In October’s inaugural installment of “Close Encounters,” critic and art historian Douglas Crimp discusses his new book, Before Pictures (Dancing Foxes Press, Co-published with University of Chicago Press, 2016), a hybrid of memoir and cultural history about his life in 1970s New York. To mark the occasion, Galerie Buchholz has mounted Douglas Crimp: Before Pictures, New York City 1967 – 1977 (through October 22, 2016) featuring art discussed in his book.
Jarrett Earnest (Rail): Before Pictures covers a decade of your life—the 1970s—before the work that most people are familiar with: the “Pictures” show at Artists Space in 1977; essays on postmodernism written while you were an editor at the journal October, collected in On The Museum’s Ruins (1993); and your writing on AIDS gathered in Melancholia and Moralism (2002). But I’d like to start our conversation way before Before Pictures: when in your childhood did you have your first interactions with art?
Douglas Crimp: There was no art in Coeur d’Alene, a small town in the panhandle of Idaho. I grew up in the ’50s, in an educated, middle-class family, but they knew little about art—my mother hung a large “brushstroke” reproduction of a Bronzino portrait of a young man in our dining room because she thought the sitter looked like my grandfather. The nearest city to Coeur d’Alene is Spokane, Washington, which, as far as I know, still doesn’t have an art scene. Seattle is the nearest city where I could have seen art, but I didn’t go there until the 1962 Seattle World’s Fair in the summer before I went to college. The World’s Fair included art exhibitions; that was my first exposure to “real art.”
Rail: Where then would you locate early important aesthetic experiences?
Crimp: When it came time to go to college, I applied to universities that had undergraduate architecture schools. I got a scholarship to Tulane, and that’s where I went. In my first year I took a required course in the history of architecture, in which I first saw lantern slides of architecture, and I loved it. I transferred the next year to art history. The art department at Tulane included both art history and studio and it had an MFA program. I fairly quickly fell in with a crowd of studio art graduate students and began going to galleries in the French Quarter. There is an art museum in New Orleans but I have no memories of it—it was then an extremely provincial museum as I recall—so my first important encounters with art in museums were in New York. And it wasn’t until I came to New York that I saw dance or heard classical music.
I did see some theater in New Orleans because Tulane had a very fine theater department at that time; most of the faculty left and came to NYU around the same time I moved here in 1967. TDR: The Drama Review was originally the Tulane Drama Review. TDR did special issues on figures like Genet and Ionesco; Michael Kirby edited a “Happenings” issue—this was very advanced for the mid-’60s. Richard Schechner, who is still teaching performance studies at NYU, was a young professor of theater at Tulane when I was a student, and a very radical one. I vividly remember that he brought Ellen Stewart to New Orleans and I met her at a party. Because of that, when I came to New York I went often to La Mama.
Rail: There are many things intertwined in a life; I’d like to focus on just three: art, writing, and sexuality. How did each of those emerge and interact for you?
Crimp: My education in Idaho was rather primitive; Idaho is a rather primitive state. It is one of the most right-wing states in the country. My high school girlfriend was Marilynne Robinson—
Crimp: We were best friends, were in classes together, went to the junior prom together. She wrote an essay that’s in her recent collection When I Was a Child I Read Books (2012); she recalls her education very fondly. She was from a somewhat more sophisticated family than mine. It’s because of Marilynne that I went away to college. Her older brother, the art historian David Summers, went to Brown, and she went to Pembroke, and I thought, Well if Marilynne is going away to college then I’ll go away to college too. People didn’t normally do that in our town. I couldn’t even get any guidance on how or where to apply. I had to figure it out on my own. Frankly, when I got to college I was a fish out of water. People were so far ahead of me in terms of the kind of education they arrived with. I think I got a scholarship because there was a sort of affirmative action for people from states that were underrepresented—that was their notion of diversity at the time.
Rail: Were you reading literature in Idaho?
Crimp: No. Marilynne was. We didn’t have to read much in high school. I wasn’t like most people that I know now, who were “bookish” children. I didn’t read a lot and I’m still a very slow reader. When I got to college I really struggled to keep up. But I do remember that, although it was not easy for me, I was considered a good writer from the beginning. My professors praised my writing. That gave me a degree of confidence.
