Monday, April 20, 2009

Stephen Sprouse's 15 Minutes

New York is having a Stephen Sprouse moment – again. Late-Roman spectacle is passé, and artists who look and act like bond traders are going the way of…bond traders. The mood in New York has downshifted to a desire for authenticity, intimacy and the integrity that a quest for truth in art provides. With the city overtaken by French tourists (New York is now “on sale”), it’s heartening to remember that 25 years ago, when Sprouse’s rock and roll designs first revolutionized fashion, the whole downtown art/music/club scene was starving artists.

Sprouse was still in his chubby phase at 12 (and had been designing for 4 years) when his father brought him to New York to consult with fellow Indiana-born fashion designers Norman Norrell and Bill Blass. He asked them, “What would you do if this boy were your son?” Fashion critic Eugenia Sheppard wrote of the boy genius in the International Herald Tribune, “The most riveting thing about Stephen’s collection…is that he seems to know instinctively what plenty of top fashion designers haven’t really grasped yet. Fashion is no longer just a good looking dress or coat, but the total way a woman looks.” Sheppard’s closing prophecy is chilling: “Music has its Mozart and fashion may have its Stephen Sprouse.”

By 18, Sprouse dropped out of the Rhode Island School of Design and became Halston’s main assistant. While he spent his days fitting the rich and famous uptown, his nights were devoted to his first love, rock and roll – downtown. In 1983, he set up shop in Andy Warhol’s old factory and set off fireworks in the New York fashion industry with his first collection. For the complete story of Sprouse’s roller coaster career, take a look at the gorgeous new monograph, The Stephen Sprouse Book, by fashion showmen Mauricio and Roger Padilha (Rizzoli). The Padilha brothers, who have the world’s largest collection of vintage Sprouse designs and memorabilia, and who credit Sprouse for inspiring their launch into fashion, reject the idea that Sprouse’s current influence is nostalgic. “We didn¹t set out to write a history book,” they said, “But to cover an artist who is as relevant today as he was 25 years ago. Stephen was really ahead of his time.” They equate Sprouse’s art with that of Eero Saarinen, Frank Gehry or Jackson Pollack, calling it “something unique that will always look modern…and turn heads.”

Along with the Sprouse Book, two Sprouse retrospectives this January coincided with the release of Marc Jacobs’ new Tribute Collection for Louis Vuitton, inspired by Sprouse’s iconoclastic 2001 graffiti bag. “Rock on Mars,” at Deitch Projects’ Wooster Street gallery, is a museum-caliber retrospective that shows off the protean Sprouse as the first “Warholian” fashion designer to create a fusion of art, music and fashion. In addition to 50 mannequins dressed in his original fashions, the show features drawings accented with fluorescent paint and exhibited under black light; Sprouse paintings (Iggy Pop crucified, Sid Vicious caught with his pants down); a wall of Polaroids; a few of the original grafitti bags chained to a bench and videos made for his fashion shows, in which Sprouse gambols like a puppy with his unearthly models.

Uptown, John McWhinnie/Glenn Horowitz Booksellers exhibited a raw archive of “rescued” early Sprouse drawings. These drawings, which predate Sprouse’s first collection, weren’t made for fame and fortune, McWhinnie points out, but out of necessity. Co-curator Carol McCranie pointed to one drawing done so early it was on lined paper, torn out of a spiral notebook: a half-portrait of a woman in a beret, from the Patti Smith album. Younger viewers seeing Sprouse’s work for the first time relate to the combination of his amazing aesthetic life with an erratic commercial one, finding a sense of integrity even in Sprouse’s commercial failure. Street artist Terrenceo Hammond, who was part of the downtown graffiti scene in the 80s, was emotional about the combination of Sprouse drawings and 20 year-old punk ephemera papering the walls. He mourned a time when “there didn’t seem to be any clear lines between art and music.” In that regard, Sprouse spoke for his contemporaries, for whom art, music and fashion were blended in the downtown New York club scene.

Uptown curator McWhinnie concluded that the current Sprouse surge is not the typical 20-year retrospective, but is based on the intense desire of his peers to carry on his legacy. Sprouse died tragically in 2004, at age 50, and although there is no more CBGB’s and the downtown street culture is as sanitized as Times Square, there is a whole new wave of starving artists, and the world as Sprouse expressed it is the epicenter of the New York zeitgeist. At the top of the Bowery, from the observation deck of the New Museum -- near the apartment from which Sprouse observed the New York punk scene being born -- the buildings of Manhattan disappeared in a white-out, while the Elizabeth Peyton show played out its last weekend and Sprouse bags sold like hotcakes in Soho. Would Peyton have succeeded with her intimate, intuitive, fashion designer’s rock-and-roll portraits without Sprouse breaking the ground before her? The whole world, top to bottom, seems to have caught up with his downtown aesthetic, and that makes Sprouse start to look like the genius of his generation.