Over a decade ago, when I was beginning my research on art along the New York waterfront in the 1970s, I came upon a marvelous quotation by George Segal. Segal is not someone who comes to mind when thinking about such artists as Vito Acconci and David Wojnarowicz who made art on the waterfront. Nevertheless, one cold evening in 1972 he stood in aesthetic reverie on an abandoned pier, as a participant in Robert Whitman’s performance, Architecture. In describing Whitman’s happening, Segal made an inspired observation about art history in relationship to contemporary art: “I never made a happening but, accepting that premise of physical encounter, plus many other things having to do with plastic form in art, I still think there’s a vast area for contemporary critics to examine connections between things that seem very different.”1 Segal’s words have inspired me to think about a range of aesthetic practices and subcultures that have usually been kept separate in the history of post-World War II art—for example Frank Hallam’s photographs documenting gay sex on the waterfront and Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Day’s End.” In juxtaposing these two artists’ work, my goal is not to claim they are equivalent in quality or intent. Rather I want to resist the sanitizing effect of academic categorization and canon formation. To paraphrase Matta-Clark, I want to recover the piers as a site of “interest, fascination and value” but also, risk and sexual adventure.2
Central to the best of queer theory—the writings of Michel Foucault and Judith Butler, and I would also add Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag—has been a critical analysis of and anxiety about categorization and its role in the formation of identities. Paradoxically, contemporary art criticism and art history of the last 20 years has embraced this aspect of queer theory without considering how so much of its own practices compartmentalize and normalize visual culture, creating hierarchies that are not all that different from the modernist canons they were supposed to replace. Weirdly, academic art history and art criticism have traded places. Today art reviews, for the most part, merely describe, while academic studies of contemporary art make judgments about quality, usually in relationship to some set of theoretical constructs. Those of us in queer studies have not been free from this tendency. More problematically, we tend to use the ideas of a Foucault or a Butler as if they were somehow trans-historical. But queer theory itself is a product of the 1980s, and it was as much constructed by a series of cultural and social forces as the identities and power relations it was supposed to dismantle.
And yet I am distrustful of the latest wave in the art world that claims to leave theory behind, either out of exhaustion or the anti-intellectualism that has always been part of American culture. To claim to abandon theory is only to proceed in willful ignorance of the ideological biases that underlie all our work—the unconscious assumptions from which even the most seemingly “objective” description proceeds. I am particularly annoyed by a new sort of formalism where the speaker theatricalizes their deep engagement with the object by running through pages of description. Recently I read about a professor who requires students to stand in front of a painting for hours. Such penance is the opposite for me of the pleasures of a painting, which, unlike a novel or a film, can affect the viewer instantaneously. One of my most powerful aesthetic experiences was in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where out of the corner of my eye, I saw a van Gogh’s “Rain.” It renewed my passion for van Gogh’s art, which started when I was 15 but dissipated under the influence of my first art history courses.
If theory, what T. J. Clark used to call the “French disease,” did a disservice to art history, it is not because it hindered people from looking (so many modernists stared at works of art while being blind to so much!), rather it is because it discouraged many art historians from doing basic research in the archive and interviewing artists and their circles. Those of us who worked on so-called identity based art that involved race, ethnicity, and gender were often dismissed as “under-theorized” because we supposedly equated the work of art with the artist’s biography. Yet in jettisoning biography as a conceptual tool, the hard work of investigating the specific conditions of the making of an art work and its immediate ramifications was often jettisoned. For example, when I began to research Vito Acconci’s project for Pier 17, where he asked people to meet him at the end of an abandoned pier at 1:00 a.m., I was dismayed to find that apparently no one had located a sampling of his courageous visitors to find out what happened in the performance. Time is running out and many of the people who were witness to the performances of the 1970s have passed. Certainly, among the most important charges we have as art historians is not only to describe the work of art and what it means, but also to gather evidence of the condition of its production. As an artist myself, what continues to be exciting about studying the art made along the New York waterfront in the 1970s, or a van Gogh painting of a rain storm, is the way they embody a specific moment in the past, even as they exist for me now. These objects and acts resist mapping and definitive knowledge, yet we are impelled to read and misread them in our need to construct genealogies and meaning. So let us proceed by having it all: form, theory, interpretation, archival research, and biography. We have a lot of work to do.
- George Segal, “On Whitman and Things,” Arts Magazine 47, no. 2 (1972), 55.
- As quoted in Gordon Matta-Clark et al., Gordon Matta-Clark (London: Phaidon, 2003), 12.