As to my sexuality, I made a very good choice when I decided to go to college in New Orleans, which had highly developed bohemian and gay cultures. I didn’t go to gay bars initially. I went to sailors’ bars with the art-school crowd, some of whom were openly gay. Even in the early ’60s, New Orleans was an easy place to come out, if you could say any place was an easy place to come out for a kid from Idaho. I managed to have something of a gay identity and a gay life. I would go on my own to the French quarter and hang out with drag queens in bars, and I became comfortable with the scene. I enjoyed myself. I didn’t struggle as many men of my generation did with wanting not to be gay, because from the beginning I got a lot of pleasure out of being gay and I decided, I’m not giving this up.
Rail: Was there a moment when you first felt or thought, I’m gay?
Crimp: I knew I liked boys when I was very little. But “gay” was not a word I heard, of course. I don’t think I encountered the word “homosexual” until I was in high school. I remember that in my high school there was a very effeminate guy that was picked on—and I knew it was about his sexuality and that that was my sexuality too, but there was no way to understand it. There were no representations of it available to me. It was something that I had to deal with entirely on my own. I had very strong attractions to guys, but I didn’t act on them. It turned out that my best friend in high school was gay, too, but I didn’t know it. I found out much later.
Rail: Before Pictures seems to have both an emotional and an intellectual motivation; at the same time, might those two impulses be in tension, or have different functions?
Crimp: I see the polarity in this book not as emotional and intellectual, but something more like autobiographical and critical. The components are, on the one hand, autobiographical anecdotes, and, on the other, an actual enactment of criticism. In returning to things that I did in my first decade in New York, I regard them from my present perspective, and often tackle issues that arise for me only now. For example: in the Agnes Martin chapter, which springs from the fact that I did a small exhibition of her work in 1971 and visited her in New Mexico, I analyze her film Gabriel, which I didn’t encounter in 1976 when she made it, but only when I set about writing that chapter.
I was interested in putting together two aspects of my life that were fairly difficult to negotiate in my first decade in New York—my art-world self and my gay-world self—at a time when both those worlds were highly experimental. I experienced innovation, experimentation, and transformation in the queer world and the art world simultaneously but mostly separately. I had to figure out how to make my two worlds, if not cohere, at least not be absolutely in conflict. My hope for Before Pictures is that it will provide a “queer history” of both these worlds by putting them in conversation. I expect it might change how we think of ’70s gay culture, which we know mostly from the work of historians who write about the flourishing of gay politics. It might also change how we think about the art world of the ’70s.
I had several different motivations for writing the book. One is that, in my ACT UP days, I made a whole bunch of younger friends, people mostly twenty years younger than me. I experienced the extraordinary explosion of gay culture during the ’70s, but they didn’t. I talked about it, they asked me about it, and on a couple occasions people said, you should really write about the gay ’70s in New York. That is not only because of their interest in what I was saying but because we were all horrified by the new narrative that was being put in place by gay conservatives. This narrative held that the ’70s represented our immaturity, an immaturity that led inevitably to AIDS, which in turn made us grow up and mature, become good citizens who wanted to get married and settle down and behave ourselves. I opposed that narrative in all of my AIDS writing.
This was happening around the time that queer theory was invented. I began teaching gay studies at Sarah Lawrence College in 1990 and then taught queer theory at the University of Rochester, and I was very much aware of all the conservative gay journalism, which was also anti-theory, anti-queer theory.
Rail: It was for popular readership, for magazines.
Crimp: Books, too. In writing a book about gay culture in the ’70s as I experienced it, I have a goal entirely beyond telling my own story. I want to reclaim that era of gay life in the positive light in which I experienced it for its present radical potential. It is a political goal. So that is one origin of the book. Another is that, like anyone, I have my amusing stories, stories I’ve told over time. In 2004 my friend Yvonne Rainer, about whom I was preparing to teach a course, gave me the manuscript of her memoir Feelings Are Facts (2006), which is very moving. Someone I was close to publishing an autobiographical work made me realize that such a thing was not out of the question for me. But I try not to call Before Pictures a memoir. The book is a hybrid of memoir, history, and criticism—and, importantly, pictures. There are over one hundred and fifty illustrations: reproductions of art works, fashion photographs, film stills, pictures of architecture and dance, snapshots of me—and wonderful photographs that Zoe Leonard took for section dividers of the five buildings I’ve lived in in New York and the nearby subway stops.
