PRINT October 2019


Douglas Crimp, New York, 1990. Photo: T. L. Litt.

I LOVE DOUGLAS CRIMP. He is the reason I am alive today. This is not an exaggeration. I am physically well, and more or less psychologically intact, thanks to Douglas. I am who I am because of him. No other person has so completely influenced the shape of my life.

We met over thirty years ago. In 1987, I received a phone call. Without screening it on my answering machine, as I usually would have, I happened to pick up. “Hi, Gregg,” said a voice. “This is Douglas Crimp. I’m thinking about putting together an issue of October devoted to the AIDS crisis. I hear that you are doing work about AIDS.” I had not met Douglas before, but of course I knew who he was. Of course I knew his work. I was stunned by the call, out of the blue, and by Douglas’s informality and the kindness in his voice. He invited me to dinner at his apartment to talk.

1987: This was after Douglas had left his birthplace of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, to study at Tulane University in New Orleans. After he moved to New York and worked as an assistant to the dress designer Charles James, and after he lived with the Warhol Superstar Holly Woodlawn. After he attended all those Gay Activist Alliance dances at the firehouse and worked as a curatorial assistant at the Guggenheim. After he authored a (still unpublished) Moroccan cookbook.

I met him long after the day he stood outside his Chelsea loft, watching smoke pour from the windows while his belongings were destroyed. Douglas told me that when he stared up at the incinerated apartment, he felt oddly free of his attachments to things. He realized the impermanent nature of objects. This story, or how I remember it, contradicts the Douglas I came to know, a person sensually engaged with the physical world, who loved objects, especially art objects. This is a man who once reported his desire to lick the surface of a Brice Marden painting.

If you knew Douglas, then this contradictory disposition—of detachment and intense devotion—is not mysterious. He lived modestly. He was not preoccupied with ownership. And this quality freed him to express fierce attachments to art as a matter of public property.

Gregg Bordowitz and Douglas Crimp, New York, ca. 1987–90.

SO ONE EVENING IN 1987, I showed up at Douglas’s apartment on the ninth floor of a commercial building in the financial district where some tenants occupied office spaces with a shared bathroom down the hall. He greeted me at the door in a T-shirt and jeans. He served meat loaf wrapped in bacon and we drank Budweiser out of the can. Now, to appreciate this, you have to know that bacon-wrapped meat loaf and beer from a can were decades from being trends. The dinner was very relaxed, but Douglas was fully present, interested in what a man twenty years younger had to say about the AIDS crisis and the state of gay politics.

And there I was, eating a home-cooked meal with Douglas Crimp. The same Douglas who, in 1977, curated “Pictures,” the now-famous show at Artists Space that gave generations of artists permission to translate Minimalism’s rigorous formal concerns into critical interrogations of images drawn from popular culture. Douglas gave us all a lot of permission to do a lot of things—and not as acts of authority. He didn’t “grant” permission, as if to a vassal or like a member of the clergy. Douglas opened doors and freed us from conventions and restraints by leading the way, by being an exemplary figure of courage.

Jim Hubbard, United in Anger: A History of ACT UP, 2012, video, color, sound, 93 minutes. Gregg Bordowitz and Douglas Crimp.

I MOVED TO NEW YORK CITY from Long Island in 1982. But I didn’t really move to the city so much as I moved to Douglas Crimp’s art world. Back then, the most important gallery for me and my peers was Metro Pictures, which featured the work of artists from the Pictures generation, as they would come to be called. Douglas was then managing editor of October, which at the time was considered mandatory reading by many artists. In 1982, the art I looked at, the theory I read—all of it was shaped by Douglas Crimp. His essays from the late 1970s and early ’80s taught me that Left-identified progressive art was not limited to mural painting. He taught me that political engagement could be an aesthetic concern. He showed me how to look at art, photography, and film with conviction, and how to take a position, to understand that aesthetic commitments are ethical commitments. For Douglas, art was a complex, vital amalgam of sexuality, economy, labor, medium, and materials; and politics within art institutions were coextensive with politics at large.

The night I arrived at his apartment for dinner marked the beginning of a working relationship that changed both our lives. Douglas invited me to write an essay for October’s legendary Winter 1987 issue. Its theme: “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism.” I didn’t know how to write; I didn’t have a college degree then, and I still don’t. When the deadline came, I handed Douglas a three-page, single-spaced typewritten screed. He sat me down in the journal’s offices and taught me how to write: how to structure a sentence and a paragraph, how to build a logical argument. He accepted my propensity for declarative statements and gave me lessons in prose style.

