Kris Cohen and Abigail Susik
The occasion for this interview is Douglas Crimp’s forthcoming book Before Pictures, an autobiographical reflection on art, theory and the queer subcultures of New York in the 1960s and 1970s. The interview was conducted the morning after Douglas had given a talk at Reed College based on the chapter ‘Hotel des Artistes.’ We had been given a copy of the entire manuscript prior to the interview.
Kris Cohen: Tell us about the genesis of the project: how you started working on it and how it emerges out of past work.
Douglas Crimp: Most of my colleagues in ACT UP were about 20 years younger than I and had not experienced the gay scene in New York in the 70s as I had. On various occasions, for one reason or another, people told me I should write about New York in the 70s. This was starting in ’87 when I did the October issue on AIDS. Then for the next eight years and until I gathered all of my AIDS writing together for Melancholia and Moralism, I worked pretty exclusively on AIDS. That work dovetailed with the beginnings of what came to be called queer theory, which included the early work of Eve Sedgwick, Judith Butler, Lee Edelman, etcetera. I felt very much a part of that movement, if you could call it that, the new area of academic inquiry or the shift, let’s say, from gay and lesbian studies or gay and lesbian history to queer theory. And of course, I had a theoretical background with October. At the same time, in 1990, I left October and began teaching gay studies at Sarah Lawrence College, where I focused on queer theory. In ’92, I went to the University of Rochester, where Janet Wolff, who was a major figure in cultural studies, was directing the program that I currently teach in—it wasn’t then called Visual and Cultural Studies but came to be called that soon after I arrived. So during that whole period, I was working on AIDS and the idea of writing about gay New York in the 70s was in the back of my mind.
Something else, I suppose, that feeds into it a bit is this: as everyone else does, I have my stories. There were a couple of occasions when people responded to them by saying, ‘oh you should write a memoir,’ because perhaps I make my stories amusing. The idea was, therefore, very much in the back of my mind. The first thing that brought it to the front of my mind was the thought: ‘maybe I will write something about queer culture and it might be a kind of memoir.’ In 1996 October did a special issue that was a critique of visual studies. I ended up writing a response to that, which I published as an essay called ‘Getting the Warhol We Deserve.’ It was there that I outlined a project that eventually became my Warhol book. Part of the issue for all of us in queer theory at that moment in the 90s was the increasing shift towards conservative gay rights politics with gay marriage as the goal, and the sense that the way in which queer theory had deconstructed fixed identity was being lost. One of queer theory’s central precepts was a destabilization of all forms of identity. So I put those two things together, that is, the Warhol idea—or not only Warhol but queer culture of the 60s, the culture that I came into when I moved to New York in 1967—and a queerness that preceded the fixing of gay identity after Stonewall, not in the gay liberation movement but in what followed it, the gay rights movement; not the Gay Liberation Front, but the Gay Activists Alliance. I see 1960s queer culture as having much more in common with the former than the latter.
I preceded then to start working, in the late 90s, on a book about Warhol’s films. But for me it had a memoir-like quality to it. The Warhol world was a world I quickly found when I came to New York. Not Warhol himself and not the Factory, but the art bar where the Warhol crowd hung out, Max’s Kansas City. In 1969 I moved from Spanish Harlem to Chelsea and started going to Max’s and very soon met Holly Woodlawn. Holly lived with me briefly while she was shooting Trash. So that way of being queer, that Warhol world, the Theatre of the Ridiculous world, the Max’s Kansas City backroom world—those spheres also became mine. When I started working on the Warhol book, an archaeology of the world that I had found myself in in the late 60s was what motivated me.
Then, another important event that made it possible for me to think that I might be able to write a memoir was that my friend Yvonne Rainer wrote one. In 2004 I taught a course on Rainer. She had just completed the manuscript of her memoir, Feelings are Facts, and she gave it to me to read in preparation for the course. Somehow, seeing a friend’s memoir brought the idea of a memoir much more to the front burner. Memoir is not a genre, I should say, to which I’ve paid a great deal of attention. In doing this project I didn’t read many other memoirs. And Yvonne’s memoir is, of course, not at all like mine. It’s a true memoir, and mine is not.
