queer and transgender thinking now.

His 1975 “Pearl Dress” consisted of a see-through skirt made from strands of beads; a plastic pearl codpiece in the shape of male genitals; and a life preserver (stolen from the Staten Island Ferry) hung around his neck like a halter top. This witty concoction did double couturial duty for a turn on the SoHo streets and a gig at a West Village leather bar. (None of Varble’s original costumes survive. The “Pearl Dress” has been re-created on commission for the show by the artist Vincent Tiley.)

Other costumes were tailored to specific occasions. In 1976, Varble was the victim of theft when someone forged a check against his account at Chemical Bank. After the bank refused to reimburse him for the loss, he took action. Wearing a dress collaged from fake money, and fitted out with “breasts” made from condoms filled with cow’s blood, he showed up at his bank branch. There, after restating his request and being turned down again, he punctured the condoms and began writing checks for “none million dollars” in blood.

Thereafter, political protest became the fuel for his art. It really always had been. The “Costume Tours” tours were conceived as digs at a market-obsessed art industry. And he then broadened his sights to capitalist culture at large.

For a series of mid-1970s performances he called “Gutter Art,” he would arrive, elaborately dressed, by limousine (paid for by a Japanese patron, Miyazaki Morihiro) in front of luxury stores on the Upper East Side. Once parked, he unloaded old kitchen utensils from the trunk and started washing them with black ink, as if referring to the domestic life of sweatshop labor. He soon gained notoriety as a kind of cultural terrorist. (Tiffany’s hired guards to keep him out.) He turned up, uninvited, at red carpet events — film premieres, the Met’s Costume Institute gala — to dazzle and deride the guests.

As Varble gradually realized, the art market is adept at absorbing and neutralizing resistance. And the more celebrated he became, the sharper his anti-institutional and anticapitalist message grew.

When he had his first, and only, commercial gallery solo in 1977, he priced everything insanely high and, as if to save critics the effort, called it “The Awful Art Show.” On the eve of being evicted from his downtown loft, he staged there what amounted to a one-night retrospective. Invitations were a hot item; Andy Warhol (for whom Varble had once briefly worked) and his superstars were there. The evening ended with the introduction of a giant, party-enveloping pink dress, which ended up torn to shreds. It wasn’t long afterward that Varble more or less vanished from the downtown scene.

“This is an age of pornography and contempt,” he said. “The dollar is God.” And he added, “My real mission is quite religious.” In more than one way, it was. His ephemeral work — anti-normality, anti-materialist, anti-classist — had assumed an exhortative, prophetical tone. In 1977, he met a new lover, Daniel Cahill, who was a devotee of an Asian spiritual movement. Varble stopped performing publicly, moved to the Upper West Side with Cahill, and became a devotee too.

The years between his retreat from the art world and his death of complications from AIDS in 1984 were both inward-turning and aesthetically expansive. For several years, in his uptown home, he worked on what was conceived as a many-hours-long, though never-completed video called “Journey to the Sun.” In it he appears, as fantastically costumed as ever. But now the costumes are an integral part of an equally fantastic visual world.

He covered the apartment walls with mural-size drawings jammed with symbols, sexual and spiritual, and text. He made many smaller drawings too. Some have been preserved; a bunch are in the show. But after Varble’s death, and Cahill’s two years later, most of his possessions were put out on the street as rubbish.

Would Varble have viewed that as somehow fitting? A continuation of the recycling that had fed his art? I don’t know, but Mr. Getsy has made a compelling portrait from the scraps that remain, and from words and images he has added to them. The photogenic Varble attracted superlative photographers, Jimmy DeSana, Peter Hujar, Allan Tannenbaum and Greg Day among them. They provide many of the show’s most striking visual moments.

The curator also takes the occasion to acknowledge Varble’s radical contemporaries in the performance field. Some like Scott Burton, Adrian Piper and Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt are well-documented. Others — John Eric Broaddus, Richard Gallo and the amazing Betsy Damon — are overdue for comprehensive attention.

And the show makes a strong case for Varble’s relevance to the present, not just to queer politics and to art politics — how refreshing to imagine the artist making his way through, and leaving indelible stains on, Art Basel Miami and Frieze — but also to the larger political environment, dominated by leaders who wield shock, confusion and populism as weapons to gain personal power. Varble, as a performer, drew on these elements too, but used them to undermine power-seekers (in his case, the art industry) with an art that was both freely given and based on the democracy of evanescence.

“I’d like my costumes preserved in igloos, as opposed to pyramids,” he once said. “I’m afraid of dust, you see.” But he wasn’t afraid, and that’s the key to him.

Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble

Through Jan. 27 at Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, 26 Wooster Street, Manhattan;

In Other News

© 2020 US News. All Rights Reserved.