Man / Man / Grimace / Grimace / Pivot / Pivot

by Stuart Sherman

“Repeat scratching head/writing ‘scratch’ several times.” Diagram poems and performance pieces.

“Man / Man / Grimace / Grimace / Pivot / Pivot” was produced by Triple Canopy as part of its Internet as Material project area, supported in part by the Brown Foundation, Inc., of Houston, the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and the New York State Council on the Arts. Reprinted by permission of the Stuart Sherman Estate. Thanks to Mark Bradford, Electronic Arts Intermix, Lisa Darms, and the Fales Library.

What can words do for Stuart Sherman. What can a word do. What can WORD do. What can W O R D do.

He was born in 1945. In 1967, having attended Antioch, he spent six months reading to novelist Carson McCullers. In 1975, he debuted Stuart Sherman Makes a Spectacle of Himself in his apartment, then performed it on the set of Richard Foreman’s play Pandering to the Masses: A Misrepresentation (in which he pedaled a stationary bicycle). In all, there were twenty “spectacles” (a dramatic public display, an object of curiosity, eyeglasses [with words or images for lenses]), most solo with TV tray and objects. He abbreviated Hamlet, Oedipus, Faust, Chekhov, Strindberg, Brecht; staged Lem’s Solaris and Dickinson. In 1992–93, he published quasi-monthly issues of the photocopied Quotidian Review (his writing, his performance, his art, his life). In 1999, he wrote eight mostly “unhelpful” reviews on He wrote a poem a day through 2001, the year of his death.

Stuart Sherman’s Eleventh Spectacle (the Erotic), 1978. Performance view, Washington Square Park, NY. Photograph by John Matturi. Courtesy 80WSE and the Stuart Sherman Estate.

In the early ’70s, mostly, before he began performing, Sherman wrote/drew/typed/gridded hundreds of sheets of what NYU’s Fales Library calls “diagram poems,” twenty of which follow. Each of these 8.5-by-11-inch pages is an analogue to Sherman’s TV tray: a rectangular surface for rules (prescribed actions, straight lines). On the tray, Sherman would add objects, manipulate objects, remove objects; he would play back words with a tape recorder or spell them out with refrigerator magnets. On the page, words are the objects and the actions. Words, words as letters, letters as the words that comprise them.

Also included here are the five performance descriptions Sherman published as “Six Performance Pieces” in the second Quotidian Review (October 1992). In both performances and poems, Sherman’s gestures have a syntax. He placed one thing after another, A then B then C, but “then” is no simple or logical term. Or as Mark Bradford, Sherman’s executor, wrote, “What if making a = b was your job? And it was a struggle?”1

1 “Stuart Sherman = Stuart Sherman as Stuart Sherman → Stuart Sherman.,” in Nothing Up My Sleeve: An Exhibition Based on the Work of Stuart Sherman, exh. cat. (New York: Participant Inc/Regency Arts Press Ltd., 2010), 45. I’ve relied on this catalogue, for a 2009 show at Participant curated by Jonathan Berger, and on the forthcoming Beginningless Thought/Endless Seeing: The Works of Stuart Sherman, from the 2009 retrospective at NYU’s 80WSE, curated by John Hagan, Yolanda Hawkins, and John Matturi.

5 = 6? Magritte not Duchamp? Molloy and his sucking stones? How to do things with words?

Sam Frank

Click below to view diagram poems by Stuart Sherman. Use the left and right arrows at the bottom of the screen or your keyboard's arrow keys to scroll, or click and drag the image.

Six performance pieces


Two scotch tape dispensers, held up, their fronts (tape-dispensing ends) touching. I say: “What did one scotch tape dispenser say to the other scotch tape dispenser?” Then dispense tape from one dispenser, wrapping it around (and around and around) other dispenser. Open cassette recorder. Remove cassette tape. Pull out a length of cassette tape, break it off. Thread tape through hole in scotch tape dispenser (the one that is not covered with wrapped-around tape) and through hole in cassette tape. Tie ends of cassette tape together and put this “necklace” around neck. Tie white paper into pieces, place torn-up pieces in space where cassette tape fits into tape recorder. Close recorder-lid. Hold tape recorder to ear. Shake. Then turn tape recorder over, open battery-storage area. From inside this area, remove (instead of batteries) a gluestick of the brand called “Pritt.” Remove tape dispenser/tape cassette necklace from neck and lay it aside.