Rail: I’m interested in how Before Pictures relates to the larger presence of memoir as a mode of critical writing, and increased interest within the larger culture at the moment. Look at the popularity of critics like Maggie Nelson, Hilton Als, Chris Krauss, or Wayne Koestenbaum. There is a huge interest in memoir. Or would you characterize the current direction of art criticism differently?
Crimp: I’m not sure I could characterize “a current direction of art criticism” at all, at this point. Apart from writing this book, which I’ve done over the past ten years, I’ve been writing about dance. So I probably don’t pay as much attention as you do to recent art criticism. To the extent that I do, it’s pretty much limited to an academic sphere. I teach in a Ph.D. program; although it is interdisciplinary, the primary interest of many students is contemporary art. Many of the books my colleagues and I teach from are by academically trained art historians—by the scholar-critics who write the October books, such as Branden Joseph on Robert Rauschenberg, Carrie Lambert-Beatty on Yvonne Rainer, or Devin Fore’s Realism after Modernism. My close colleague Rachel Haidu wrote an October book on Marcel Broodthaers. And then there are the books by my own former graduate student, like Darby English’s book on Kara Walker, Glenn Ligon, Isaac Julien, Fred Wilson, and William Pope.L. I tend to think of recent art criticism as following this academic model. Probably what you’re talking about is a reaction to that, which I perfectly understand.
Rail: Another aspect of contemporary culture that Before Pictures relates to, besides the memoir, is the mythology of New York in the ’70s. There is an obsession with the work that was made in New York in the ’70s—when lofts in Soho were cheap, and so much art had a specific spare aesthetic—that I find exhausting. Maybe I’m being petulant, but I really don’t care to treat that rarified moment as better—or worse—than any other period of art. So, to have lived through the ’70s in New York and then experience this reification of it must be rather complicated?
Crimp: For a period I, too, thought there was something of an obsession with the 1970s, but I’ve recently felt that we’ve moved beyond it. Of course, there are certain artists working in the ’70s that graduate students who are your age are particularly drawn to, and some of those artists are still making great work—Joan Jonas, for example. When I began writing this book in 2005 and for the following five years or so I felt that it was dovetailing with a more general interest in the ’70s, but I’m not sure we’re still there.
Certainly, though, it was possible to live in New York in that period as an artist or a critic or a choreographer and have a lot of free time and a good-sized living and studio space—it was cheap—in stark contrast to what it’s like now. I actually thought for a while that I would be able to support myself by writing art criticism. I don’t know how anybody does it now. I don’t know how young dancers, especially, can manage to live and work in this city. Another reason the ’70s might seem like a golden era is that it was before AIDS. And because it was so affordable to live here then, lots of gay people got by on part-time jobs and were able to stay out until five in the morning cruising and having sex at the trucks or the piers. That’s what I did then. So questions like, what’s become of New York, or, what’s become of gay life, retroactively cast that particular decade in a particular light.
Rail: How did you see that manifest in relation to the recent Greater New York show at MoMA PS1, of which you were a co-curator, which seemed to incorporate that ’70s nostalgia as part of its premise?
Crimp: Long before they invited me to become part of the team, the three other curators decided they didn’t want this iteration of Greater New York to be one more “emerging artists” show; they chose to disrupt that expectation by adding a historical dimension. PS1 was approaching its fortieth anniversary; returning to its founding moment in 1976 prompted the very questions that we’re talking about, “New York City, then versus now.” “How do young artists manage to work New York today? To what extent does their work engage with the issues that the city today confronts us with—extreme income inequality, lack of affordable housing, racism.” That is what Peter Eleey presented me with when he approached me for the project. One reason he thought of me was that he came to PS1 in 2010, just at the time that Lynne Cooke and I did the exhibition Mixed Use, Manhattan at the Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, and he really wanted to bring it to New York, but it wasn’t possible. It was a major disappointment to Lynne and me that we couldn’t find a venue in New York for the show, which was, after all, about New York. So when Peter invited me I thought, this is an opportunity to bring some of that material back to New York. Mixed Use, Manhattan was not a ’70s show; like Greater New York, it began in the ’70s and came up to the present, but there were works like James Nares’s Pendulum (1976) that I had discovered while working on Mixed Use, Manhattan and was very happy to be able to bring to New York. It became a kind of keynote for Greater New York because it was the work you encountered in the double-height space just off the lobby.
