The Pleasures of Promiscuity: An Evening with Douglas Crimp
On Sunday, October 23rd, The Lab hosted an evening with renowned art critic Douglas Crimp, who read from his new book Before Pictures. Open Space editor-in-chief Claudia La Rocco then joined him for a brief conversation; the following is an edited version of their exchange, beginning with Claudia’s introduction of Douglas and his work.
I was having trouble finding the words to adequately describe the many, marvelous facets of Douglas Crimp’s work. So I thought I would begin with his description of himself, one I had the great pleasure of editing as part of an exchange he and the Artforum editor and writer David Velasco had for the 2015 Danspace Project Platform Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets. In response to one of David’s questions about the many worlds Douglas spans, he writes:
“I was trained as an art historian and I came to New York to be involved with contemporary art. I think of myself primarily as an art critic. But I wouldn’t say that I identify with the art world. My relationship to the art world has always been ambivalent at best. At first my ambivalence came from the difficult negotiation of the art world and the queer world (this is the main subject of my memoir of New York in the 1970s). Then in the 1980s it was because the market began to dominate the art world, something that has grown more and more grotesque in the past two decades. For a decade beginning in the mid-1980s, almost all of my attention was claimed by the AIDS crisis. During that time I began teaching full-time and, because of my AIDS work, identifying more with the burgeoning fields of cultural studies and queer theory than with my home discipline of art history. After that, I devoted a decade to writing a book on Andy Warhol’s films, and somewhere along the way I taught a course on Yvonne Rainer, which led to a more professional involvement with dance. I published the first of two essays on Rainer in 2006 and wrote the piece on Cunningham for Artforum in 2008 and one on Trisha Brown in 2011. I’ve continued to teach and write about dance, but my main focus has been on my memoir, which takes me back to my beginnings as an art critic. So you see I’m all over the place.”
Yes, he is, and how lucky for us… one of the first words that comes to my mind when I think of Douglas’ thinking and writing is generosity. Reading Before Pictures, which chronicles his early years figuring himself out as both an art critic and a young gay man, I was struck throughout by his willingness to embrace movement and change, to not be beholden to ideas that congeal into dogma. His art world, a realm of ideas, pleasure, criticality and sensation, is always the one I want to live in, and so it is particularly exciting and illuminating to see how he forged this worldview at a time that feels both familiar and utterly foreign to us now, in 2016.
Douglas has literally been all over the place in the last few weeks, as myriad people and institutions have wanted to celebrate the publication of Before Pictures. I’m so glad he’s chosen to spend a little time with us this evening. Please join me in welcoming him.
Claudia La Rocco: Before Pictures is such a hybrid in form: it’s criticism, it’s memoir, it’s history, and it’s a queering of all those things. Could you talk a little bit about the structure of the book and how you came to it, if you knew from the beginning that this was where you were going?
Douglas Crimp: I didn’t know. I didn’t have any idea how I would write this book. The genesis of the project is from my ACT UP days when most of my friends in that activist movement were about twenty years younger than me and had not experienced the explosion of gay sexual culture in the ’70s as I had. All of us were horrified by the revisionist narrative that was being put in place during those years, that somehow the post–gay liberation moment represented a moment of immaturity for gay men, which led inevitably to AIDS, and AIDS in turn made us grow up and become mature and become good citizens. Much of my AIDS writing was compelled by trying to counter this narrative. Many of my friends felt I should write about gay sex in the ’70s, basically. And these same motivations came up in 2005, after I had started writing the Warhol book, which was already a kind of archeology of the scene that I came into in New York; I had to become queer all over again in New York after my first queer period in New Orleans (where I went to college), by going every night to the back room at Max’s Kansas City and hanging out with the Warhol crowd. So I wanted to look at Warhol’s films as a way of thinking about what queer culture was before the fixing of gay identity after Stonewall.
But still this idea of a memoir was in my mind. There was also the fact that I had taught a course, as you mentioned, on Yvonne Rainer, and Yvonne herself had written a memoir. She gave me the manuscript while I was preparing the course. And so since I had this good friend who wrote a memoir it gave me something like a nerve to think more about it.
