Unlocking the Surviving Sprouse


Published February 10, 2011



“It was a divine mystery,” says Carol McCranie about the vast private collection of work she manages—capturing the early days of Stephen Sprouse’s “Xerox/rock/art nexus”—which was found in a Meatpacking District dumpster in the late ’90s. “In any short amount of time that would have been gone to the outskirts where some great bonfire would have consumed it. That’s why there’s a responsibility, and it needs to be in an institution and catalogued for history’s sake. This is my highest goal.”

A lofty goal? Indeed. But the archive, says McCranie, includes a trove of 1500 items, including 600 finished drawings, signature color Xeroxes, sketches hand-colored with gouache, inspirational materials, even an early handwritten note from the designer that detailed what he needed to do to make it on his own.

While pieces from the archive have appeared in two previous exhibitions (at John McWhinnie @ GHB in 2009 and in Parsons’ 2006 “Anarchy to Affluence” show), a clarion call for institutional adoption goes on display tonight with the opening of “Stephen Sprouse: Jet Boy” at the East Village’s Dorian Grey Gallery. Comprising some 35 drawings, and named after the titular 1973 New York Dolls song (which, according to McCranie, the punk-influenced Sprouse “definitely would have vibrated to”), “Jet Boy” is not so much an academic retrospective as much as a process show.


“It’s a very intimate look at the heartbeat of this person,” adds McCranie, noting there are far too many items in the archive to show all of them in a gallery setting. Instead, “Jet Boy” is a “more controlled and austere” affair and explores Sprouse’s influences—from the time he left Halston’s side to outfit his roommate/muse Debbie Harry (most notably in the dress he created by screening photos he’d taken of TV scan lines for Blondie’s 1978 “Heart of Glass” video); through the ups and downs of his solo career punctuated by his iconic graffiti-tagged dresses from the early ’80s; to his commercial peak in 1988 when he opened his three-level, nightclubesque boutique in Soho and worked out of Warhol’s former Union Square factory.

Though there are gaps in the archive, and it’s gained less fanfare than that of Roger and Mauricio Padilha, who coauthored the Rizzoli tome on Sprouse, McCranie says she thinks the materials in the archive are “almost more important because it shows the beginnings of how this man thought and worked.” Those looking to find Hi-Liter-colored renderings of sheath dresses and bulbous jackets may be disappointed by the muted tones of these drawings that demonstrate Sprouse’s taste for dark colors in the late 1970s.

Highlights include the archive’s only dated drawing of a willowy gent arching his back, from September 13, 1975; a black marker sketch of a model with a bandana over her mouth, whipping a microphone behind her back over the words “Starts Pumpin'” (a nod to Patti Smith’s 1976 song “Pumping (My Heart)”); a blue Xerox of Sprouse and friends Debbie (Harry), Andy (Warhol), and Candy (Pratts Price); a t-shirt from a Spring 1988 collection detailing open “lips” spitting “bullets”; and various works that reference downtown icons (Bowie in huge black pants, a faceless Joe Dallesandro figure with a bandana on his head and a scanline shirt on his body).

“I think his clothes were art, and he approached it like art, and in these times, I think people are looking for that,” says McCranie. To wit: Sprouse’s Pop and rock-influenced screenprint paintings of Iggy Pop on a cross, loudspeakers, or Sid Vicious de-pantsed were shown in a 2009 retrospective at Deitch Projects. “Warhol will never go out of style, and Sprouse in a nutshell is the embodiment of that era, that message of do it yourself, get it going, and he persevered through a rough-and-tumble career and success story. And people are searching for this—they’re missing this in New York these days.”