PRINT April 1981


Gregory Battcock

THERE IS A GREGORY BATTCOCK story in each of us. Mine has to do with a dinner at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 1974, the night before the first conference on video art. The host asked us all to rise and identify ourselves. One after another, we staggered to our feet, mumbled our names, added a self-descriptive phrase or institutional tag, then collapsed. Suddenly, 25 or 30 names later, an astonishing young woman split the air with a thrilling shout, never moving from her seat: “I AM GREGORY BATTCOCK!” At first the laughter came like a cold shock. Then it relaxed, breaking into a wave of sound. A few days later the same woman again appeared as Gregory, and read aloud his extraordinary essay, “The Aesthetics of Boeing,” in which he argues that the destinies of art, television and transportation are intertwined: that they all become de-objectified, to exist finally as experiential concept and nothing more. He found the early clues to this theory in easel painting, in the increasing portability of the television set (growing smaller, freeing itself from architecture and the wall, just as the Renaissance freed itself from the fresco), and in the cruise ship (where destination matters not at all).

I can’t say that anyone understood him at this conference. I can’t say that I did, though years before he had virtually shouted this thesis at me over the telephone, after he saw my lonely, backward television set, detached from the wall of a dark room at the back of the old Reese Palley Gallery. It was not only that Gregory’s ideas were fresh, launched from a conceptual pad located out beyond New York (and everyplace else). It was his manner. He refused to indulge in his person the sobriety inherent in his thinking. If I stop now as I am typing this memoir to list the ideas he stated and restated in all his essays and magnificent anthologies, they parade by like ponderous pachyderms: the critic as an involved extension of the work of art itself rather than as a detached, objective judge (The New Art, 1966); the shift of attention in artmaking from the object itself to the artist’s conception, and then to the perceiver’s experience of the work—and beyond the perceiver, to the world outside (Why Art, 1977); the rising acceptance and use of the forms of popular culture in advanced art (and vice versa), paradoxically juxtaposed with the growing resistance of major museums to that art—leading to the use by artists of storefronts, vaudeville stages and movie theaters as havens for exhibitions (“The Progress of Realism,” 1976); and, of course, portability in all its forms, by which he meant the crucial importance of idea, rather than of gesture or physical perfection (Idea Art, 1973).

But certainly we knew this. We knew that Gregory was serious. His attempt to play dilettante failed him in the end. It was not this Double Face that denied him the official homage he deserved, not Vicky Alliata playing Gregory at the Modern, not Gregory the party critic playing Rona Barrett in the Soho Weekly News. No, none of this did it. Speed did it. He was too fast, sprinting with ideas faster than the world could follow. Rudolf Baranik remembers him as a young student, talking a blue streak. The rapid flow of his anthologies was a symptom of his restlessness. They showed him swallowing up entire subjects, chewing, spitting them out a few months later, impatiently moving on. Jim Wines tells me he had decided to take on architecture a few days before he left New York for Christmas in Puerto Rico. I believe him. I can imagine Gregory producing an anthology immediately upon his return, a train of essays and four or five lectures before the summer vacation.

His death gives us some needed pause, some chance to measure him. I am not sure, finally, who Gregory Battcock was. I have no doubt that the value of his contribution to our thinking will grow, both in stature and in clarity. Like any true revolutionary, he is destined for the common culture of tomorrow. But Gregory himself remains a mystery. Perhaps he was, for a while, Vicky Alliata. Perhaps he is now. Whatever the case or form, I will never forget him.

Douglas Davis