Remove gluestick cap (place in breast pocket), indicate action of rubbing glue on right side, left side, and center of bare (black-topped) table in front of you. Then say: “I do not want to see my right hand stuck to the table,” “rub” right eye with gluestick, close right eye. Say “I do not want to see my right hand stuck to the table,” “rub” left eye with gluestick, close left eye. Remove gluestick cap from breast pocket, re-cap gluestick and set it upright in center of table (“Pritt” logo facing audience). Then say “I want to see my right hand stuck to the table,” open right eye and set (“stick”) right hand, palm down, on right side of table. Say “I want to see my left hand stuck to the left side of the table,” open left eye and set (“stick”) left hand, palm down, on left side of table. Say “I want to see both my hands unstuck to the table,” remove (“unstuck”) both hands from table. Take hold of gluestick with right hand, feign trying to lift it off table, say “Please.” (Gluestick remains “stuck” to table.) Take hold of gluestick with left hand, feign trying to lift it from table, say “Please.” Gluestick remains “stuck” to table. Take hold of gluestick with both hand, say “Pritty please,” lift gluestick from table.

Take wax paper with one self-sticking black dot adhered to its center. Remove dot, place on cap of gluestick (on whose circle-top it fits perfectly). Hold gluestick lengthwise between two fingers of right hand, lift gluestick up and down (as if lifting and lowering a bar-bell), then flex and feel right bicep. Place gluestick between two fingers of left hand, lift up and down (like bar-bell), flex and lift left bicep. Remove dot from gluestick and replace on wax paper. Take thin wooden stick and point at dot, say “Dot’s absurd,” point again, say “Dot’s ridiculous,” repeating action several times, pointing and saying random (but appropriate) phrases beginning with “Dot’s…,” finally saying “Dot’s enough.” Then drop wax paper with dot and break stick in half over knee.

Hold broken pieces of stick together. Vertically, side by side (pretend to) spit on their ends, take Elmer’s glue and (pretend to) squeeze glue onto the stick’s ends. Hold stick-pieces together lengthwise, lift it up and down, bending knees and straightening up (like a weight-lifter, weight-lifting), drop stick—its two pieces break apart and fall to the floor. Pick up pieces, hold them together vertically, side by side, “spit” on their ends, pretend to squeeze Elmer’s glue into your eardrums, then hold stick-pieces up, one in each ear (horizontally positioned and in a straight line). Bend knees and straighten up, like a weight-lifter, weight-lifting, then drop stick-halves. They fall to floor.

Put fingers in ears, then cup ears with hands (in listening posture). Take record and record-needle, make half-circle motions with needle just above record’s surface, repeat this “stuck needle” action several times.

Put record needle down, break record in half over your knee. Take black balloon, blow it up, stick record needle into balloon, balloon bursts. Holding end of broken balloon, lift hand and arm into air, as if (impossibly) you were being lifted up by the burst balloon.


Take feather-pen (ball-point pen attached to plume feather). Perform tickling action with plume end of pen at different points of body (without actually touching body). After each tickle, turn pen around, and write (without touching) the word “ha” on body. Then do same in air—pick a point, “tickle” it with feather-plume, turn feather around, write “ha” with pen in/on air. After several times of doing this in air, and after last tickle, turn feather around and begin to write “Fourscore and seven years ago, our…” Stop. Scratch head, write (and say aloud) the word “scratch.” Repeat scratching head/writing “scratch” several times, then take scratching fingers away from head, regard fingers with disgust, as if there were lice between them, come out feather-plume with pocket comb.


Break off part of a pretzel, say “ouch,” sip beer from beer can. Repeat several times. Then place one hand around beer can and other hand around neck. Squeeze both (brushing can, squeezing neck). Take rope-length out of pocket. Arrange rope into loose (pretzel) knot, pull ends of rope together (tightening knot), say “Ouch” as/when tight knot formed.


Piggy bank (its side parallel to audience) and hammer on table. Take one penny out of each pocket, tilt head back, place pennies over closed eyes. Then take pennies off eyes, straighten head, drop pennies in piggy bank. Repeat several times. Then take hammer, make as if to break bank open with hammer, stop hammering hand with free hand. Turn pig so that its snout is facing forward, toward the audience. Remove dollar-halves from pockets, fold them together as if they were joined and made whole. Then, separately, roll dollar-halves and stick them in your ears. Say “Portrait of a Flying Pig.” Hold up two fingers in “Scout’s pledge” pose, say “Snout’s honor,” stick same two fingers in nostril-holes, take hammer and quickly bring it to just in front of noise, say “Oink.”


Look at bare wrist as if checking wristwatch for time, remove closed travel alarm clock from pocket; look at bare wrist as if checking wristwatch for time, open travel alarm clock; look at bare wrist as if checking wristwatch for time, release alarm clock alarm—it sounds; look at bare wrist as if checking wristwatch for time, shut off alarm; look at bare wrist as if checking wristwatch for time, close up alarm clock; look at bare wrist as if checking wristwatch for time, replace travel alarm clock in pocket; look at bare wrist as if checking wristwatch for time, then look at other bare wrist as if checking wristwatch for time; look from one bare wrist to the other (as if checking wristwatches for time) several times, then look up at the audience and ask, “What time is it?”