Douglas Crimp at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, c. 1970. Photographer unknown.
In September, the art historian Douglas Crimp was speaking about his new book, Before Pictures, at the Whitney Museum when the slide projection was turned off and the screen rose, revealing the sunlight bobbing on the Hudson River and a view of Pier 52. It was there that, forty years prior, Gordon Matta-Clark had carved his monumental and illicit work Day’s End in an abandoned warehouse and Crimp had gone cruising for sex. The piers were known to be dangerous, Crimp writes, but at the time he had no fear of them, except the anxiety that their lure was distracting him from his work. Now the seventy-two-year-old was backlit against a thoroughfare of joggers and Citi Bike riders along Eleventh Avenue. The “vast and hauntingly beautiful” structures he describes had long ago been flattened into a parking lot for the Department of Sanitation.
Before Pictures begins in the late sixties and ends in 1977, the year Crimp curated the “Pictures” exhibition at Artists Space, the first show to organize and name a burgeoning generation of artists who appropriated recognizable cultural imagery and reframed it with a critical perspective. It recuperates a time when the show had yet to develop its mythic status—for Crimp and for art history at large—when the struggling writer was making his way as an autodidact in contemporary art and a young man with eclectic passions beyond his day job as an ArtNews writer, including cinema, disco, fashion, ballet, and men. Before Pictures is a celebration of a kind of youthful naivete. By leaving off where he does, Crimp allows gay liberation a lust and romance that would, over the course of the next decade, be moralized, rarefied, and nearly lost by AIDS.
Crimp served an anxious role as the fulcrum between the avant-garde of both the queer and the art worlds. He would enter Max’s Kansas City and greet the arguing elite of minimalist art on his way to the back, where he could party with the drag queens of Warhol’s Factory. Before Pictures resists the linearity of memoir; lavishly printed with color images, its pages offer an accumulated visual-cultural archive of a mind antichronological and unintuitive; Crimp freely admits a hazy memory, filling in the gaps with analysis and research. He sometimes takes a line of thought with the risk and thrill of a tightrope walker headed across a canyon: connecting Daniel Buren to Charles James, Derrida to Balanchine, Richard Nixon to the Cockettes. He revises old writing and sometimes refutes it; he includes unpublished fragments, like a Tajin recipe from his Moroccan cookbook and “DISSS-CO,” an almost ethnographic account of disco clubs written as if by an embedded journalist.
But Crimp’s main subject is Manhattan, and though he’s describing Matta-Clark’s film City Slivers when he writes, “We glimpse the city in pieces, in the background, in our peripheral vision—and in recollection,” the line could be a succinct description of the book itself. New photographs by Zoe Leonard printed on the cover and between chapters, document the buildings and neighborhoods Crimp lived in during this period. Their black-and-white neutrality suggests architecture’s endurance: these are places comfortingly ignorant of the city’s drastic changes.
The personal photograph that concludes the book shows Crimp’s apartment in the landmark Bennett building downtown, where he moved in 1976, pretending to be an office tenant. He lives there to this day. He invited me over to talk about the book, and we sat at his windows overlooking all of lower Manhattan.
Joan Jonas, Songdelay, 1973, still from a black-and-white film in 16 mm, 18 minutes 35 seconds. Courtesy and © the artist.
Even though this book could be called a memoir, it comes across as an academic work that incorporates personal stories, rather than a tell-all.
Exactly. I don’t feel it’s a book about me. It’s about New York in this period. I resisted University of Chicago’s interest in putting A MEMOIR on the cover. For me, it’s a hybrid. It has autobiographical elements in it, but I wasn’t attempting to reconstruct a past in a memoir-like way. It is based on these things I did during the first ten years I lived in New York, like working at the Guggenheim or at ArtNews, but I always thought of it as a critical project, too. I would be rereading what I wrote about Ellsworth Kelly, for example, and thinking about what I’d possibly write about him now. So it’s a critical project and a research project, a scholarly project and a kind of cultural history. It was very associative. I let the flow of the writing take me to things, but I’m also doing research and making discoveries, and that’s where a lot of the chance comes in. The prime example in the book is when I pulled Derrida’s Of Grammatology off the shelf and found penciled-in seat numbers that I would buy for the ballet during my balletomania period with Craig Owens. Who would have remembered anything like that? But when I wrote the chapter on Balanchine, I tried to think through whether there was an unconscious relation between my and Craig Owens’s balletomania and our reading of poststructuralist theory. Right now in the world of dance studies in the academy there’s a very strong attempt to bring theory to bear upon dance. And in a way I’m trying to enact my version of that. But I’m doing it through the fact that there was this time in the seventies when the two things really were simultaneous but we weren’t consciously thinking about them together.
You mean you weren’t chatting about Derrida when you were at the ballet?
No, not that I can remember. In the book I explain that our seats were always at a high oblique angle and that looking back I think it allowed us to read the proscenium like a Derridean frame. But we weren’t sitting there for any other reason than that’s what we could afford. If we could be sitting next to Lincoln Kirstein in the first ring straight on we would have been, of course. But I think our seats did affect my understanding of Balanchine’s choreography.
Did you feel early on that you had to compartmentalize the various parts of your life—your life as a gay man, as a cinephile, as a disco lover, as a balletomane?