Then in 2005, the Guggenheim Museum invited me to give a lecture in conjunction with the Daniel Buren show. I had been at the Guggenheim in 1971 when Buren’s work Painting-Sculpture was removed from the Guggenheim International Exhibition, and so that story, that chapter—which is the first chronologically in the memoir, ‘Way Out on the Nut’—I wrote as a lecture for the Guggenheim. I should explain that I felt that what they wanted from me was an eye-witness account, the ‘true story’ of what happened. I wanted to resist that, and I did so by complicating it with my other first New York job, which was working for the fashion designer Charles James. Thereby, in a sense, I put the art world and the queer world together. I put the decorative and the conceptual in the same space, bumped them up against each other. And that gave me a way to let anecdote give onto critical issues, and then go back to anecdote, and so on, as if the spiral of the Guggenheim itself had provided the structure of the chapter, and that gave me a way of approaching the other chapters, too.
KC: What was it about their invitation, the Guggenheim’s invitation, and the injunction that you heard behind their question, that you wanted to interrupt by pushing the conceptual art world up against the queer world?
DC: When Buren’s work was removed from the Guggenheim in 1971, there were a series of letters to Studio International, a British magazine, from the various sides. So, there was Buren’s, there was the curator, Diane Waldman’s, there was the director, Thomas Messer’s. There was also a letter from Dan Flavin, a nasty dismissal of Buren’s work that referred to it as ‘French drapery,’ which I quote. When Alex Alberro wrote his essay for October about the removal of the Buren piece, a very carefully researched essay, he had gotten in touch with me and had asked me a series of questions about it. I realized there was scholarship being done on the incident, and I also know there is no such thing as infallible memory, so I didn’t want to be in a position of saying ‘Here’s what really happened.’ At the same time, I didn’t want to entirely disregard what I remembered. So I thought I would complicate it. I used the example of Silvia Kolbowski’s work An Inadequate History of Conceptual Art (1998-99) for which she asked various people to narrate their first encounters with conceptual art, and more specifically my friend Rosalyn Deutsche’s article about Kolbowski’s work, where she brings in post-structuralist theory to talk about how desire impels narration and history. So I was aware of all of the pitfalls of being a truth teller and I also thought, ‘This isn’t my purpose in writing.’ I was perfectly aware that I had found my chance to begin the memoir project, and the Charles James story is a story I wanted to tell.
The other thing that was behind it was the fact that [Hal] Foster had just published Design and Crime, and there was a general animus towards design among the October critics. I wanted to write about haute couture, and I had recently been in the de Menil house in Houston that Charles James did the decor for, and was deeply impressed by it. One of the interesting things about the Buren work was the way it interacted with the Guggenheim building itself. I emphasize what Buren’s piece had to say about it, and also what my own experience had been working in it. I very much admire the Wright building, and it has many decorative elements. It’s not ‘pure’ modernism. So I guess I was also thinking about the issues of design and the animus towards design, the indignation about fashion invading art discourse. It felt like an opportunity. At the same time, even though I think I have a clear memory of the day when the piece was installed, what it looked like and how everyone reacted to it—there are aspects of the story that are more in the nature of gossip, I didn’t think bringing them in would accomplish anything…
Abigail Susik: I’m interested in the way that digression and anecdote play a role in the memoir. Memoir seems to be a form that particularly supports digression, but it does appear at times that the digression you cultivate becomes a bit more poetic in the meandering from anecdote to memory and back to stories. I hadn’t thought, until you were talking just now about the relationship of digression and anecdote to the decorative, that it’s not an analytical or functional form of narrative. Was that a conscious thing for you? Building off from the memoir to a larger narrative form, was there a decision made to avoid the just-telling-the-truth story that people wanted?
DC: That form, the digressive or spiraling structure, seems to literally run away from its point. I do remember when I gave ‘Way Out on the Nut’ as a talk in Los Angeles, and someone said afterward—it was George Baker, who liked the talk very much—that he sat there thinking ‘Where is he going with this?’ I liked that, and I knew it could become a model. But how it would become a model I didn’t know. So what I allowed myself to do was, from the very beginning, plot an arbitrary structure or armature for the memoir. I quickly landed on the idea that I would call it Before Pictures and that it would be about the decade before the ‘Pictures’ show. And I knew it would be about my gay life and my art life together. Having done the piece on the Guggenheim, I thought that I would just take a series of things that I did on my way to becoming an art critic and make those the topics of each chapter. I knew I would write one on my Agnes Martin show at the Visual Arts Gallery, also in 1971. I knew that my Art News reviewing period would be a chapter. I knew that my essay ‘Opaque Surfaces’ and the Ellsworth Kelly story would be another. I didn’t know that disco would be one, actually.