Then in 2005 the Guggenheim Museum invited me to give a lecture in conjunction with an exhibition by Daniel Buren, because I had been at the Guggenheim in ’71 when Buren’s piece, Painting-Sculpture, was famously removed from the Guggenheim International; it was one of the big scandals of that time. I knew that I did not want to be a kind of eyewitness truth-teller who knew what really happened on that occasion. Knowing how fallible memory is and how much scholarly work had been done on the incident, I wanted to complicate the story; the way that I decided to complicate it was to talk about not only what I generally claimed was my first job in New York — working at the Guggenheim Museum — but also the story of [what] was really my first job in New York, which was working for two weeks for the fashion designer Charles James. So in effect I put high fashion and conceptual art, institutional critique, in juxtaposition, in conversation. It allowed me to move from one story to another, to bring the whole notion of the decorative into the discussion of the kind of work that Daniel Buren was making, and to include the design of the museum itself. And so that chapter was comprised of what all of the chapters are comprised of: anecdote, research, and rethinking what was for me a very crucial event in my experience. The Buren incident influenced a lot my work in the first book that I published on art, On the Museum’s Ruins, which was about work like Buren’s, about artists engaging with the institutions of art.
CLR: Can you quickly describe what that incident was?
DC: Buren used what he called a visual tool, always the same one, which was stripes, white or clear and a color. They were used to draw attention to what we usually don’t look at or are not aware that we look at in a museum — the frame around the painting, the wall that the painting hangs on. Certain of his works, for example, would remove all the paintings and just put his stripes in their place. In the Guggenheim he hung an enormous banner in the rotunda, that is, in the space that our eye is inevitably drawn to, because it’s such an architectural wonder, and he emphasized that. But it was so dramatic that it kind of upstaged everything else, and there were a number of artists who were very upset, who were older and had much more power than Buren, and they convinced the curator to remove the piece. And of course, like all censored works, Buren’s is the work from the Guggenheim International 1971 that we all know about.
That was the first chapter that I wrote and it is chronologically the first chapter of the book. It was then that I decided, okay, I’m going to do a book about the first ten years that I was in New York, the decade before I did the Pictures show. I immediately had the title for it, and I decided at that moment on this arbitrary structure of choosing something that I did — organizing an Agnes Martin exhibition, working as a critic for ArtNews, writing the essay “Opaque Surfaces” — which would be the armature around which I would organize each chapter. And then it was a process of association. I think I was able to tell pretty much all of the fun stories that I have about my life in those ten years in some context in the book. There were many things that of course I didn’t remember. I didn’t keep journals, I didn’t have much of an archive, I didn’t keep all of my letters. So I would conduct research that would take me off in a lot of other directions. Reconstructing Watergate, for example, for chapter four — I read the transcript of the Senate Watergate hearings and read a number of memoirs by the principal players in Watergate. I read All the President’s Men for the first time. A great thing about doing this book was it was just a lot of fun. My writing could take me wherever it took me and it often took me in unexpected directions.
CLR: As I was reading, the book was in conversation in my mind with certain other works. One that came up a few times was Samuel Delany’s The Motion of Light in Water. Very different books in some ways but certainly they share this moving between sexual exploration and political and artistic exploration and a continued doubling back on the reductive narrative, to always keep expanding it. I wonder if there were books that you were looking to as models?
DC: There were times when I thought, “I should probably read a lot of memoirs.” I’ve read some of course, as well as books that describe New York in the ’70s. But they didn’t ever seem to me to be what I was doing. I inevitably do call this a memoir, but at the same time I wouldn’t allow my co-publisher, the University of Chicago Press, to put “a memoir” on the cover page because I don’t think it really is a memoir. There aren’t books that I know of that have done what I was trying to do, which was to juxtapose the queer scene and the art scene that I experienced in the ’70s — both of which were extremely innovative, experimental, exciting scenes, which were happening in proximity but often in complete disregard of each other. If you read about the art of the ’70s in New York, you usually won’t read anything about this proximate queer scene. And if you read about the developments in gay life in this period in New York, it generally would be something like a history of the emerging political organizations.