Certainly. The main compartmentalization was that I had my gay world and I had my art world. They had some overlap, but I remember very well that I would go out with my good friends in the art world and have dinner, and they would go home and I would go out dancing, or go out cruising. It wasn’t a completely secret life, but I wouldn’t say, I have to go now because I have to go out cruising. Now, because my subjectivity is part of how I approach writing, I don’t think that I’ve continued with that compartmentalization. Moreover, I’ve allowed myself to write about things that are not my quote, unquote field, so I write about dance now. I made a big swerve when I moved from art criticism to cultural studies and queer theory and AIDS as a subject. And then coming back to Warhol’s films for my book Our Kind of Movie, I didn’t come back as the person I was pre-AIDS at all, I came back with a queer-theory perspective. I think there’s a tendency, especially among professional academics, to carve out a field and to keep mining that field. Of course, you can’t do it all, so you’re always partial, but to limit yourself to a narrow field or canon, I just think it’s sad. It’s not really a judgment about scholarship, it’s a judgment about life.
Alvin Baltrop, Untitled (from the Pier Photographs series), 1975–86. Courtesy and © the Alvin Baltrop Trust
Another way those compartments come up in the book is the actual complication of the personal with the professional, as in the case of your sexual encounter with Ellsworth Kelly and the fact that you were writing about him in “Opaque Surfaces” for the Arte come arte catalogue.
Actually, it was after “Opaque Surfaces” that I met Kelly. It was at the end-of-the-season party at Betsy Baker’s house, right when my boyfriend Christian was moving to Europe, and I remember drinking at the party and flirting with him and then he asked for my phone number. It’s not to say that I didn’t know the artists that I wrote about. I knew Joan Jonas, for example, when I wrote the essay on her in 1976, and though she wasn’t someone I slept with, she was someone that I had a friendship with. I think that’s true in the art world in general, that critics and artists know each other. And I don’t feel that’s any kind of an ethical problem. I’ve never been someone particularly desiring of knowing famous artists. I never met Andy Warhol, for example. In fact I didn’t want to meet him, because Holly Woodlawn was living with me briefly while she was shooting Trash, and what I learned from her about the Factory did not make it attractive to me. They were very exploitative of her. I think she was paid fifty dollars for doing Trash, or something like that, and at a certain point she wrote a fraudulent check on the Factory and she went to jail and they did not spring her from jail.
But to that same point, that personal knowledge didn’t prevent you from writing a book on Warhol’s films.
No, on the contrary, I’ve taught courses on Warhol and I’ve read all the literature and generally I was trying to interrupt all the clichés about Warhol, such as the attitude that he was exploitative and passive. And so all of this is to say that when it comes to writing about artworks, sure, if you know the artists intimately that will probably affect how you read their work, but maybe not. And in any case, once I get to the work I’m really interested in the work itself. I don’t think the artist has total control over his or her own work. The artist, too, has an unconscious. It’s something that I grapple with a lot, because it’s fairly standard practice now that Ph.D. students work on living artists and they interview them. I think it’s a wonderful experience, but I don’t think it’s a requirement. I don’t know how much the answers to questions like, Why did you do this, what were you thinking when you did that? should inform the critical work.
This book exemplifies the notion that you might say or write something and not stand by it later.
True. Only in writing this memoir did I go back and read the two pieces I had written about Ellsworth Kelly, and I couldn’t have told you before I started writing this that I had reversed myself in my thinking about his work. I don’t feel that I have to make a claim that I was right. I wrote with the idea that you could include your own subjectivity, that you could combine memory with research, that you could return to things that you yourself have written and rethink them, which is something I’ve done throughout my career. It really starts with my AIDS writing in the late eighties, when I wrote “Mourning and Militancy” for October. That was a moment when my own subjectivity really came into play in my writing, and even more later, because I wrote an essay about seroconverting. It was deeply personal stuff and coincided with my own participation in the then-burgeoning field of queer theory.
I found this quote in “Mourning and Militancy” that reads, “I only want to draw an analogy between pathological mourning and the sorry need of some gay men to look upon our perfectly liberated past as immature and immoral.” I see this book as an expression of that statement. It’s truly a before-AIDS book, and because we know that just after it ends there will be so much loss, it makes your memories watching the sunset over New Jersey from the piers that much more romantic.
This book is motivated by my experience with my younger friends in ACT UP, and it is precisely that narrative that I’m resisting in my AIDS work and in “Mourning and Militancy,” that moralizing notion that this period of the 1970s was a period of immaturity. I don’t introduce this book by saying that it has an agenda about recuperating the pleasures of gay life in the 1970s before AIDS. I’m perfectly happy to leave it implicit. I wanted to show that this was a period that I don’t have regrets about. What I had hoped to do from the beginning was to complicate the narratives that we have about the art that was made in New York in the 1970s and about the political developments of the gay scene and public sexual culture in that period of time. Those two aspects of New York life at that time, which were so much a part of me, are not talked about very much in the same space. So the queer world and art world complicate each other, but also the anecdotal voice complicates the critical voice.
Does this book strike you as the story of an art critic that could not happen today? What does it mean for this book to be published now?
At the end of the final chapter I talk about how in the rewriting of the Pictures essay it seemed to me that I had to make a case for the historical necessity of that art and how it followed in a particular canonical lineage. And now I’ve given up the sense that the way you judge a work of art is through a particular historical narrative, the Greenbergian idea of a historical necessity. The art world was really small then, you could actually have the idea that I did, that you could figure it out and you could say, This is the right narrative, and now I don’t think you could do that because it’s so vast, there’s so much. It makes me realize that even back then it couldn’t have been as comprehensible as I believed it was. Your relation to what is offered to you in the world is precisely relational. I think there’s continuity in the unknowability and the fact that one has to understand oneself as never able to know totality.
Opening of Pictures at Artists Space, September 1977. Photo by D. James Dee. Courtesy Artists Space
Sarah Cowan is a freelance writer and a video editor at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She lives in Brooklyn.
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