Despite plotting things out, you don’t always do exactly what you’re planning to do. For example, with the chapter called ‘Action around the Edges,’ my intention was to write about Joan Jonas’s performance Delay Delay (1972) and the film she made using material from it called Song Delay (1973). The latter is a favorite work of mine. I have a long-standing connection with Jonas’s work, and a friendship with Joan, and I wrote an essay on her work in 1976 for Studio International. But then in the end, I got more involved with the uses of the Hudson River piers, and of course I knew that Gordon Matta-Clark had made Day’s End (1975) there. In a way, Matta-Clark became, as much as Jonas, the artistic figure for that chapter. Yet, I had never before written on Gordon Matta-Clark. Nor had I, of course, written about Alvin Baltrop, whose photographs of gay men cruising in Day’s End I discovered while working on that chapter.
About the disco chapter: I have a friend, Jonathan Flatley, who was at that time the editor of a journal called Criticism: A Quarterly for Literature and the Arts. It comes out of Wayne State University where he teaches—and he was doing a special issue on disco. In ‘Action around the Edges’ I had mentioned disco, just briefly, and he said ‘would you like to extend that, and say more about disco?’ I still had a fragment of something I’d started writing about disco in the mid-1970s. I didn’t have the idea that I would be pulling actual things that I had written from the period into the memoir. But in writing the disco chapter, I decided to do that.
But to come back to your question, which is about the structure of the writing: almost every chapter was occasioned by an opportunity to write something that was more or less dictated by the occasion for which I wrote it. So the disco chapter was of course completely directed by the topic of the Criticism special issue. The Agnes Martin chapter—the initial version was for a colloquium on Martin that Lynne Cooke organized at the Dia Foundation, when one of the first installments of her multi-part Martin retrospective exhibition was there. She brought conservators, critics and historians together to talk about the work, and she asked a few of us, including me, to write something to get the conversation going. So that’s the occasion for which I wrote ‘Back to the Turmoil’—the first part of it.
So many of the chapters were occasioned in this way. But I also simply allowed myself to go where the process of writing took me. I knew that when I wrote the Martin chapter I would talk about my visit to her in New Mexico, of course. And I did write about the installation of the little show I organized for the Visual Arts Gallery and my friend Stephen Varble, who helped me light it. Even when I was doing something for a colloquium with other scholars I included some anecdotal material.
KC: It’s interesting: to call it digressive is to assume that it exists in a genre and that the digression is moving away from it. But we also wouldn’t have to call them digressions, because I think one of the interesting things that happens is that the transitions from point to point are often where what someone might call autobiography comes in. But I also think those transitions are, often, literally about or driven by desire. In your chapter ‘Hotel des Artistes,’ when the boy on the Vespa comes by, in terms of the narrative you’re telling, that’s a transitional moment. But it’s also a moment of desire. History is being pushed along by desire. In that sense, the you there, the embodiment of the desire, is both personal and impersonal. In a sense it’s just desire.
DC: I realize now from your question that there is a difference between the way I deal with my art career and the way I deal with my gay life, insofar as in the latter I’m not much involved with theoretical questions or engaging with other scholarship. Whereas, in art matters, I am reflecting on things that I wrote, I’m not probably so much reflecting on issues in the gay stories. I mean, I do a little bit, certainly in the disco chapter where I talk about the relationship I had with my dance buddy and then discuss the ethos of gay liberation and the proliferation of possibilities of friendship and sexual connection and affective relations in general that were part of that world. That comes in from time to time. But it’s not as if I’m actually engaging with other scholars on the subject.
KC: Yet, one of the ways you began the book was to say that one of your desires was to tell the story of queer life before gay rights. So structurally, those stories, even if they are not explicitly engaging in that kind of citational network, are actually engaging with queer theory, insofar it sounds like your interest was in showing a world that embodied those ideas before it came into discourse, right?