Rail: How do you see the relationship between criticism and art history? The essays you are quoting in Before Pictures were criticism because they were written about new art in its moment; now, in looking back, you are re-contextualizing them within an art historical project. The most lasting legacy of October, especially the first ten years of October, is the elision of those two modes, where the perspective of the critic and the historian became fused.
Crimp: During the period covered in Before Pictures I was struggling against a Greenbergian model, a model that posited a historical necessity in the progress of art, which in turn determined which art “passed” and which art “failed.” That teleological view was something that I didn’t give up, even if I gave up the kind of art that Greenberg and his followers were interested in. I discuss this in the book’s final chapter, explaining that when I was writing the “Pictures” essay I still wanted to make a case for the historical logic of the work. This is something I no longer want to do, because it is simply not why I write about art today. In my AIDS writing I gradually adopted a more personal voice, and that continues not only in Before Pictures, but in my previous book, Our Kind of Movie: The Films of Andy Warhol, and in my current writing on dance. Much of the writing is almost minutely descriptive, and out of that description grows my analysis. I attend to my subjective experience of the work and also to the question of “the subject” in the work—what the work does for the subject or to the subject. The turn toward the subject that emerged with poststructuralism absolutely continues to inform what I do, but it informs it differently than it did when I was first reading poststructuralist theory in the ’70s.
I think of myself as both a critic and an art historian, probably more a critic than a historian. I’m trained as an art historian and I train art historians, but my work since I finished college has always been on contemporary art. The people who wrote about contemporary art when I began writing art criticism weren’t art historians for the most part. I studied very briefly at the Institute of Fine Arts at NYU around 1970, and at that time you were not allowed to work on a living artist. Art history basically stopped when the last generation died. Now, more than fifty percent of people who study in art history graduate programs in the United States declare their field as “contemporary;” all other periods of art history are sadly dwindling. So when I said that my take on contemporary criticism has very much to do with academic art historians writing about contemporary art, that is because we’ve now produced a couple of generations of critics who are academically trained in contemporary art, who’ve written dissertations about contemporary art, and tend to use the prose style that is often disparaged as “academic.” I think you agree that I don’t write that kind of prose.
Rail: You’re a very clear writer.
Crimp: Of course, so-called academic writing can be perfectly clear too, and it must be said that not all of us academics write the same way. Rosalind Krauss is an academic art historian (trained at Harvard, teaching at Columbia) and she is a wonderful writer. I enjoy writing and I work hard at the craft of it. I wasn’t reading literature in Idaho but I did learn my grammar, and that has served me well. I hope some of my pleasure in writing comes through for the reader. I try to get my students to become cognizant of style when they write, because so much of what they are reading has a dissertation-like style, the style of a first book that has been slightly adapted from a dissertation. I want my students to find their own voices. I don’t want their writing to be that kind of predictable, impersonal, non-identifiable voice that is fairly standard in academia. There also are, of course, people who write “academic” prose very beautifully—there is great precision combined with serious scholarship clearly readable in the writing, and that can be a joy to read.
Rail: As you were learning to write about art, especially at the very beginning when you were an editorial associate at ARTnews, who were you reading as models for how to write about art?
