Sunday, May 17, 2009

Interview: Sherman Clarke

Even though Sherman Clarke hasn’t lived in New York City his whole life, I always think of him as the quintessential New York “artsy” librarian. I can’t remember the exact moment I met Sherman, because his reputation and persona were embedded in my mind before I ever shook his hand. Always decked out in Birkenstocks and a single-dangling earring, Sherman emanates camaraderie, amicability, and professionalism, with a touch of flirtatiousness that can charm anyone. We probably met 10 years ago in Vancouver when I attended my first ARLIS/NA (Art Libraries Society of North America) conference, at a meeting for GLIRT (Gay and Lesbian Interests Round Table). He was an established pro and just one of a group of fellow GLIRTies who made this newbie art librarian very welcome in their midst. At a later ARLIS/NA conference, Sherman and I co-moderated a panel session on “The Queer Art World” that was an opportunity for us to share our interest in gay/lesbian art production and history with other librarians. Both of us have been members of the Queer Caucus for Art, a society affiliated with CAA (College Art Association). In addition to his numerous commitments in the library world, Sherman also has been the Queer Caucus's secretary and newsletter editor. But things are changing for him. Sherman recently retired from his librarian job at New York University and is soon leaving NYC for upstate NY. Even though everyone seems to know Sherman (he has about 250+ Facebook friends!), I thought this would be a great opportunity for people to get to know him even better. I think you'll agree that the charm and candor we've always loved about Sherman is self-evident in this interview. He is so NYC. This interview comes from a series of questions and answers exchanged through email in April and May 2009.

bklynbiblio: Tell the readers a little bit about yourself, your background, your librarian career, whatever you like.
Sherman Clarke: It took me until I was mostly through my master's in art history to realize that the librarian robe fit perfectly. I should have known when I volunteered to help my fifth-grade teacher prepare the bookshelves for summer vacation. My family always had books around and encouraged us to read and think and share. My first library job was working in the Ceramics College Library during the summer of my undergrad days, with the strong inspiration of Lois Smith. My school year job was in the slide room at SUNY College at New Paltz. It's really the “art” side of art librarianship that keeps me happy.

bb: You’ve been an active member of ARLIS/NA since its inception in the 1970s, as well as a member of VRA (Visual Resources Association). What have these art and image library organizations meant to you?
SC: I actually missed the first real meeting of ARLIS/NA when it was held in NYC in 1973, because I was attending CAA there at the same time. I didn't know about the ARLIS/NA gathering. As a matter of fact, I had come to CAA partly to talk to Mrs. Folin, who hired me as the Periodicals Librarian in the Frick Fine Arts Library at the University of Pittsburgh. That was when I joined ARLIS/NA. Mrs. Folin was one of the art librarians who was very devoted to CAA and didn't think we should have started a new organization. We moved around quite a bit as I was growing up. I was born in Rhode Island and lived in Wisconsin, Colorado, Nebraska, and New York State before I graduated from high school, so I didn't have a coterie of school chums. And then I moved around quite a bit since graduate and library school. ARLIS/NA became my circle of friends. It's the story of my life that my circles of friends were more from my activities than my place of residence. Getting involved with VRA gave me a chance to learn new things even though my daily work life didn't directly have any VR aspects.

bb: In May 2006, you received the Distinguished Service Award (DSA) from ARLIS/NA, which is their most prestigious honor, as it acknowledges one's contributions to the organization and the profession. When people submitted comments for your DSA nomination, colleagues referred to you as a cataloging “guru” and a “cataloger’s cataloger.” Someone from the Library of Congress even noted your “tireless and effective” advocacy for standardized cataloging principles. What are your thoughts about these accomplishments? [Click here to read more of their comments, as presented by Elizabeth O'Keefe.]
SC: Standards, rules and procedures are important, but I have always felt that you had to know how to apply them and when to bend them. When Art NACO was first starting, I was a tad relentless about commas, semi-colons, and spaces, and folks said to get over it, to relax. For me, I knew what the prescribed punctuation was and I have a pretty good eye for copy editing, so it was more my attempt to set folks on the right path before I let them flow a bit more freely. I think that my love of cataloging (aka ordering things) has played out well and my enthusiasm for art and architecture makes it fun rather than drudgery.