DC: Except one can say that there was an enormous amount of discourse during this period of time. My friend Henry Abelove is writing a book on gay liberation, and he’s reading all of the many, many gay liberation newspapers that came out right around that time. That was actually very much a part of my life, too. There were moments when I thought I would talk about the fact that I was part of a gay men’s consciousness raising group. I participated in some ways in the burgeoning gay politics of the time. I certainly read all of the first books that were coming out—all the early second-wave feminist books and the early gay liberation books as well. And I certainly turn to them from time to time even now. But I’m not quoting them or arguing with them in Before Pictures.
AS: What about the temporal structure of the memoir, which could be conceived of either as digressive, as we have already discussed, or more of a desirous circling back as Kris has suggested. The young Italian man in ‘Hotel des Artistes’ circles back on his Vespa to find you four times! Does repetitive circling back reflect the way in which the memoir is about the decade as a discrete period of time between important moments in your life and also history in general…before ‘Pictures’ and after Stonewall? Is there a tension there between a personal history and more public history? Or do you not see it as a tension at all?
DC: Well, I suppose that the simple answer is that it was just so neat. It just happened that I came to New York in ’67. ‘Pictures’ was in ’77. It is a decade of my youth when there was an enormous change in the scene in New York, especially for gay men, and for lesbians to some degree, too. But there was also a huge shift in art practices. I feel like I just lucked out that I came at the time that I did, that I experienced New York City at that exhilarating moment. Much of Before Pictures is also about the city itself. Stonewall is less a marker for me. Stonewall is a bit of a myth as a marker in any case. It’s one of those reference points that’s easy, so it gets endlessly repeated. As I said, my friend Henry [Abelove] is working on gay liberation and he sees a more important shift as occurring from the moment of liberation to the moment of rights, the replacement of a more radical movement—one that was trying to determine its relation to the Black Panthers and issues like that, where it was really seen as part of liberation in a much wider sense—with a narrow, identity-based rights movement. But there is no event that you can point to that says ‘here’s the fulcrum,’ so Stonewall continues to be the marker. The Stonewall riots happened two years after I came to New York. I didn’t participate in Stonewall. I wasn’t going to gay bars in the Village then. I certainly read about the riots in the Village Voice. But I can’t say that it had any immediate impact on my life. By the time that the Gay Activist Alliance formed and started having dances, sort of pre-disco dances in the Firehouse in SoHo where they had their headquarters, then it did have an impact on my life. I went to a couple of meetings at the Gay Activist Alliance, but I wasn’t really participating so much in movement politics. I was fully participating in the fruits of the politics: the explosion of bars and clubs and dance halls and bathhouses and all of that.
KC: Some of the questions we were thinking of have to do with the question of the subject and its importance for you: the way you have articulated the move from art history and art criticism to cultural studies as being, in some ways, the turn to the subject. Even if this wasn’t on your mind when you wrote it, to what extent is this memoir a continuation of your thinking about the turn to the subject?
DC: I haven’t consciously thought about it, but I suppose that I don’t feel that this is a book about me. The way it’s not a book about me is that, while I am telling stories about my life and those stories actually play a large role in the book, the reader always understands the extent to which they are, not exactly made-up stories, but simply the stories I tell about myself. From the beginning I make it clear that my memory is unreliable, but also that I’ve elaborated, I’ve refined the stories, I’ve wanted to make them good stories. So I’m not looking for the truth in myself in this; I’m trying to give a texture to a world that I participated in. So to do that, there are people, there are events, there are artworks that exist. The most concrete things are the things that I published; I have them in black in white and I can read them and return to them. Or that I didn’t publish. For example, I have the project for a Moroccan cookbook that I write about in the chapter ‘Art News Parties.’ The whole file is in my drawer. It has all of the chapter introductions that I wrote, all of the test recipes that my French Moroccan boyfriend and I worked out, and the letter from my agent.
There are a few documents that I can turn to that are mine, and that are me at some stage in my life. But, I’m a different person now, so I’m looking at them from the perspective of who I am now, whatever that may mean. There is a split between the 1967-1977 me and the 2005-2015 me, which is the period of time in which I wrote the book. They’re also complicated by having, if not an agenda, then at least a sense of this as a piece of writing, as a project that I want people to read and learn from and also be amused and intrigued by. So my sense of myself as subject is certainly not one that is stable.
