Opinion: Sutcliffe Hints at What Might Have Been

A close confidant to John Lennon, the art student/bohemian/reluctant musician seemed destined for greatness in the realm of visual art
An untitled work by Stuart Sutcliffe circa 1959

   Stuart Sutcliffe was at once a bit player and an integral component in the crucial formative years of popular music’s biggest act to date. A close confidant to John Lennon, the art student/bohemian/reluctant musician seemed destined for greatness in the realm of visual art, perhaps to track the Beatles’ unprecedented triumphs in the aural and performance arts in the explosion of creativity and exploration of the 1960s.
    Yet, on April 10, 1962, on the eve of the Beatles’ third extended appearance in Hamburg, Germany, Sutcliffe, who had joined the Beatles, traveled with them to Hamburg, fallen in love, quit the band, and remained in Hamburg to resume his art studies at the Hochschule für Bildende Künste, died, possibly of a brain aneurism. He was just 21.
    Legend has it that Sutcliffe had been beaten and repeatedly kicked in the head in an attack by toughs in Liverpool, England. Whatever lay behind his early death, a roommate at the Liverpool College of Art, according to Bob Spitz’s biography, “The Beatles,” recalled how Sutcliffe experienced severe headaches. “Stuart fell over from time to time,” the roommate said. From Hamburg, letters to his family described “migraines and flashes of extreme pain.” In the end, “convulsed with pain” and “curled up into a ball,” according to Mr. Spitz, he died in an ambulance as it sped toward a hospital.
    This knowledge provides context in which “Stuart Sutcliffe: Yea Yea Yea,” an exhibition at Harper’s Books in East Hampton through Oct. 15, can be viewed. Created in the last months and years of his short life, the 19 untitled works featured suggest an artist at once confident and purposeful in the conveyance of his vision and harboring a darkness and almost schizophrenic jumble of visual statements.
    Near the entrance, the “Hamburg Series,” from 1961 or ’62, consists of three dark and extremely dense oil on canvas paintings. A jumble of interlocking geometric shapes fill some or most of each, with the application of paint so thick that brush strokes and perhaps manipulation by other tools — palette knife, fingers, palm? — are obvious, lending them a dynamic, three-dimensional aspect.
    Many other works are mixed media on paper, often newspaper. On copies of Die Zeit, in particular, the messages are striking and loud, if ambiguous: bold strokes forming patterns in black, red, and, sometimes, a soft blue seem to scream in competition with newspaper headlines like Frauen schlecht verheiratet?” “Was mache ich it den Ersparnissen?” and “Es fehlt etwas Wohnung” — stories seemingly debating the merits and downsides of marriage and family life — along with help wanted ads for salesmen.
    The images bring to life Mr. Spitz’s depiction of the young Sutcliffe and Lennon learning their craft at the Liverpool College of Art: “Long after the other students had gone home, they worked furiously on technique, experimenting with free expression and a nebula of colors to generate a flow of ideas. In what was essentially a painting tutorial, Start introduced John to the basics of image and composition, doling out tips on how to control the brush or direct the flow of paint.”
    Still other works in the exhibition depict more tangible imagery — a man gazes at a woman, his hand resting on her shoulder — but each form and feature drips with blue, red, green, yellow, and black. Also displayed are sketches, letters sent back to his family in Liverpool, and photographs of the Beatles in this critically important period in their development. A rare photograph has been restored to depict Sutcliffe, enigmatic behind sunglasses, alongside Lennon, George Harrison, Pete Best, and Paul McCartney. The eldest just 20 years old at most, the instruments in their hands, and equipment at their feet look laughably cheap and poor in quality, save for the painter’s Hofner President bass, purchased, at Lennon’s insistence, with the proceeds from the sale of a painting he had submitted to a prestigious exhibition in Liverpool.
    In another photo, Sutcliffe and Lennon, onstage in Hamburg, gaze at one another intently, barely two feet apart. Two young men destined for greatness, growing into their respective medium as they drift inexorably apart. 
    “In whatever class Stuart sat down in — painting, drawing, lifework — a tremendous energy and intensity filled the room,” Spitz wrote. “He painted with power and conviction, and John knew it.” In the 1960s, that “tremendous energy and intensity” manifested and stormed the world in the form of the Beatles’ performance on stage and in the recording studio. More than 50 years on, a “fifth Beatle,” one never able to experience or even witness his collaborators’ unimaginable success, remains a fascination for fans of the aural and visual arts alike. In “Stuart Sutcliffe: Yea Yea Yea,” the world gets a hint, a tantalizing glimpse, of what else might have been.