Crimp: I began reading art magazines in college because of my friendship with studio art students. I’m a complete autodidact as an art writer. I read ARTnews and Art in America. ARTnews did not, of course, cover only contemporary art—it included a wide historical range, including things like Leo Steinberg’s 1972 “The Philosophical Brothel” on Picasso’s Les Demoiselles D’Avignon (1907), and Linda Nochlin’s 1971 “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists.” When I came to New York I had the extraordinary luck of almost immediately getting a job at the Guggenheim Museum. I wasn’t initially a curatorial assistant. I was more lowly than that. When Diane Waldman was working on a Roy Lichtenstein exhibition, she came to me to help edit the catalogue and was impressed by my work on it and hired me to be her curatorial assistant. Diane was very good friends with Betsy Baker, who was managing editor at ARTnews and commissioned me to write an article on a Georgia O’Keefe exhibition at the Whitney, which was the first thing I ever published. Betsy was a terrific editor and she took a chance and gave me the assignment—I was extremely lucky. A few years later I became a regular reviewer. ARTnews had a policy of reviewing every exhibition in town every month—imagine! The reviews were extremely short, just five or six lines. It’s really tough to say anything at all in that amount of space. You’d be given a list of exhibitions to review and you had little choice in the matter. Shortly after starting at ARTnews I became one of the writers of the “New York Letter” for Art International. There I was actually able to choose artists I had an interest in and write a longer form of journalism, in which a thematic thread might run through the monthly column.
I didn’t know much about the differences between the various magazines. Even an opposition between ARTnews and Artforum was not something that I fully understood, though I think I looked up to Artforum because it seemed to be the more truly intellectual journal. I was reading Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson in Artforum before I met them, and I knew I wanted to study with Rosalind because of her writing for Artforum in the period after she broke ranks with Greenberg and Fried. By the time I went back to graduate school to work with her in 1976 I was part of an art world milieu that was very different from hers. I was part of the downtown art world, the world around Helene Winer and Artists Space; Pictures comes out of that. Rosalind knew nothing of those artists until I wrote about them—she learned about them from me.
Rail: What’s interesting about Before Pictures is that its perspective is qualified in all kinds of interesting ways. By contrast, when I went back to re-read On the Museum’s Ruins, I was surprised at how invested it is in its own authority and the authoritativeness of its readings.
Crimp: I was part of a very specific world, the world of October, when I wrote those essays. I was influenced by my colleagues and very much in sync with them. Also, the ’80s were a time of important political stakes, so my writing was very polemical. Essays like “The Art of Exhibition” and “The End of Painting”—really all of the essays in On the Museum’s Ruins—are polemical; I am definitely arguing a position. My leaving October was such a traumatic experience that I had to re-invent myself, or re-find myself, become a different person and a different writer afterwards.
Rail: How would you describe the nature of that trauma?
Crimp: I was pushed out of October. I edited the AIDS issue in 1987 single-handedly. It became far and away the most successful issue that October had ever done—it sold the most copies, got the most attention, and immediately became an October book. My fellow editors came, I think, to resent that success, and particularly the fact that for a new group of readers, October was “Douglas Crimp’s magazine” not “Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson’s magazine.”
Becoming an AIDS activist transformed me intellectually. It transformed what I wanted to work on, and it brought me, methodologically, closer to cultural studies. I was bringing that perspective to bear at a time when Rosalind and Annette had more or less withdrawn from the day-to-day work of the magazine—they had grown tired of it. The pace of putting out a quarterly magazine is relentless. After they pushed me out by refusing two of the papers from the “How Do I Look? Queer Film and Video” conference, they brought in five new editors to replace me. That took much of the burden off of them, and eventually that group of editors brought in their former students—a whole new generation of people to bring material to the magazine. October never published much unsolicited material; it doesn’t operate the way most academic journals do. It was never a peer-reviewed journal. It’s a big job to find things you want to publish, especially if your notion of what is right for your journal is as narrow as it always has been for October. It became narrower still after I left. The interdisciplinary aspect that characterized the first ten years largely disappeared. Annette is an intellectual with very broad interests—in music, film, literature, politics, and art—and she gave the magazine a breadth that I don’t feel it has anymore, even though she is still there. It’s now much more a visual art publication—and a high-modernist one, at that.
At the time they forced me out, October was my job, so I suddenly found myself jobless, without an income.
Rail: Presumably it was also a huge part of your social life, at least in the art world.