You know, there are a couple of moments where I actually look at post-structuralist theory, such as the chapter on Balanchine and Derrida. But in that chapter—and this for me has been both the pleasure and the strangeness of this project—I tell the story of when, at a certain point, I grabbed Of Grammatology off my shelf, and there on the title page was a note to myself that Craig Owens dictated to me about which seats to buy for New York City Ballet. There were many of these kinds of strange coincidences that happened that I certainly never could have predicted. The main text that was important to me when I was writing that chapter was Craig’s translation of ‘The Parergon.’ I compared Craig’s translation with the complete translation, published much later, in The Truth in Painting, so exactly why I looked at my copy of Of Grammatology I’m not sure. Of Grammatology is the first book by Derrida that I bought, and maybe I wanted to look at something that Gayatri Spivak wrote in the introduction. It’s almost like the eruption of the unconscious. It happened and I thought ‘Oh my god, this is perfect.’ It gave me a whole way of talking about looking at Balanchine’s choreography from those seats very high up in the theater and at an oblique angle to the stage.
AS: I know Kris has a question about ‘The Parergon,’ but can I interject since I have a question on the notion of the subject as well? I wondered as I was reading the Balanchine chapter in particular if there was a conscious connection between the Warhol film portraits that you write about in the Warhol book and forms of written portraiture in the memoir? In the Warhol book you talk about the Screen Tests as a very different experience of portrayal and the representation of the subject. Is there a connection for you at all between your experience of self in the memoir and the Warhol film portraits?
DC: It hadn’t occurred to me. So you’re thinking of this, in a sense, as a self-portrait?
AS: Yes, I wanted to make a very obtuse metaphor in terms of the way in which, at one point in the Warhol book, you say the Screen Tests are intimate portraits, portraits that allow for something else to emerge. I wondered if there was a comparable kind of self-portraiture in the way you are thinking through the memoir, with these unconscious moments coming through, and the experience of whatever the self is in your act of writing.
DC: The thing about the Screen Tests is that the subjects are alone with the camera, and made utterly self-conscious, first of all by the presence of the camera but then also by Warhol asking them to not blink. This is a bit of a digression, but I recently had a film portrait of me taken by James Nares. I don’t know if you know James’s work Street which he made in 2011. Nares is an artist who was in ‘Mixed Use, Manhattan,’ the exhibition at the Reina Sofia in Madrid that I co-curated with Lynne Cooke, and is also now in ‘Greater New York.’ Street is a super-slow-motion, high-definition video…. It’s shot from a truck on the streets of New York and you see people who appear to be virtually still but are actually in motion, while the truck is moving very quickly, so there is a constant sense of motion but there’s also a constant sense of stillness. Anyway, he’s doing a series of portraits, and he asked if he could do one of me, and he built a kind of track so that he can move the camera back and forth in front of you as you’re sitting there. He shoots for maybe 20 minutes, but…because of the extreme slow motion, this will become maybe a 10-minute portrait…but it’s just a few seconds of real time. And so I said to him, ‘this reminds me of Warhol’s Screen Tests,’ and he said ‘yes, but it’s not at all because I’m going to be here and I’m going to be talking to you and it’s not a competition between you and the camera.’
The sense of demand which Warhol’s camera imposed—I feel like I am free of that in writing the memoir. One places demands on oneself in any kind of writing project, I suppose, and particularly if you are writing about yourself. But at the same time, I didn’t feel that this project imposed any particular pressure on me. Remarkably, it’s just been pleasurable. Of course, there have been times when I’ve had to get a version of a chapter done to give a lecture and I worked very hard on it, but there were no points that I had to make. It didn’t have an agenda. So I guess that sense of a requirement of making a self-portrait—that maybe one would think it should make sense or that it should portray you in a certain light—was not entirely present. Of course, inevitably there are things that I’m saying and things that I’m not saying, things I would find more awkward or embarrassing. I have control over it, although maybe I don’t have control over it. I don’t know if that answers your question.
AS: It did. I have never written a memoir and I’ve never had a portrait filmed—both I think would make me nervous. It is almost a question of intimacy or proximity in this other kind of portrait I’m attempting to get at.
