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Annette Michelson (1922–2018)

Annette Michelson, whose film criticism not only profoundly influenced cinema studies but helped legitimize the medium as a viable subject of scholarship, has died. She was ninety-five years old. As a critic, editor, translator, and historian, Michelson evolved new theoretical paradigms for grappling with modernist art, most notably as a writer and editor for Artforum and then as a cofounder of October. An early interpreter of minimalism and avant-garde cinema, Michelson also helped contextualize individual artists like Michael Snow, Robert Morris, and Dziga Vertov, and through October and her translations familiarized American readers to the French theory that would dominate academia in the 1960s and 70s. Beginning in 1967, she largely developed the cinema studies department of New York University, whose Michelson Theater bears her name.

Born in New York in 1922, Michelson graduated from Brooklyn College in 1948. After spending a decade as art editor and critic of the Paris edition of the New York Herald Tribune, she returned to the United States in 1965, where she quickly established herself as a major voice in the burgeoning realm of film studies as a writer for Arts Magazine and Arts International. After her much-anthologized Film Culture essay “Film and the Radical Aspiration” from 1966—which mapped out the different dynamics between capital and social transformation in Soviet and US cinema—Michelson began reviewing for Artforum. Her varied criticism in these pages included both a nearly eight-thousand-word treatise on Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and a pivotal essay titled “Camera Lucida/Camera Obscura” on Stan Brakhage and Sergei Eisenstein (the title was later lent to a Festschrift published by Amsterdam University Press in 2003).

In 1971, between the departure of Artforum editor-in-chief Phil Leider and the beginning of John Coplans’s tenure as editor, Michelson was invited to guest-edit a special film issue. The result, an exploration of formalist film helmed by Michelson and her pupils at NYU, led to her becoming the magazine’s associate film editor. In addition to bolstering Artforum’s film coverage, Michelson also took on then-neglected subjects like performance and dance, penning a feature on Yvonne Rainer that spanned two issues. In 1976, following the publication of Lynda Benglis’s storied advertising spread and after editorial rejection of a proposed performance issue, Michelson departed the magazine along with Rosalind Krauss. Responding to a perceived “crisis in criticism” brought on by new art forms and movements, the two launched October that same year.   

Often phenomenological, occasionally poetic, and at times dismissed as esoteric, Michelson’s criticism, while at certain periods steeped in poststructuralism or other theories, remained agnostic toward specific models of thinking. Her power in shaping visual culture earned her not only admirers; Carolee Schneemann revealed in 1988 that the scroll from her momentous Interior Scroll performance was addressed to Michelson, who allegedly refused to watch her films.

In 2015, Michelson donated her archives—which date back to 1950 and include correspondence with Susan Sontag, Jonas Mekas, Ad Reinhardt, Yvonne Rainer, and Martha Rosler—to the Getty Research Institute, which also holds her film library. Last year, a collection of Michelson’s essays on film, On the Eve of the Future, was published by MIT. An interview between Michelson and art historian Rachel Churner, who edited the volume, ran in Artforum’s March 2017 issue.

Read some of Michelson’s Artforum essays below:

Bodies in Space: Film as ‘Carnal Knowledge,’” February 1969

Toward Snow,” Summer 1971

“‘The Man with the Movie Camera’: From Magician to Epistemologist,” March 1972

Camera Lucida/Camera Obscura,” January 1973

Yvonne Rainer, Part One: The Dancer and the Dance,” January 1974

Yvonne Rainer, Part Two: ‘Lives of Performers,’” February 1974