PRINT October 2019


Douglas Crimp, School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, 1984. Photo: Eleftheria Lialios.

BY THE TIME I MET DOUGLAS CRIMP, he had earned his fame several times over. It was easy to find him daunting in the real. He was formidably tall, handsome, cerebral, clear-eyed, and never low on fuel. But Douglas was also gentle, openhanded, and powered by curiosity; he found it utterly crucial to relate to you. You got used to Douglas’s kind of care, which truly makes room for others and sustains a genuine presence to them no matter how perfunctory the occasion. He really just thrived in friendship, inhabiting it with lenient intensity. A lot of people feel close to Douglas because Douglas was close with a lot of people—seeming, though, to inhabit each closeness with an awareness of what it meant, made possible. About his beloved Manhattan, he loved most the closeness it makes imperative. (He visited Williamstown, Massachusetts, twice while I lived there. Among other quibbles, he found it too full of space, got the willies, and cut both visits short.) Otherwise, Douglas was perfectly open. This permitted him to reside in modernism with an equipoise that almost seems incompatible with it. Notably, Douglas—a leading theorist of postmodernism in visual art—never renounced enchantment, which he pursued doggedly.

Certain luck is wasted on people who do not wish to use it. I say this as someone who, apparently, did not wish to learn, even after I arrived in Rochester, New York, in September 1996, to study with Douglas. I had my reasons. Always quite the talker, I engaged freely in the talking that came easy. But I also couldn’t shake the speech difficulties that had beset me from childhood. Any demand to speak aggravates them: being asked my name, answering the phone, coming to the front of a line. Now my stutter was worse than ever. New on a scene where intense conversation was the default setting, I was surrounded by triggers. Shortly after the start of school, I went to ask permission to skip the required presentations in two of Douglas’s seminars, to make an arrangement of the sort I’d made with teachers going back to the fourth grade regarding recitations, speeches, and the like. Douglas let me know the game was up. There would be no arrangement. Everyone presents. He confided that he, too, was shy—but all the time gave talks. He then came to the point: “Darby, this is what we do.” Had he conducted that meeting any differently, I might still be hiding.

Photo-booth strip of Douglas Crimp, ca. 1970s.

This was job training, plus. Job training: If I wanted to do something with my precious questions, I’d have to expose myself. In isolation, a question is merely entertained, not posed. My questions were intellectual playthings, talismans of smartness I just sort of hoarded. They now had to become an apparatus of communication. I began to understand that a real question anticipates replies one cannot predict. And replies supplied the only way to learn from my questions, to develop them, to put them to work. Plus: How else would I learn what my voice was, what it could do, what not? How else to enter the already ongoing conversation about my concerns? I wasn’t owed a place in it, no matter how exciting my intuitions might be. (At that time, you couldn’t just turn yourself into a place. Social media was nonexistent and personal websites were like homemade cars.) I wanted effectiveness without personal risk. And I had sought help with this from Douglas Crimp. There still isn’t an app for that.

One who can speak doesn’t necessarily have much to say. Thoroughest consideration of what to say and how—all measured against an appropriately ambitious ideal of effectiveness—is fundamental to the communication I had to learn. Douglas’s zeal for the exact greatly appealed to me. It also turned out to be a tool. But in these crucially individual matters of deliberation, strategy, and voicing, Douglas instructed me from a calculated distance. From this teaching at a distance, I learned to love trying. I tried and failed, tried some more and failed some more. That is, I cultivated a personal feeling for commitment. The misleading “always” of commitment instills a forgetting that nobody is born committed. It may be dishonest to associate commitment, as many do, with what is natural, hereditary, perennial, and epic. Commitment arises from attachments—whose own stories tell of risk, connection, testing, loss, reconstruction, and, most important, discovery. Douglas’s feeling for the suppleness of commitment could have been a calling card: Just consider his formats, subjects, and tones. There are many ways to learn from Douglas without being his student.

Douglas Crimp, Long Island, New York, 1977. Photo: Helene Winer.