DC: It is interesting with this James Nares film, it was remarkably unlike a photo shoot, in which you become self-conscious in a way that can result in a bad picture, for one thing. The extension of the time made it much, much easier. I haven’t seen what he’s come up with; maybe I’ll hate it. He kept telling me, ‘move your hands more,’ ‘keep looking in the lens but I’m going over here,’ ‘keep your head turned in the direction that it is,’ and that was very relaxing, I have to say. Another way of thinking about this would be to try to imagine a reader. I tend to imagine a listener because almost all of these chapters were written initially to be talks. Most of my work is written to be talks, initially. So I guess it’s easier for me to imagine a listener.
KC: You could also talk about, in relation to portraiture or self-portraiture, slowness and slowing down. I was thinking about the Doug Ischar video Alone With You (2011), with its portrait of a wrestler. The slowed down footage of what would otherwise be very violent wrestling moves allows a different kind of relationship between the viewer and the object that in a certain way reveals desiring, where only violence would have been visible in regular real time. There is something about slowing down the portrait…. In a way, this book is slowing down the history and these moments of desire get a chance to be there in the connective points.
DC: The digression does that. I’m not moving to the point, especially. The point is not the point. It’s really in the telling, and the getting there, and I would say the digressions often become something like their own mini-chapters. In ‘Hotel des Artistes’ it would be possible to remove the part about the Senate Watergate hearings altogether, but I love that section. It was something that I had not forgotten entirely, but all of the names that figure in it I had to struggle to remember… who they were and their roles. I did a lot of reading, including the transcripts of the hearings. But that alone was its own kind of pleasure. Nevertheless, there was another moment where it wasn’t clear to me that the Watergate story had much to say to everything else that I was doing. Then I read John Dean’s memoir in which he tells the story of a group of men in the Nixon White House watching The Cockettes’ film Tricia’s Wedding (1971), and I thought, ‘here’s a queer moment of Watergate.’
KC: In the ‘Hotel des Artistes’ chapter you move between accounts of your early criticism, your relationship with Ellsworth Kelly, and stories about queer life in New York. It struck me that one of the potentials of that kind of rhythm and juxtaposition is that it begins to open up the possibility of another reading of Kelly that might have been available had the barrier between the art world and queer world not been so insurmountable. It opens to a reading that might vector through the decorative, for instance, as a new way of talking about opacity. I guess it’s a question about returning to your old writing on Kelly, but in such a different context. I wonder how you feel now about that writing on modernism, put up so closely against the thinking about queer culture.
DC: It’s clearer to me with my early writing about Agnes Martin. But it isn’t so much about queer culture, I suppose. It’s about my wanting to, or my following of what is the habit of putting Martin in relation to minimal art. Every museum shows Martin with the minimalists. When Ann Temkin did the reinstallation of abstract expressionists in the MoMA collection, it seemed to me that she wanted very much to find women to include, and so she included Helen Frankenthaler, for example, who is from a younger generation. But she did not include Martin, even though Martin thought of herself as an abstract expressionist and was born the same year as Jackson Pollock. More and more, I think that I was really wrong about Martin. I feel less that I was wrong about Kelly, and I don’t really think the notion of the decorative as queer would have been an option then. The idea of rethinking the decorative is something that queer writers now might do in relation to modernism. There is a sort of vulgar approach to artists who were gay like Ellsworth Kelly… trying to tease out gay meanings in that work. I don’t think that will get you anywhere.
One of the things I am aware of is where I am historically in relation to the moment of gay liberation, which was purely biographical. I was lucky to have gone to school in New Orleans. New Orleans had a very developed queer world at the time. I entered that world in the early 60s, so I felt reasonably comfortable with being gay. I participated in a queer culture; I found enough pleasure in it that I wasn’t going to give it up. I wasn’t going to beat myself up about it. For me, being gay was a good thing because it gave me pleasure. Even though I had to negotiate it in terms of who I told, and so on, because eventually I had to tell the university psychiatrist and the draft board that I was gay to get out of serving in the military during the Vietnam War, and at that time that was a big deal. My father had a friend on my local draft board, so it was a dicey thing to do and I was very anxious about it. But Ellsworth was 20 years older than me, and for his generation, it was a whole different thing. He fought in World War II. Ellsworth wasn’t very comfortable with being gay. I don’t know how comfortable he became—he eventually didn’t hide it any longer, certainly. But it never was what interested Ellsworth Kelly as a conscious aspect of making his work. Some would say that work as adamantly abstract as Agnes Martin’s and Ellsworth Kelly’s is about being in the closet, but I think that’s absurd.
