Fort Wayne Museum of Art is currently hosting my retrospective exhibition of art, “Color x Color, Selections from the Chuck Sperry Archive.” The exhibition remains on view from April 23 to July 10, 2022.
This is a collection of almost every poster Sperry has made. It was laborious work for him to make these posters over the decades, then he dug back into it all again for the purpose of putting together this show, and he did not half-ass it, as you will see. He dug deep. The level of his commitment to his art permeates into everything he does, of which this exhibition is evidence.
Sperry’s art is monumental; his influences are rooted in the classics, from Alphonse Mucha to ancient Greco Roman art. He is a visionary in his field, not only in his art, but how he makes it. His understanding of his medium, screenprinting, and in the color theories expressed in his use of pairing and layering ink, is awe-inspiring and intimidating in the same glance.
The Fort Wayne Museum of Art has seen and recognized the importance of Sperry’s work and the need to preserve it for future generations. Almost all the work in this exhibition is now a part of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art’s Chuck Sperry Archive. It will be housed in our permanent collection and cared for in perpetuity. This is a promise we do not take lightly; it takes considerable resources for a museum to steward an archive. As you will see, it is well worth it.
— Josef Zimmerman, Curator of Contemporary Art at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art
Photos: Shaun Roberts
The criteria for defining something as fine art is both selective and subjective, guided by academic bias, market forces, and the coded conceits of class. Value is rarely a matter of aesthetics alone. The broader field of visual culture, which is often more inclusive, populist and democratic than traditional art forms, allows something the art world often overlooks: relevance. This is not to diminish the importance of contemporary art, but to admit that it’s somewhat insular and rarified language not only speaks to a specialized few, but simply misses out on a lot of really great art. This brings us to the art of Chuck Sperry, and the terms by which we may learn to appreciate its value beyond the fetish of fandom.
If culture is conditioned, something inherited like a received knowledge, we may as well admit that we all suffer from a kind of myopia, especially when it comes to art. But if we suffer from a complete lack of knowledge or understanding when it comes to something — be it ancient pottery, 10th Century Kufic calligraphy, or second generation abstract expressionism — we might still have some level of visual appreciation for it regardless of our ignorance. This is true about the rock posters of Chuck Sperry. The information contained within a Chuck Sperry print — most obviously the band, venue, and date, but also less evidently what that music means to people — can surely amplify our experience of these pictures among fans and music lovers. ,But, as someone who often enjoys his art significantly more than some of the bands he’s “working for,” there’s no denying his creativity, craft and vision in the artwork itself.
I, like many, have taken multiple chances on records just because the album cover art was just fantastic — and even kept a few for the art even when the music was bad. It would be nice to think that the pictorial appeal of Sperry’s seductive, subversive and saturate graphics might compel a few to check out the music. The point, however, is that it is hardly necessary to do so. Whereas a lot of art leaves people cold because they do not have the knowledge, often esoteric or obscure, to understand it, the art world typically shuns the likes of Chuck Sperry precisely because they have an inherent problem with how easy it is to understand. Value it seems, at least since the advent of Modernism and arguably even more so in our Post-Modern age, is invested in a degree of nuance and difficulty.
There remains an abiding suspicion of those like Sperry whose art is appealing to the masses. We can’t hope to change this prejudice, and as one who works in the art world, I’ll admit a certain fondness for it, but Sperry’s instinct to reach and relate to people is not to be confused as a sort of pandering, for in fact it is rather more of an ideology.
Sperry believes in art for the people. Though it is far easier to discern this concern in his overtly political art, time may certainly award some comprehension of how even the wild eye-candy of his concert posters also occupies a position of cultural resistance — once history gets past the play list of his clients. The very nature of what makes this art so misfit to the art historical cannon is what situates its opposition. Context rather than content, or more simply put, Sperry’s choice of medium and audience rather than his imagery, is fundamental in relaying his cultural politics. The art market, which is sadly the metric by which art is increasingly judged, is an economic system that rewards scarcity and uniqueness over serial production. This, too, functions as self-selecting determiner of audience. If you have to ask how much that painting is you’re not in the conversation.
By consciously choosing media such as printmaking as a populist vernacular and purportedly commercial practice, Chuck Sperry not only joins a tradition that extends from the likes of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and Alphonse Mucha through the golden age of 1960s psychedelic rock posters, the rise of street art multiples and beyond, he proposes a kind of art that is affordable and available. A master at silkscreen and graphic design, a prolific purveyor of pictorial provocations, and a soulful trickster of impeccable integrity, Chuck Sperry is quite simply a fine artist who has chosen to make work for the masses.
— Carlo McCormick
Carlo McCormick is an American culture critic and curator living in New York City. He is the author of numerous books, monographs and catalogues on contemporary art and artists. McCormick lectures and teaches extensively at universities and colleges around the United States on popular culture and art. His writing has appeared in Effects : Magazine for New Art Theory, Aperture, Art in America, Art News, Artforum, Camera Austria, High Times, Spin, Tokion, Vice and other magazines. McCormick was Senior Editor of Paper.