I wanted to make a new kind of narrative that would disrupt the existing ones. There was a moment when I found what seemed like an emblem of what I was trying to do, when I was working on the chapter called “Action Around the Edges.” It was meant to be about Joan Jonas’s work, because I wrote an essay on Jonas in 1976 for a special issue of the British magazine Studio International on performance art. And it is to some degree about my experience of performance art. But it ended up being more about the piers — the artists’ uses and the queer uses of the piers. Jonas’s work Delay Delay and the film that she made of it, Songdelay, both include piers 20 and 21, the Erie Lackawanna Railroad piers adjacent to Tribeca near Chambers Street. But inevitably what I came to was Gordon Matta-Clark’s work, Day’s End, at Pier 52, which is at the end of Gansevoort Street in the Meatpacking District. It’s the pier that you see from the Whitney Museum now looking out from their theater space.
Gordon Matta-Clark made a series of cuts in that pier, and I was interested in the gay cruising and sex scene at the piers, in which I participated. I knew that a little-known African American photographer, Alvin Baltrop, had photographed that scene, and I happened by a stroke of luck to have met the young artist who is the trustee of Baltrop’s estate, Randal Wilcox. I went to his place and he pulled the photographs out from under his bed and there were these photographs of gay men cruising in Matta-Clark’s work Day’s End. Gay men sunbathing on the side of a pier on which you see one of Gordon Matta-Clark’s cuts. And this is exactly what I was trying to do: in a single picture you get an experimental artwork and the gay cruising sex scene all at once.
CLR: Beyond trying to balance your all-night disco exploits with being able to make deadlines [laughs], at the time were you actively placing these things next to each other? How were they bouncing off of each other or not in your writing and thinking?
DC: They were pretty separate worlds, I have to say. The metaphor that I use in the introduction is the two rooms of Max’s Kansas City — the front room where the artists were, and the back room where the drag queens were. I always wanted to go to the back room—I did go to the back room—but to get there I had to pass through the front room where there were all these artists that I knew. I didn’t stop and sit down at their tables but I would of course say hello to them. But I was inevitably declaring my preferences by moving on to the queer goings-on in the back room. That’s how I experienced my life at that time. I would go out with my art world friends and have dinner and they would go home — I think — and I would go to bars or dancing or to sex clubs or cruising on the streets. The chapter that I just described, “Action Around the Edges,” begins with my decision to leave Greenwich Village where I had an apartment and move to Tribeca, because I thought that if I was ever going to get any writing done, I would have to remove myself from the distraction of gay men that I could see out my window, going from one bar to another. And of course that didn’t work. I did move to Tribeca but then I would go to Greenwich Village every night. Simultaneously, I had many friends in that scene in Tribeca, what became the Artists Space scene, which I then profited from by being invited to be a curator of the show that was Pictures. But I was really struggling during that period of my life too. I was so into the sex scene, the dancing scene, and I was supporting myself by teaching at the School of Visual Arts, which didn’t require an enormous amount of my time and energy (and also didn’t pay me very well, but rents were cheap in those days). At the same time I wasn’t sure that what my work should really be was art criticism. As I say in the Agnes Martin chapter, those were my disco days. From ’73 to ’76 or so I didn’t do much writing. But I had a lot of fun.
CLR: I knew you first personally as somebody in the dance world, and of course there’s such a dividing line between people who write about a form and people who are practitioners of that form. Did your quite serious practice as dancer (that I never knew about!) inform the way that you write about performance?
DC: I didn’t so much think about dance in those days. I wasn’t even necessarily seeing that much dance. My first experience of concert dance was Merce Cunningham in 1970 at BAM and I was utterly smitten. I loved it. I went one night and then I just went again and again and the next couple of years I did the same. I was so smitten by it that I thought I wanted to be a dancer. But of course it was too late, I was already in my mid- to late-twenties. I realized very quickly that I was not that kind of a dancer. I have no flexibility. But I was always dancing a lot. I danced all through my college days and, when a Gay Activist Alliance Firehouse opened for the Saturday night dances, I was there every Saturday night; that was sort of pre-disco. So I was a rock’n’roll dancer and then a disco dancer. The dance that I was seeing in the same period that I was dancing was so unlike anything I was doing — for example Trisha Brown’s Accumulation, or the so called “mathematical” series, the very conceptual-art oriented work of Brown and also of Lucinda Childs. I was seeing dances like Calico Mingling which weren’t very dance-y in a traditional sense.