Crimp: It was my art world identity. But by then of course I had begun to move into a different world, the world of AIDS activism, the queer world. I left October in 1990 and AIDS Demo Graphics was published that same year, so you can see where I was at that time. Luckily, I got the Sarah Lawrence gay studies position just at the moment I needed a new job. I wasn’t paid very well at October so it wasn’t like I suffered financially by moving into the academy. But I hadn’t finished my dissertation, because I had put it on hold when I got drawn into the AIDS activist movement. Once I began teaching at the University of Rochester, I really needed a Ph.D. All of this happened so quickly, and for a few years I really struggled. And I should also say: I loved editing a magazine. I had no desire to become a professor.
Rail: I overheard a conversation between two people at a cocktail party—a publisher and an art historian who had published her dissertation as one of those Octoberbooks—about whether it would be better to see October as a historically-bounded project that should cease publication. How do you feel about that?
Crimp: For the longest time I was hoping something would come along to displace October, but now the art world has so much going on, so many different things—certain kinds of people read October and others read the Brooklyn Rail or Cabinet or Artforum or Bomb or blogs on the internet.
Rail: One of the pieces I appreciated the most in Melancholia and Moralism was the essay on the AIDS quilt, and your ambivalence about it. At the end you wrote: “I have to ask of this representation what I ask of all representations: to whom is it addressed?” How do you think of that in relation to your writing, to whom is your criticism addressed, and Before Pictures in particular?
Crimp: Nearly everything I write is written initially as a talk, even the chapters of this book. For example, the ARTnews chapter was written as a keynote address for a conference in honor of my friend Henry Abelove’s teaching career. Henry taught for years at Wesleyan and was a very beloved and influential teacher. He was one of the editors of the Gay and Lesbian Studies Reader (1993). His fields were History and English but he was a major instigator of queer studies in the academy. One of Henry’s greatest loves is poetry, especially Frank O’Hara and James Schuyler. I’m not a poetry reader. And while I’m a cinephile, Henry doesn’t go to the movies. He reacts badly to images that move. So I wrote a chapter about my cinephilia (in the company of my first boyfriend) and my simultaneous sense of alienation from the ARTnews poet-critics, thus about my love of movies and Henry’s love of poetry, my inability to read poetry and Henry’s inability to see movies. I wrote the talk thinking about Henry and imagining an audience of his former students that would be giving papers at the conference. So there are often very concrete “listeners” in my head when I’m writing. I think my prose style comes partly from my sense of how it will sound when spoken and thus its “sound” as your reading.
Rail: To shift for a moment: to write autobiographically is not to write about one’s self necessarily, but to write about one’s self in relation to other people. That opens a can of worms, ethically, regarding how to represent others. I’m interested in how you thought about this in writing Before Pictures? I’m thinking particularly the scene from the ARTnews section where you describe having sex with David Kermani, who was and is John Ashbery’s boyfriend, and then having an unpleasant encounter with Ashbery afterward. Both of them are thankfully still living. It wasn’t a particularly sweet story nor sweetly told; does that matter to you?
Crimp: Sure, it matters. I hope I don’t seem mean-spirited toward anyone. There are stories that people will undoubtedly not like to read about themselves. I no longer have any connection to Ashbery and Kermani—they are historical personages to me now. It’s a very long time ago that I knew them, and in any case, I never knew them well. Some of my resentment toward Ashbery likely comes from the way he titled my first essays in ARTnews—I should be over it by now, of course. I think he was just fooling around, not caring at all about what the authors had written, and he titled my piece on Georgia O’Keeffe “Georgia is a State of Mind.” Really bad punning: Georgia is a State, and Georgia on my Mind—awful. If that’s Surrealist poetry then you can have it! The story I tell is true, but I suppose it could seem overly gossipy. (Although lots of memoirs are full of far more vicious gossip.)
Rail: Of course gossip has been theorized and reclaimed within queer theory. And I guess Ellsworth Kelly, on whom you wrote a chapter, is now dead—
Crimp: —But he wasn’t when I wrote the chapter about my brief fling with him; even up until the time I was seeking image rights he was alive.
Rail: Can I clarify: you said Kelly was mainly into “shrimping” sexually with you—that’s sucking toes right?
Rail: That sounds silly and sweet.
Crimp: I didn’t know Ellsworth after that brief period in 1973. He was shy about his sexuality then—I don’t mean shrimping, I mean being gay. I have no idea whether or how much he might have overcome that shyness as years went by. I don’t know, would something like that embarrass you?