He did not approach art seeking his reflection. He understood that an encounter with art is an encounter with difference—really with differences, of greatly varying kinds and forces. Never for him was art an invitation to rehash cherished memories, impressions, associations. That is why, as a reader and interlocutor, Douglas bird-dogged the difference between projection and observation, vamp and insight, prattle and statement. He looked from no fixed position; Douglas was a watcher, attuned to inflections and disturbances in the fields he tended. He preferred vanguard offerings to others. Yet he made an extravagant provision of care for his reader. In the pages and lectures he gave us, shearing gusts of clarity move in the air around difficult art.

Douglas’s great life’s work may have been to open up American modernism. Its closure, certitude, and future vision never ailed him. In his view, particulars mattered. In his work, the speaker is a plausible self, with wants and doubts. Despite the dogmatism of his training (and of the context of his earliest successes), he was not satisfied to condemn other formations just to extend the reign of established confidences regarding art or the social. Of these abstractions, he spoke about manifestations, from a position and in detail. And a position was subject to change, because even as positioned as subjects we are permeable. The demands of one such position—and of dignity—precipitated a heartbreaking separation from October. Lives were in the balance, and Douglas left to expand his sense and scope of work accordingly. That awareness, of the imbrication of all representation with all the events of life, touched all his work. To write about art was not to take cues from the telos. To advise was not to offer students a menu of top-quality subjects and schemata. He neither used art nor tolerated its use to reenact what theory had already enacted. He might have said: There is always more to see.

Cover of October 43 (Winter 1987).

It was Douglas who first emboldened me to undertake the project whose contours I am still discovering. And, of course, he was uniquely competent to help and support me. Always, I was going to study the wayward element in culture, its past and its powers. When I first identified my problem in the promotion of blackness as an absolute value—with its sectarian tendency to appropriate or cancel any dissent—Douglas generously recognized his problems in mine, partly because there was a prior understanding: Exigent questions are exigent questions no matter who’s asking. At issue are abuses of interpretive power by interests who gain much by suppressing nonconforming elements, plunging them into “irrelevance” if they seek other representational ends. Very often, those elements are functionally queer, with all the normative machinery of standardized black culture bearing down on them; very often, they are feminist, with all the misogynist machinery of that culture bearing down on them; or they are nonblack, with all the racist machinery of that culture bearing down on them. Usually, they are creative, with all the repetitious machinery of standardized black culture bearing down on them. It’s work to extricate a wayward element from this pile, to find out its qualities. Though seductive, everlasting identitarian innocence is not real, except insofar as it is a real evasion. It gives way to a form of work that specifies optimism as compulsory. By “optimism” I simply mean openness to the other—the other over there and the other within. Both have their reflection in the tangle of the actual world. The needed ministrations are easy to give when you take pleasure in lavishing them.

We came to share an attitude toward work: a strange amazement at being able to live on what nourishes you, a thankfulness that both stuns and propels. Douglas’s capacity to search the outer world was for him a constant source of joy. Even amid severe late limitations, he came, through that search—and his confidence in knowing what was so—to a fullness of living like nothing I ever saw.

My awareness of Douglas Crimp’s scholarship coincided with the publication of On the Museum’s Ruins, in 1993. By then his syntheses were established, renowned. The book was a further statement of a master specialist. But for me it reset the clock, merging things I had thought intrinsically separate. I was nineteen; I had only questions. The work Douglas and I would do together produced much more than answers. It instilled in me the conviction that questions are exactly nothing without unselfish, careful advocates. Douglas’s passing blew a huge hole in my life. It also brought a difficulty that’s far from personal. For upon Douglas’s passing exact and exacting questions of subjectivity and difference lost their most skilled, their most tireless advocate among thinkers about art. Minimally good living among others in an image world depends on these questions. That is why they require extremely precise framing. That is why they need contexts that welcome the conflict that unapologetic curiosity and open conversation generate. And that is why they need advocates. All concerned will have to face this predicament—the restoration of curiosity, care, and conversation—without Douglas by our sides to show us how. There is neither time to waste nor any valid reason to rush. 

Darby English is the Carl Darling Buck Professor of Art History at the University of Chicago.