And then in the later ’70s, I became fixated on George Balanchine and the New York City Ballet, a discussion of which constitutes a chapter of the book. I went to the ballet three, four times a week. And of course that was a form that was very far from the kind of social dancing that I was doing. I remember in fact how—I mean this probably is a cliché–but you would see professional dancers at a disco and they were really bad dancers. They somehow couldn’t loosen up and dance the way we danced.
But then I had a revelatory experience, which I also talk about in the Pictures chapter, when I went to Miami to visit a friend and he took me to a Cuban gay bar; it was completely gender-mixed everyone was dancing salsa and merengue. It was the first time I had seen a gay scene where couples were dancing formal steps with each other. I loved it because I had done ballroom dancing as a kid and I loved learning steps and partnering. Having someone who’s leading and someone who’s following, to be able to lead and to be able to follow, that’s closer, I think, in a way to the experience of what you see in concert dancing, because there’s also a mnemonic aspect — you have to learn a step and repeat it. That, of course, you don’t have to do in disco dancing.
CLR: The negotiation between queer culture and art world culture, or maybe the non-negotiation, the just having them side by side — at what point did that begin to dissolve for you?
DC: Probably during the AIDS crisis. My own first experience of speaking about being gay was in relation to criticizing the art world’s segregation of different notions of political art—the Hans Haacke exhibition at the New Museum juxtaposed with Bill Olander’s show there called Homo Video, which included early AIDS videos. Homo Video was in the back of the New Museum and the Haacke show was the main show and there was no acknowledgment of the juxtaposition at all. I spoke about that in the first of the Dia Conversations. That was in 1986, so it’s almost a decade after the end of the period covered by this memoir and it was still difficult actually, for me at least, to put those worlds together in a public art space. Then of course I got involved in ACT UP and there were a huge number of queer people involved who were art world people. We didn’t even necessarily know each other.
Zoe Leonard and I were talking about this in a conversation about the book recently. Zoe did the cover photograph and all of the photographs used as section dividers in the book, and Zoe and I know each other from ACT UP. For the first years that we knew each other, she didn’t know that I was an art critic and I didn’t know that she was an artist except insofar as she was part of fierce pussy, which was a lesbian art collective within ACT UP. I knew the Gran Fury people as Gran Fury people, but I didn’t know their separate art practices until somewhat later. But I did know that they had come from the art world. Some of them were people who had been trained in the Whitney Independent Study Program so it all came together there for me, and of course the effect of AIDS on the art world in terms of the number of artists, curators, critics, and so on who died, and the work that was being done by all of us who were doing activist work in the art world as well, had I think, a very transformative effect on the relation between the queer world and the art world. And of course I continued working on AIDS into the mid ’90s.
CLR: And this changed your writing also — things opened up in a different way, your voice shifted?
DC: Yeah. Within my AIDS work I began to write about myself. I began to write in the first person. I began to talk about my own experience. The first moment that I did that (and I mention it even in this book in a different context) was in an essay called “Mourning and Militancy.” I begin with a story of my father’s death. I didn’t get along with my father but I happened to be at home when he died. And there was the funeral and I didn’t, I just didn’t feel anything. And then I came back to New York and the Pictures show opened a week later and then like a week after that I developed an infected tear duct, and a huge abscess on my face, and eventually it burst, and what I referred to as poison tears — pus — came out of it. For me that was a sure sign of the somatization of a failure to mourn. I was writing an essay about the difficulty of mourning AIDS deaths for AIDS activists; so that was a breakthrough moment, I think for me and my writing, to use my experience as a subject in my writing. It was at the same time that I was moving toward cultural studies as a — I don’t know if you would call it a discipline — but as a way of bringing politics to bear upon culture. That took effect in my later AIDS writing and also the work that I’ve done subsequently.
CLR: You went to your first Folsom Street Fair in September and I know you also visited SFMOMA. I’m curious if you have any thoughts, not about those two institutions in particular necessarily, but just in thinking about these separate worlds and these negotiations — what that is like now in 2016.
