Before Pictures, by Douglas Crimp. New York: Dancing Foxes Press; Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 308 pages.
IT STARTS LIKE a classic bildungsroman from the mighty island-city: It’s 1967, and a young writer from a beautiful, bigoted town called Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, escapes to Manhattan to find himself. A decade later, he’s made his mark: It’s called “Pictures,” and it alters the course of art and its discourses.
What makes Douglas Crimp’s Before Pictures so remarkable is not just its subjectthe art historian and AIDS activist’s early years leading up to the epoch-defining 1977 exhibition at Artists Space and the pair of titular essays that were so critical to its historicization. It’s not just the casual meet-cutes at John Ashbery parties and the formative encounters with Agnes Martin and Ellsworth Kelly and Charles James and Daniel Buren; the early, incisive formalist writings whose frissons eventually inspired one of the great innovations in late-twentieth-century criticism: the recognition of a breach, which Crimp labels postmodernism, in modernist parables of art and theatricality. It’s how the story is told.
Before Pictures is a strange and shimmering chimera: Part memoir, part theory, it swerves and circles, often paragraph to paragraph, from anecdote to argument and back again, a graceful, unfussy waltz that sometimes seduces you into thinking that it’s “simply” autobiography. But the writing is also a performance of the necessary entanglement between serious thought and its “decor”an entanglement that fascinates Crimp, and that makes him such an exceptional protagonist.
The animating juxtaposition is announced early on, in the book’s introduction, “Front Room, Back Room,” whose title describes the generative architectonics of the restaurant/club Max’s Kansas City in the late 1960s. In the front are the serious (mostly straight) artists; in the back are the unwieldy queers, lit up by amphetamines and the lambent red halo of an imposing Dan Flavin. Crimp prefers the back room, but you must work your way through the front to get there. This negotiation of two rooms, of two worldsa give-and-take whose physicality Crimp articulates via persistent, prosaic descriptions of his urban ambulationsand his ability to find pleasure, if not peace, in both, constitute the book’s central friction and vivid donnée.
Crimp wants to be a serious critic. But he also wants to fuck. Gay liberation, spilling into that cruelly short moment between Stonewall (1969) and AIDS (1981–), demands reinvention, novel couplings, and sexual experimentation. Overlapping and adjacent, rebel artists are commandeering Manhattan’s deindustrialized downtown, remaking it in their own image. Crimp is beholden to both worlds but finds the two incompatible. He dates the “wrong” kinds of people. He spends too much time cruising for sex at the piers. He moves farther downtown to escape crepuscular temptations, but fails: In the end, he just has a longer walk home from the bars. In one of the book’s many great ironies, Crimp breaks his hip skating at the Empire Rollerdrome in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and his forced convalescence gives him the spaceand the boredomto finish the second, watershed version of the essay “Pictures” for October in 1979.
I kept wondering when he’d figure it all out, when he’d choose between work and bed, until I realized that it was often Crimp’s very ambivalence about sex and criticismhis inability to reconcile his attachments to queer urbanity and heterosexual “seriousness”that gives his work such profound force. This is perhaps best evinced in one of my favorite of the book’s nine elegant chapter-essays, “Disss-co (A Fragment),” which begins with Crimp’s present-day discovery, amid some early pre-“Pictures” notes on postmodernism, of an abandoned project on gay discos:
[By 5:30 AM], the music is always good, there’s plenty of room on the dance floor, and only the serious discoers are left. But best of all your body has quit resisting. It has unstoppable momentum. That is the one thing about disco comparable to any other experience. It’s like what happens in distance running or swimming. You pass a point where you’re beyond tired, beyond pain, beyond even thinking about stopping, thinking only that this could go on forever and you’d love it. It’s pure ecstasy. Nothing matters but disco, and nothingnot sex, not food, not sleep, nothingis better.
This is for all the party girls. Disco makes writing impossible. And yet: Wasn’t the serious criticand the recognition, in that prefix-that-is-suffix post, of artists’ infidelities and ecstatic disenchantments with the old terms of the medium and representation at largeindissociable from the serious discoer? I’m into “Disss-co” not just because it is rich with the epiphanies of Crimp’s legato thinkingthough there is that, toobut also because it convulses with the urgency to render one’s moment that animates essential polemics like Melancholia and Moralism (2002) and the activist blueprint AIDS Demo Graphics (1990). You can hear the Crimp who would someday give us the indelible revelation “It is our promiscuity that will save us.” That was ten years after “Pictures”; now it’s thirty more. I still believe that our promiscuity can save us. I only wonder: Is there enough to go around?
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