BY Andrew Durbin in Profiles | 20 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 182


Douglas Crimp's new memoir charts his life in the galleries and gay bars of 1970s New York

BY Andrew Durbin in Profiles | 20 SEP 16

In his new memoir, Before Pictures (2016), the art critic, historian and curator Douglas Crimp revisits his life before the legendary ‘Pictures’ exhibition, which he curated at Artists Space in New York in 1977. In that show and accompanying essay, Crimp contended that images no longer simply ‘interpret reality’ but have ‘usurped it’, using as examples the works of Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo and others, who later became known as the ‘Pictures Generation’. When standing before pictures, the argument goes, ‘firsthand experience begins to retreat, to seem more and more trivial’. In this new book, Crimp mirrors his thesis by bringing his firsthand experience into a drag performance of essay-as-autobiography as he considers many of the images (and image-makers) that were most important to him as a struggling writer. He constellates his early years in New York, before he became a well-known critic, in a feuilleton that grafts friendship with artists including Joan Jonas, Ellsworth Kelly and Agnes Martin, onto criticism of New York art after the 1960s.

Crimp structures his memoir around his New York residences: beginning in Harlem, continuing down to the Village and then on to lower Manhattan’s Nassau Street. He covers his time as a curatorial assistant at the Guggenheim and as a reviewer at Art News, his friendships and his trysts at various gay discos, within extended passages devoted to people as diverse as choreographer George Balanchine, photographer Alvin Baltrup, and artists Daniel Buren and Gordon Matta-Clark. While the view Crimp offers of his life is seemingly intimate, rarely does he pause to squat in the olfactory atmospherics of the city and the physical presence of those whom he knew. Many of the people who appear in the book act as cut-out props he uses to illustrate larger ideas. Do we need the sensory details? For Crimp, the stress of experience falls upon our interpretation of it and not so much the replication in prose of the sensorium of life. As such, he remains, even in autobiography, first and foremost a critic.

Thus, the narrative thrust of Crimp’s memoir is, unlike most, derived largely from watching his brain become the thing it became, as he found and lost influences and ideas. The book’s most interesting parts come from the various correctives he introduces to his own thinking and that of others. His early writing often leaves him puzzled, and he quotes many passages in order to flag up his mistakes and premature dismissals. He isn’t quite sure why his interest in Agnes Martin ceased after the mid-1960s, for example, but he returns to her work in awe. Likewise for Buren, with whom Crimp worked during the notorious ‘Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition’ in 1971, when the artist’s large, site-specific work Peinture/sculpture (Painting/Sculpture) was removed from the show after Dan Flavin asserted that it was merely ‘French drapery’. Crimp’s response was to shift his eye to the couturier Charles James, whom he assisted, and who was famous as a ‘sculptor in cloth’, in order to defend Buren against such flip dismissal.

Douglas Crimp in his office in the Guggenheim Museum, New York, 1970, photographer unknown. All images courtesy: Douglas Crimp and University of Chicago Press

The refutations continue where Crimp writes with both admiration and frustration about the ‘poet-critic ethos’ of John Ashbery – editor of Art News when Crimp wrote for the magazine – and the New York School writers. Ashbery often dismissed film and conceptual art: two forms that would become central to the Crimp writing we know best. Whereas Ashbery doted upon art with flowery verbiage (on Joseph Cornell: ‘We all live in his enchanted forest’), Crimp learned to attend to ‘the material, describable particulars of an artwork’, none of which leads him to find the easy romanticism of his poet forebears enchanting. This view of criticism owes a large debt to Yvonne Rainer’s ‘No Manifesto’ (1965) and its poetics of disavowal: ‘No to spectacle / No to virtuosity / No to transformations and magic and make-believe’ – and so on. Crimp has been a long-time advocate of Rainer’s work and her 2006 memoir, Feelings Are Facts, prompted him to write his own. Crimp is often self-critical when he revisits his earlier writing, and he has a great deal of fun recounting his own missteps, from a contradictory review of a show by Ellsworth Kelly (with whom he had a few uncomfortable dates) to a frankly odd attempt to capitalize on a gap in the market for Moroccan cookbooks with a boyfriend’s grandmother’s recipes. Throughout Before Pictures, Crimp renders transparent the shifts in his thinking under the duress of experience.