DC: For me, it’s pretty seamless now. I have a huge queer community that’s also a huge art community. It’s queer in all of the ways that I wanted to use “queer” when we were first working with that term and in the development of queer theory in the early ’90s… it has to do with sexuality but I think it also has to do with a non-fixity or non-stability of one’s place in any world. So of course it includes a trans world, and it includes a lot of people who are totally queer-identified and are in nominally straight couples, but who are in so many ways not conventional. And it also includes for me still a kind of promiscuous world. By “promiscuous” I mean not only sexually promiscuous but an ability to move from one so-called field or discipline to another. That’s just become much easier in my life. I feel supported and happy about that and I think that it’s just generally easier for all of us, which is not to say that there are not still all kinds of barriers in the cultural world that I inhabit, which are about everything from sexuality to race to gender to all of the things that I think I was negotiating in a necessarily very different way in the period that I wrote about. And a much more, for me, fraught way.
It’s hard to think back but it just was not so easy to be gay in the art world at that time. It was not a welcoming world for gay people and that’s why a lot of artists of my generation and a little bit older tended not to be open about who they were. I think people are not open about something else now. The ethos and narrative that we’re living with now in the gay world is about committed, coupled, often married relationships, whereas of course what’s going on is not that. But what is actually going on is not spoken. It’s not part of the discourse. The fact that there’s an enormous amount of promiscuity in the classic sense is just not something that is valued the way we valued it and the way that we could actually talk about it as something to value at that time.
Audience: I’m curious, when you talk about this first person, if you think you’re the same first person now as you were then, and how you negotiate the life of critic and the queer life and how they come together in that I?
DC: I don’t think I’m the same person I was yesterday or an hour ago so I certainly am not the same person I was then. It’s a really good and relevant question I think because what a book like this involves is a reimagining, a re-seeing, a kind of re-finding of a self from another period. I tried to make it fairly clear in the book that my memory is fallible, that these are not exactly true stories. One of the things that I talk about in the first chapter to set the tone for it is the story of getting my first job at the Guggenheim Museum. It’s an amusing story and I say in the memoir that I’m not sure how much of this story is embellished to make it more amusing or to make it more coherent. And that’s something that I’m aware of all the way through, that I’m inventing this character I was during this time. It’s the person that I am now wanting that person then to have been the person I can talk about in this way now. But also it’s that person who was extremely unsure of himself at that time. The way that I know something about who I was then is that I have the things that I wrote that were published, and I can look at them and I can say, “Oh my god, this is really embarrassing.” Or, on the other hand, “This isn’t so bad.” I can play with that, as with my analysis of Jack Golstein’s film A Ballet Shoe, I can go to what I wrote at the time and use it as a jumping off point to rewrite it. Now of course I have a digital version of A Ballet Shoe that I can look at much more carefully. In those days there was only the analog film that was projected a couple of times on the wall of Artists Space, which I had to remember in order to write about it. Claudia knows about this because we both write about dance now: memory plays a very important role in description and criticism.
CLR: And nostalgia, which we didn’t talk about.
Audience: Can you speak again about what you were talking about with promiscuity being not just for personal relationships but with disciplines?
DC: Maybe it’s not quite the right word but what I mean by that is that what I think I’m doing in this book is trying to open up a certain art discourse and a certain queer-world discourse to each other and have them disturb each other’s narratives. And I think that that’s something that we can do with interdisciplinary scholarship. It’s something that I do in my PhD program, it’s why I feel comfortable there. It’s a program where I could suddenly decide I wanted to teach a course about dance even though dance had never been part of our curriculum and most of my students didn’t show any particular interest in dance. But my students are faithful enough to me that they want to see what I’m doing and we work on the subject together; one of my former students now is in the world of dance studies and she’s more knowledgeable about the field than I am. I think it’s really about my feeling that there’s a certain narrow specialization that doesn’t allow for the kind of opening up of one discipline to another, one art form to another, even. I think that working on dance has been helpful; I mean, just the fact that I now know as much as I do about dance, I can actually understand or think about or interpret that Goldstein film differently. Not necessarily better, but differently. And I can add to what I think is the richness of meaning of that forty-second film.