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Before Pictures: John Killacky on Douglas Crimp’s New Memoir

Douglas Crimp is a prodigious New York intellect. In his curation and critical writing of the late 1970s, he identified a group of emerging visual artists, (i.e. Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine) appropriating popular culture images in subversive critiques. They were often referred to as the “Pictures Generation” after Crimp’s 1977 exhibition, Pictures, […]

Douglas Crimp's 2011 Artforum feature on Trisha Brown, via academia.edu

A spread from Douglas Crimp’s 2011 Artforum feature on Trisha Brown, via academia.edu

Douglas Crimp is a prodigious New York intellect. In his curation and critical writing of the late 1970s, he identified a group of emerging visual artists, (i.e. Robert Longo, Cindy Sherman, and Sherrie Levine) appropriating popular culture images in subversive critiques. They were often referred to as the “Pictures Generation” after Crimp’s 1977 exhibition, Pictures, at the Artists Space gallery.

In 1987, he edited a special issue of October magazine entitled “AIDS: Cultural Analysis, Cultural Activism.” His contribution to this groundbreaking collection illuminated the engaged art strategies of various ACT UP collectives: “Their work demands a total reevaluation of the nature and purpose of cultural practices in conjunction with an understanding of the political goals of AIDS activism.”

His discursive essays brilliantly analyzed Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s film, In a Year of 13 Moons, in October magazine, and Trisha Brown’s “wholly new lexicon of ordinary movement performed with effortless directness” in Artforum. Critically acclaimed books include Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol and Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics.

Crimp’s latest, Before Pictures (2016), tenderly chronicles his initial years in New York City (1967–1977). Interwoven personal and professional stories create a vivid historical narrative of post-Stonewall Manhattan. Moving there after college, Crimp, “would have to learn how and where to be queer all over again” as gay sexual culture exploded around him.

Early jobs included reviewing for ARTnews, organizing the papers of society couturier Charles James, and working as a curatorial assistant at the Guggenheim Museum, while hanging out with Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling, and Joe Dallesandro. His first curatorial effort was an Agnes Martin exhibition in 1971 at the School of Visual Arts Gallery, where he was an adjunct professor.

In this hybrid memoir, the author revisits his nascent critical thinking about Agnes Martin, realizing he had been wrong to reduce her aesthetic to mathematical minimalism. He also reconciles his contradictory views on Ellsworth Kelly’s “highly intelligent and accomplished painting,” and shares details of a failed liaison with the artist.

Sexual trysts, both casual and loving, are a crucial part of his education with the West Side piers, Greenwich Village trucks, backroom bars, and outdoor public cruising as backdrops. His drug-enhanced years dancing at Flamingo, 12 West, and Paradise Garage are reverently described: “What is extraordinary about it (disco) and also show how it is symptomatic of a wider experience of pleasure in our society…”

Crimp’s burgeoning cinephile-self attended Anthology Film Archives and his balletomane obsession with George Balanchine’s neo-classicism—“in which sharp angles replace soft curves, legs turn in as well as out, feet are flexed as well as pointed, and extensions are stretched to the breaking point”was nurtured in the upper balconies of New York City Ballet’s State Theater.

As his career progressed, Crimp sojourned downtown from Spanish Harlem to Chelsea, then to Greenwich Village, Tribeca, and finally landing in the Financial District, where he presently lives. Photographs and luminous descriptions of his various apartments function as framing devices for each of the chapters, with Crimp serving as a cultural anthropologist and architectural historian.

The final chapter discusses Crimp’s career-defining Pictures exhibition, hailed by New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl as “a movement-initiating, instantly legendary group show.” That same year, 1977, Crimp became managing editor of October magazine, and under his stewardship for the next thirteen years, it became required reading in the art world.

However, Before Pictures primarily focuses on art and life in the formative decade prior to 1977. Back then he was convinced “with sufficient insight a critic could—even should—determine what was historically significant.” Reflecting back on these early years, he reconsiders: “Coming to the understanding that my knowledge of art can never be anything but partial has been liberating. It has allowed me to write about what attracts me, challenges me, or simply gives me pleasure without having to make a grand historical claim for it.”

Douglas Crimp is a pivotal figure in contemporary art and AIDS cultural activism. Before Pictures fills in his backstory. Utilizing lived experiences as a primary source, he is his own archive. In reaching into his past, he fully embodies the present, and history benefits from this erudite and compelling storytelling.

Before Pictures in available for purchase in the Walker Shop. John R. Killacky is Executive Director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont.

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