In some instances, Before Pictures could use some flowery verbiage. The lack of sensuous writing is most frustrating where Crimp describes his sexually liberated years before the plague as he shifts from downtown art to disco. Missing is any mention of the critic’s own sex life beyond the most cursory references (one encounter is described as ‘pleasant-enough’; most boys are tricks, about whom little if any tea is ever spilled), which is strange given the frequency of references to his exploits cruising New York’s Village and piers, or his affairs with mostly anonymous lovers or those he spends more time with, like Kelly. (An exception would be where Crimp reads Matta-Clark’s architectural interventions into the piers in relation to Baltrup’s photographs of the gay sex that took place there: Crimp’s descriptions of the action, and his own fears for the social and structural safety of the harbours, are more affecting.) Often, though, recalling lovers leads him to some stiff prose, as when he describes Kelly’s rather awkward advances: ‘Ellsworth’s idea of courting me was to make extravagant propositions. Within hours of offering to pay for the steaks at the Pines Pantry, he was making plans to take me with him to Europe. My response was to get on my high horse: I could take myself to Europe, thank you very much. Under the sway of sexual liberation movement precepts, I was of the opinion that relationships should be between equal partners.’

Throughout Before Pictures, Crimp renders transparent the shifts in his thinking under the duress of experience. 

Despite poking fun at his own pomposity, I find this last sentence somewhat baffling for its obfuscation of personal feeling within movement politics, but Crimp’s writing often takes a more sensuous turn when he is writing about art rather than the people who made it. Remembering his encounter with Brice Marden’s painting Grove Group (1972–73), he quotes his early review of the work, in which he writes that its surface was ‘so strong that I felt compelled to walk right up to it and examine it, even to smell it’.

Crimp’s withholding invites a comparison to another memoir of the 1970s: Gary Indiana’s I Can Give You Anything But Love (2015), which concerns the novelist’s highly sexed life before he came to New York, while he was living in California (intercut with recent stays in Cuba). Indiana’s prose is, by turns, bruised and sharp-witted, full of the illustrative detail missing from Crimp’s expository writing, which remains in thrall to the style of October, with its focus on critical interrogation and re-assessment.

In their different approaches to memoir – Indiana’s decidedly personal and novelistic; Crimp’s an aerial view of the city that sleeps around – the two books restage a post-Pictures conflict that pitted both men on opposite sides of a tiff-royale about gay art. This concerned Dennis Cooper and Richard Hawkins’s 1989 exhibition ‘Against Nature’, at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions, to which Indiana contributed a short story to the catalogue. The exhibition frustrated Crimp. ‘Against Nature’ pictured homosexuality as messy, emotional and ‘politically incorrect’, even during times of crisis, in explicit contrast with Crimp’s more politically conscious, activist line. A good amount of bicoastal drama went down between the two sides in the following years. While neither writer makes direct mention of the animosities that drove the feud, the two books offer a fascinating study in contrasting ways of thinking and writing about art. Both men – and the art they wrote about – remain influential. Indiana drives down into the pain of life and, in doing so, maps a vast, human world of feeling. Crimp, instead, sticks to the heady complexities of learning to think about images, behind which firsthand experience often retreats, occasionally giving way, as it happens, to a clearer picture.

Lead image: Garry Winogrand opening party for 'The Museum as Muse', MoMA, New York, 1970, Crimp's blurred hand to the left of the picture

Andrew Durbin is the editor-in-chief of frieze. His book The Wonderful World That Almost Was is forthcoming from FSG in 2025.