KC: It seems like it’s more of a question about what we were talking about earlier: the frame, the critical frame. What does one allow in the frame of one’s view? To reframe his work in the way that your chapter does opens up new possibilities. It doesn’t have to all be read in opposition to opticality. A whole other vocabulary can come to bear.
DC: Yes, vocabulary. I was reading Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried when I began writing criticism and trying to grapple with it. It was the reigning paradigm, even though, one could say, it had effectively been overthrown by art practices ten years earlier, at least. But not if you look at Artforum throughout the 60s, as I did while I was working on this project. It is astonishing how fully Michael Fried influenced how much attention was given to very minor color field artists. Philip Leider, Artforum’s editor at the time, thought that Fried was an absolute genius and he really listened to him, to the extent that, when Fried said, ‘if you let Rosalind Krauss become one of the corresponding editors, I will resign,’ Rosalind was not made one of the corresponding editors. We think about Artforum in the 60s now and we think, ‘oh, they were publishing Robert Morris and Robert Smithson and Sol LeWitt, they really knew what they were doing,’ but in fact it’s a much more mixed bag. I was lucky, working for Diane Waldman at the Guggenheim and eventually having Betsy Baker as my editor at Art News. They were interested in minimal and conceptual art. Diane and Ellsworth were really good friends, and Betsy and Ellsworth were good friends too. I had a sense, through the people I was hanging out with and going to galleries with, of what mattered and what I liked best. But at the same time I didn’t know what to say about it. I took on the role of being an art reviewer having no credentials; I had to figure it out. When I look back now at the essay ‘Opaque Surfaces’ that I wrote in ’73, I think I actually did a pretty good job. I mean, I think the notion of opacity as opposed to opticality was a pretty smart move for a kid who didn’t know much. It did actually account well for artists like Brice Marden and Robert Ryman.
AS: At the end of your chapter discussing Ellsworth Kelly, the meditation on his seldom-discussed plant drawings is such a wonderful relief to your account of grappling in the early 70s with the Greenbergian narrative in the ‘Opaque Surfaces’ essay. The chapter has an open-ended kind of ending, for me, in its elegant solution of complexifying the narrative by sidestepping the debates about abstraction and turning instead to the plant drawings. Can you say more about the significance of the plant drawings in your mind?
DC: I don’t know how anybody has accounted for that or if anyone has attempted to account for it. It’s fascinating because they are in their own way abstracted.
AS: There’s something very personal, gentle and careful, about that outline, the contour of those drawings. It’s interesting to me that such a contour is where you end your meditation about that period in your life.
KC: And again, it’s desire that gets you there. Your love for those drawings, the love for the gingko tree that is also front and center in your account—these are the guides that compel the narrative whereas nothing in the history about Ellsworth Kelly takes us there.
AS: On the subject of love and pleasure, I want to ask about disco. It is incredibly compelling to me that you were able to experience disco as a complement or counterpart to your academic life in the 70s, even though those two worlds were so divided by day and night, personal and professional, and so on. Nevertheless, there was a kind of bringing together of pleasures for you, the pleasure of dancing and the pleasure of intellectual pursuits, in the way you lived your life at the time. Was disco a kind of resistance to the academic at all, or a critique of it?
DC: I had to give up disco when I became editor of October. I just didn’t have time. I was trying to do my graduate studies, edit the magazine, and, let me tell you, being the managing editor of October was not easy. I always slept really late and my fellow editors Rosalind Krauss and Annette Michelson got up early. One of the pleasures of my job was that I was the only one who went to the office, so nobody was policing when I went in to work. I certainly worked long hours, but they were not early hours. In the mornings, I would often have my answering machine on and I wouldn’t answer because I would only have gone to sleep two hours before. Annette would call and say on the machine, ‘Douglas, I know you’re there. Pick up the phone.’ It became increasingly harder to stay out really late. When I was really seriously doing Saturday night disco, I was taking drugs. It takes a while to get over that.