bb: In your acceptance speech, you said: “I have been incredibly lucky to find a profession that used my native abilities to stick things in pigeon holes and to describe how things are alike and different. It seems to me that is what cataloging is about.” Elaborate on this for readers who are not librarians, so that they understand how important cataloging is, especially in this age of Internet information overload. [Click here to read his acceptance speech.]
SC: If every book or other resource had only one aspect that we needed to remember, we wouldn't need to catalog it. We'd just put it in that place on the shelf. But resources are multi-faceted: persons, places, things, topics, titles, associations, relations, facts and opinions. So we catalog it and give it a bunch of access points so that we can find it again, or so that others can find it. And as we build those access points, we want to be sure they're the same every time we refer to something. On the Internet, tagging has added a new dimension to cataloging. One can use tags to make the personal connections that help memory in finding something again. In my tags, I often tag the name of the person who told me about the site I'm saving. In a sense, that person's name becomes a stand in for a concept. Same with picture sites like Flickr. But those are personal and can be idiosyncratic.

bb: Conferences can be amazing places for both professional activities and lots of fun. One of my fondest conference memories is from a reception held at a children’s museum in St. Louis and you riding down an enormous slide like a big kid (picture left). Do you have any memorable conference moments?
SC: That reception in St. Louis was really great, sliding and crawling in the tubes up near the ceiling. There have been a lot of memorable conference receptions: the supper at the Getty villa when the museum was newly opened in 1977, the Nelson-Atkins, the Saskia reception at a monastery at VRA in Miami Beach. The thing I like best about the receptions is the opportunity to mix with colleagues in the galleries, one by one, as well as the crowd scene near the food and drink. And dancing in Houston and Los Angeles and Banff! But it isn't only the receptions. I've heard some good papers and Cataloging Problems Discussion Group can be real cathartic. Altogether, it's the interacting that mixes professional and personal.

bb: How did you get involved with the Queer Caucus for Art?
SC: CAA met in San Antonio, I think in 1994. Clayton Kirking was supposed to deliver a paper in the panel on gay books but couldn't make it. Since I was then living in Fort Worth, Ray Anne Lockard contacted me to do something on the panel. I met Tee Corinne at the conference and she suggested that I help Ray Anne with the newsletter. NYU used a good software for lists and when the caucus needed a list manager, I volunteered. Once I get started on something, it's awfully hard for me to let go so I just kept compiling the newsletter with Ray Anne, then with Tee until she became too sick, and then with others, but I was the one that typed the content and took it to the copy shop, then folded and stapled it. Tee was a great inspiration to me, as she was to so many.

bb: I'm glad you brought up Tee. [Tee A. Corinne (1943-2006) was a lesbian/feminist photographer and an active member of the Queer Caucus; view some of her work by clicking here.] She was a great supporter of my own queer art historical work, and I still appreciate that the two of you included me on a panel session about the nude in gay/lesbian art at the 2002 CAA conference. Tell readers more about your relationship with Tee. You visited her at her home shortly before she passed away, right?
SC: I visited Tee twice at her home in southern Oregon. The first visit was when her partner Beverly Brown was sick with cancer but they were both fine hostesses and I really enjoyed meeting Beverly. Tee was always curious about what you were working on, and she would ask about all sorts of things. She knew about my sordid relationship with a Puerto Rican hustler and she took great delight in telling me about Greg Gorman's photobook Just Between Us which documents his obsession with a lovely model, also named Greg. When I visited again not long before she died, she took great delight in asking about how my stay at the Radical Faerie commune near her home was going.

bb: Okay, Puerto Rican hustler? Radical Faeries? Explain.
SC: About ten years ago, I bought the services of a Puerto Rican hustler at a bar in midtown Manhattan. We'd go drinking and play pool and it was fun, but as someone once said, you pay a hustler to leave. I was about ready to give it the heave-ho after three months or so, when he was arrested for parole violation and needed help while he was in jail. I'd never been to a jail and visited him at the Tombs, Riker's Island, and a couple of upstate prisons, which was enormously interesting. You read about the horror of the prisoner's family as well as prison life itself. I was like a kid in an evil candy store, I guess. It was fascinating. But I have trouble with situations where someone might get angry. I read Kevin Jennings' Mama's Boy, Preacher's Son recently and one of his themes is "when someone gets angry, they hit you," and he'd do anything to avoid being hit, even at significant emotional or financial cost to himself. Me too. There's a whole lot more to this story and maybe someday I'll write that book. As for the faeries, I've always been a "good" kid, never too radical, never too conservative, teacher's pet, preacher's kid. The Radical Faeries represent, for me, the ability to let it all hang out. I would have loved to have been a real hippie but I've just appropriated a few of the outer signs like sandals and beard. Someone recently described me as not being spiritual and there's a ritual pagan-ness to Radical Faerie gatherings that I'm probably not up to. The inability to let it all hang out may also be part of my closeted life at the apogee of hippiedom. I'm not really ready to tell it like it is.