Rail: No, but clearly I don’t embarrass easily.
Crimp: I admire Ellsworth Kelly enormously and I assume that comes through in the chapter.
Rail: To go back to reconciling art and activism, how did you return to writing about visual art?
Crimp: At a certain point I couldn’t work on AIDS anymore. I think that happened to a lot of AIDS activists. We burned out. And I no longer felt qualified to teach about AIDS; you couldn’t responsibly deal with AIDS from the perspective of white gay men in New York City, which was the perspective of my AIDS writings. In 1996, after I had been teaching in the Visual and Cultural Studies Program at Rochester for several years, October did a special issue on Visual Studies. It infuriated me because it was so nakedly anti visual studies—claiming that visual studies constitutes a de-skilling of art history, that it is just vulgar identity politics, and so forth. It was one of their questionnaire-format issues but they didn’t invite anybody from Rochester to participate, even though ours was the founding program of the field.
Partly in response, I wrote a piece called “Getting the Warhol We Deserve,” which also responded to Hal Foster’s Return of the Real (1996). It was my first re-engagement with October. My essay was about the stakes of criticism, about making it clear why you want to make the argument you’re making. I asked, in effect, what Foster’s stakes were in making the argument he made about Warhol in Return of the Real. I proposed a cultural-studies approach to Warhol that would locate him in pre-Stonewall queer culture in New York, a culture that included Jack Smith, Ronald Tavel, the Theater of the Ridiculous, and so forth. Starting with that proposal, I began studying Warhol’s films, and by the time I published “Getting the Warhol We Deserve,” I had also published an essay on Blow Job (1964). Warhol is, of course, a thoroughly canonical figure, but I wrote about a non-canonical aspect of his work. My reengagement with art was through cultural studies and queer theory, and my Warhol book is really a queer theory book.
Rail: To return to the divide I termed “emotional versus intellectual” which you clarified as “autobiographical vs. critical”—something I thought a lot about reading Before Pictures was the role of the interpersonal in what then becomes registered as clean, official art history, or culture in general, which in fact seems highly idiosyncratic, contingent, and personal. How do you see that relationship between the personal and critical?
Crimp: Networks of personal relationships influence what one writes. Maybe it’s a little different if you’re writing about the Renaissance, but even then it will depend on who you studied with, what sort of program you teach in—your take on how history should be written is inevitably determined by your subjectivity, and subjectivity is relational. With contemporary art, we all live in this world, or these many overlapping worlds. What gets revealed in memoirs or autobiographies—or by scholars going back to a particular moment and researching in the archives, looking at letters and other documents—might well change our understanding of what had been the accepted narrative up to that point. This process is always happening, and the notion of “objectivity” is consequently overthrown. The fact is that your view can only ever be partial, in both senses of the word.
Rail: Your collected writing on the AIDS crisis is so important. The way Melancholia and Moralism is structured chronologically allows for a very nuanced argument to evolve over time. In the last essay you talk about seroconverting in the late ’90s after years of AIDS activism and incredibly intimate knowledge about risks and safe sex. Your explanation for how that could happen was “because I am human.” It made me wonder: where does art connect to that place of humanity? If art is something made by human beings for human beings, with all its attendant complexity, how do you understand art’s human function?
Crimp: As I said, the poststructuralist—or call it postmodernist—turn toward the subject has been increasingly important to my work. Art opens us to otherness, and not just the simple sense of otherness of the different subjectivity of the artist that produces the art object, because the artist, too, is a divided subject—the artist’s unconscious, as much as his or her conscious mind, determines the work. Art challenges not only our sense of the world but of who we are in relation to the world and to otherness in the world, and of who we are in relation to ourselves. But how you analyze that is a new question each time you are confronted with a work of art, because every work of art opens us to otherness differently. Maybe some very bad works of art don’t do it at all. Their muteness or un-analyzability stems from the fact that they mean nothing to you—Jeff Koons’s balloon dog doesn’t open me to anything. It tends, on the contrary, to close me off, to push me away, to say get me out of here.
“Close Encounters” is a monthly series of intimate conversations between Jarrett Earnest and leading writers and critics.