So my compromise was to go to these little bars where you could go dancing for a short while. I mention this when I talk about having to rewrite the ‘Pictures’ essay. I was housebound and on crutches because I had broken my hip disco roller-skating. That was one of the harder things I’ve done in my life, to rewrite the catalogue essay for the ‘Pictures’ show to publish it in October. One of the reasons it was so hard was that I couldn’t reward myself by going out dancing. I had a kind of routine, working until about 11 pm and then going out dancing. I have a similar routine now where I write in the morning and go to a dance performance in the evening. That kind of relation between work and pleasure was very consistent and it stayed that way for quite a long time, even though I became increasingly pulled into the seriousness of October.
But I still had my queer life. It continued through much of the 80s, and then AIDS took over and changed the gay world. For two or three years when I was dancing all the time, I hadn’t decided to go back to graduate school so I didn’t know really what my career path was and I really was at loose ends…I have to say now that writing has become a pleasure for me. I really look forward to writing. It used to be almost onerous. I didn’t know if I was any good at it, but now I enjoy it.
KC: A final question. I was thinking about the temporality of the ‘before’ in the title of the memoir. One of the ways you positioned the book in the beginning of this conversation was that it is also the time before AIDS as well as the time before gay rights, where ‘queer’ preceded those things. What does it mean to write about a time before AIDS in this moment now, when there seems to be a forgetting of AIDS?
DC: It’s a good question. I haven’t decided what the framing apparatus is. I’m not writing a preface. I’m hoping that because I am someone who—especially for people interested in queer matters—is well known for writing on AIDS, that the memoir won’t be seen as an avoidance of the subject. I imagine that on the jacket, or someplace in the book there will be mentions of my other book titles. The memoir is a project that grows out of the AIDS work in multiple ways. I initially found a first-person voice for my writing when I began writing about AIDS.
KC: The question wasn’t to imply that it feels like you’re bracketing AIDS. It seems that, very consciously, you want to evoke a time before. But, I feel like in your AIDS writing you’ve always given a kind of continuity that runs against the temporality of crisis. It’s a certain anti-crisis narrative, in a way, not to deny the crisis, but to say, ‘here are some things we have learned about how to have sex and how to have promiscuous, pleasurable sex,’ that could actually carry through. It seems like there’s an interest in continuity.
DC: The real impetus of this project and of the Warhol book too is a particular narrative that has been put in place very strongly that pre-AIDS is a period of gay immaturity and that our immature, bad behavior—not being proper citizens—led to this terrible epidemic. Through that, we discovered our maturity and responsibility. Countering that false narrative impelled all of my AIDS writing but also in some ways led to the Warhol book and this book, too. I want to capture something that disrupts that narrative of the bad old days—that accusation of immaturity.
This interview was transcribed by Natalie Zhang and Anna Neshyba.
 Mixed Use, Manhattan: Photography and Related Practices, 1970s to the Present, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia, Madrid, June 10-September 27, 2010; Greater New York, MoMA PS1, October 11, 2015-March 7, 2-16.
Douglas Crimp is Fanny Knapp Allen Professor of Art History at the University of Rochester and the author ofOn the Museum’s Ruins, 1993; Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics, 2002; and“Our Kind of Movie”: The Films of Andy Warhol, 2012. He was the curator of the Pictures exhibition at Artists Space, New York, in 1977 and, from 1977 to 1990, an editor of the journal October, for which he edited the special issue AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism in 1987. With Lynne Cooke, he organized the exhibition Mixed Use, Manhattan for the Reina Sofía in Madrid in the summer of 2010, and he was on the curatorial team for the 2015 iteration of MoMA PS1’s quinquennial Greater New York. Before Pictures, Crimp’s memoir of New York in the 1970s, will be published in September 2016.
Kris Cohen is Assistant Professor of Art and Humanities at Reed College. He teaches and writes about the relationship between art, economy, and media technologies, focusing especially on the aesthetics of collective life. His current project, entitled Never Alone, Except for Now (Duke University Press, forthcoming), addresses these concerns in the context of electronic networks.
Abigail Susik is Assistant Professor of Art History at Willamette University. Her research focuses on the intersection of material culture, consumption and technology in modern and contemporary art, particularly in surrealism studies and new media aesthetics. With Elliott H. King she is co-editor of the book project, Radical Dreams: Surrealism and Counterculture.