bb: Sometimes I find it hard to believe you once were in the closet. You were married too. What was coming out like for you?
SC: Dorothy and I got married the summer after we graduated from college. That's pretty much what people did in 1968: if you were boyfriend/girlfriend at the end of college, you got married the summer after graduation. I don't really regret being with Dorothy for a dozen years, but it might have been fun to be actively gay in the late 1960s and 1970s. Dorothy was a very good friend when I was coming out. She actually started the discussion with "So, you want to be gay?" as we were having Christmas week drinks in Ithaca where we then lived in 1979. Dorothy and I are still in contact and she occasionally joins my family for meals or other visits. I knew I was homosexual way back but wasn't ready to act on it in 1968, although the thought did cross my mind when the minister (my dad) was doing our wedding. You know, when the audience is asked if there is any reason why this couple should not be joined in holy matrimony. Each coming out is probably individual (at the same time that it's universal), but if you're going to try marriage with a woman first, be sure she's your friend and a good person.

bb: Let's get back to queer art. I remember I once told Tee that I thought the little-known, Anglo-Jewish artist Rebecca Solomon (1832-1886) might have been a lesbian, but that there was no proof of this. She pointed out to me that I was making the mistake of assuming there had to be proof; maybe we needed to prove she wasn't a lesbian. That still strikes me as a significant part of understanding “queerness” in art, the inversion of assumed norms about sexual identity. In other words, queerness implies otherness, but with all types of sexual practices, predilections, behaviors, and orientations, heteronormativity just may be the most “queer” of them all. How do you define “queer art”? Is it the same thing or different from “gay/lesbian art”?
SC: As you imply here, queer involves a twist of some sort on our expectations. I don't think that gay/lesbian art has to do that. My queer eye has sometimes been very surprised by a very gay-looking work with a male subject and done by a woman. Collier Schorr and Suzanne Opton come to mind. This is probably where the artist-model and artist-viewer relationship comes into play. A work of art can appeal for many reasons and same-sex desire or the queering of desire can inform the artist's work as well as that of viewer.

bb: Who is your favorite queer artist from the past?
SC: Probably John Singer Sargent. On the other hand, my friend Geurt Imanse sent me a postcard of the Barberini Faun from the Glyptothek in Munich; it's got a special place right on the top of the stack of recent postcards on my table. Who knows if the sculptor was gay but the Faun is very sexy, especially now that he's "lost" his fig leaf (image right by "Robert in Toronto" from Flickr).

bb: Who is your favorite queer artist of today?
SC: I'm pretty fickle but there are a bunch of photographers whose work I find delightful. I own several photos by Aaron Krach. John Arsenault's photos are lovely and touching but can also be very hot. I'm quite excited about the current show of paintings by Marco Silombria at the Leslie/Lohman Gallery. I'm not sure I could pick a favorite though.

bb: There have been debates over the development of a gay or queer sensibility in art for 25 years or so. How do you see the ongoing evolution of this type of art making? Are you concerned about its continuation in one form way or another, or its ongoing existence at all?
SC: Oh, I'm not sure what to do with this observation and concern. Desire will always inform art, desire will always come in various flavors, critics will always read into art what's there and what isn't. I guess I'm not worried about this at all.

bb: Now for some fun but very important questions. What is your favorite color?
SC: Right now: Prussian blue.

bb: What is your favorite movie?
SC: I really like the fantastic surrealism of Fellini's Juliet of the Spirits and I could look at Giulietta Masina's face forever. Making Love always makes me cry because the choice of coming out is so clearly delineated in that movie. I loved Dorothy but my true self was homosexual. The opening credits of Pasolini's Uccellacci e uccellini is sublime. But I've never been able to figure out what my "favorite movie" is.