In turn, I introduced Douglas to ACT UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power. He became a committed member, attending meetings and protests and laying his body on the line in acts of civil disobedience. He wrote about his feelings of awkwardness and vulnerability as a forty-something man spending all his time with twenty-something activists. I hope he realized how vital his presence and participation were to so many of us. It meant so much to be at an ACT UP meeting with Douglas Crimp. It meant a great deal to be on the street and lay your body on the line next to Douglas Crimp. Douglas legitimized us. He gave us our dignity.

Douglas’s intellectual bravery cost him. October’s AIDS issue, and a subsequent issue that they didn’t print, resulted in his alienation and rejection from the journal. Please recall that direct action, queer sexuality, and AIDS were challenging subjects even for some of the most sophisticated intellectuals. Certainly, not all critics and intellectuals reacted negatively to Douglas’s turn to direct engagement, but enough did. Even a handful was too many. We needed allies.

Being queer is not a form of resistance. It’s not a position you adopt to achieve a political end. You’re just queer, it’s a fact, and people will hate you for it, people will want you to die, they’ll kill you. As a faggot with AIDS facing the great uncertainty about your own mortality, breathing is your form of resistance—just breathing and continuing to breathe.

Douglas gave me my dignity, the nerve to carry on, and the encouragement I desperately needed to face the most difficult passage in my life. I am not alone. He did this for a generation of people, not only those of us who marched with him and got arrested with him. Around the world, his articles were read and will continue to be read at each stage of the epidemic. He taught us how to interpret the dominant media, how to articulate our sexual politics, how to conduct ourselves as queer people, how to have sex during an epidemic, how to continue to be activists even as we mourned the countless deaths of friends and lovers. He was among the first to recognize the structuring role of affect as a dimension of political struggle. Douglas affirmed our need to mourn while we continued the difficult work we had to accomplish.

He gave us our dignity. His ability to do so derived from his profound understanding of the psychological mechanisms of shame. And Douglas acknowledged our shame, too. He showed us how to own it. In “Mario Montez, For Shame” (2002), he taught us that shame can be a moment of terrible honesty that galvanizes a person into being, being real, being the fabulous creature of one’s own desires.

In hindsight, you can see continuity across Douglas’s commitments—how dancing at the firehouse and writing about the institutional politics of art exhibitions could lead to direct action. Douglas’s work, its urgency, was directly connected to his passions. In the years subsequent to his work on AIDS, Douglas reinvented Warhol scholarship with Our Kind of Movie: The Films of Andy Warhol (2012). He reinvented dance scholarship in his writings, in this magazine and elsewhere, on Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, and Yvonne Rainer, using his own style of naked observation.

Douglas was a brilliant writer who continued to hone his craft over his lifetime. His analysis is sharp and incisive. His prose is lucid and disarming. In his essays of thirty and forty years ago he perfected a polemical mode that he developed alongside his critical peers. In the writings that came later, he built on that mode but shifted emphasis toward an elegant, forthright, and spare style. I want to call it virtuosic. Christopher Isherwood comes to mind. Their achievements are comparable. Douglas and Isherwood have the same enviable qualities—extraordinary powers of observation paired with exceptional abilities to render their experience in accessible, unadorned prose. I’m talking about writing that is of the body and for the body, carnal and aesthetic.

Alvin Baltrop, Untitled, Pier 52, 1975–86, gelatin silver print, 8 × 10". Gordon Matta-Clark, Day’s End, 1975.

I think of “Action Around the Edges,” a chapter in his memoir, Before Pictures (2016), in which he contemplates Manhattan’s West Side piers, where Gordon Matta-Clark made his famous 1975 architectural cutting, Day’s End. Matta-Clark’s work held time and space with the gay men who used the piers as a cruising area. Douglas writes from two positions: as a critic who understands the magnitude of Matta-Clark’s achievement, and as a gay man with intimate knowledge of the shared sexual culture of gay life. “Action Around the Edges” is a paean to his city, recalling a moment when he “could cherish the illusion that these Manhattan streets belonged to me—to me and others who were discovering them and using them for our own purposes.”

Douglas the flaneur, the art critic, the activist, the teacher, the writer, the public intellectual, the dinner host and loyal friend. Douglas dissolved artificial distinctions between the “life of the mind” and a “life of action” by crystallizing it all into language, into beautiful prose, sumptuous simple lines, and thoughtful poise—home-cooked and served with unabashed curiosity—until the day he died. He faced illness and death with the same grace that he exemplified in everything he achieved. 

Gregg Bordowitz is an artist who splits his time between Chicago and New York. His work was most recently the subject of a retrospective exhibition titled “Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well,” at the Cooley Art Gallery of Reed College, Portland, OR (Fall 2018), and at the Art Institute of Chicago (Spring 2019).