bb: What is your favorite book?
SC: One of the books that brings pictures back to me and that I've read more than once is Hold Tight by Christopher Bram. I also really enjoyed Lincoln's Melancholy by Joshua Wolf Shenk but that's partly because my brother Doug and I talk a lot about the value of melancholy and our propensity thereto. I read a lot of books as well as newspapers and magazines. Strangely, I can remember cataloging rules and MARC tags easily but a book or movie can be quite forgettable even if I feel like I have very much liked it.

bb: Who’s your sexiest man?
SC: When I was in Boulder in January, redheaded and bearded Justin was soliciting for Greenpeace. He was awfully attractive and Greenpeace is an attractive cause. I don't know which convinced me more solidly to become a contributor. Or the friendly guy behind the counter at Printed Matter. Sometimes it's a porn star like Jason Ridge or a movie star like Javier Bardem or Johnny Depp. Maybe it's anybody whose name starts with the letter J. I probably should just say the one I'm looking at at the moment.

bb: What’s your favorite NYC moment?
SC: The gothic revival steeple of Grace Church on Broadway in the early morning light always lifts my spirits as I walk up to Silver Spurs for pancakes and reading the Sunday Times. One time I was walking across the Brooklyn Bridge, I ran into Heidi Hass who was sitting on a bench knitting; I love walking across the bridge any time but that time was very special.

bb: How about your favorite NYC art moment?
SC: Some of my favorites were the installation of the Thorvaldsen Ganymede in front of the big Rosa Bonheur painting in the Met show entitled Art and the Empire City: New York, 1825–1861, walking into Pierogi 2000 for the first time to find a recreation of Robert Smithson's tree, the boat ride with Matthew Buckingham's "Muhheakantuck" and his film on Johnson's dictionary at P.S. 1, the Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller walk in Central Park...and just oodles more but those come to mind quickly.

bb: What are you going to miss about NYC when you leave?
SC: Walking in an environment where pedestrians have equal rights in the traffic. Delis and bodegas that are always open and always there. Good bagels and other bread, though I like making bread and have a wonderful recipe for cheese potato bread. Access to airports that can be gateways to the world. Perhaps most compellingly, I will miss the ready availability of galleries and museums. But Alfred is a good art town.

bb: Other than continuing your diary-like blog Shermania, what are your plans for retirement?
SC: I hope to keep doing freelance cataloging. I like the idea of itinerant jobs too. A friend has just contacted me about coming to her library for a week to work on the backlog, and she thinks we might do this every six months. That plays well into my love of exploring new places, or even going to places I've been before. If someone at the Des Moines Art Center said they wanted me to come catalog for a week or two, I'd be on my way as soon as possible. But I don't only want to travel for jobs. There's so much to see still in Europe. And I've never been to Asia and several friends have recently told me about their travels in Southeast Asia. I'd love to visit Turkey. And reading and spending time with my brother and sisters and their families.

bb: Anything else you want to share?
SC: You quoted from my DSA speech above. I was reading it again a while ago and was struck by the bit about not retiring anytime soon. Strange how life works out, but I don't feel like I'm retiring from the profession, just from the job at NYU so that I can do the professional stuff I want to do, and with a bit more choice in the scheduling.

Keep up with Sherman's musings on art, books, and cataloging by visiting his blog Shermania at


Sarah said...

Thanks for this, Roberto, and Sherman. Very interesting, fun, and thought-provoking. Sarah

Anonymous said...

Hi - Dorothy here (that flickering shadow from the 60s-70s that never quite goes away). Funny that I got your Email tonight; I had just written you a note card last weekend, but mailed it to the Alfred address where it is probably in a stack of mail gathering dust. I just needed to write someone about the book I found at the Friends for the Library book sale - on poet Elizabeth Bishop's letters. The book was originally from the Globe bookstore and cafe in Prague -- I was amused by that and thought you would be too. Thanks for sharing your interview. I also peeked at your blog page but I am still in the Victorian age and can not bring myself to own a cell phone or join Face Book or Twitter away with anyone (not yet anyway). Shadow signing off -- Dorothy

Ted said...

Thanks for this interesting and revealing interview! I have known Sherman for the past 25 years and he continues to astonish and delight me with his stories and ideas!
Well done!

Anonymous said...

Wonderful to learn more about S, and good to find another MMA/Bklyn blogger.

Ilaria/Swimturtle said...

What a lovely interview! Sherman's charm and warmth, wonderful brain and love of his profession and of art all shine right through.
Roberto, you're a great interviewer. Lovely post all around.
Sherman, good luck in your new life! We'll miss you, but we'll be seeing you around!