PRINT October 2019


Douglas Crimp with Sherrie Levine’s Untitled (After Edward Weston) (1981), New York, 1986. Photo: Robert Giard.

IN MY FINAL YEAR AT COLLEGE, I wrote a “senior essay” on AIDS and contemporary art supervised by the visiting critic Craig Owens. When I met with Craig (we were not permitted to call him Professor Owens) during office hours, he told me that I needed to talk to Douglas Crimp, who was at the time editing a special issue of October on AIDS, activism, and cultural theory. I asked for Douglas’s address so I could write a letter of introduction (needless to say, this was years before email). “Don’t be silly,” Craig said. “We’ll just call him.” He picked up the phone and started dialing. I was terrified. (I figured Craig had to talk to me because he was my teacher, but Douglas Crimp was under no such obligation.) In the ensuing conversation, Douglas addressed me not as a teacher instructing a student but as a fellow gay man confronting an epidemic. He shared his ideas about art, AIDS, and activism as though I were a peer. We spoke for more than an hour. That conversation transformed my sense of what critical thinking could achieve. It convinced me that ideas could jump off the page to do real work in the world.

I met Douglas in person a year later when he gave a talk titled “Mourning and Militancy” at the second annual National Lesbian and Gay Studies Conference in 1989. Near the beginning of the talk he narrated a personal story of familial loss and ambivalence:

In 1977, while I was visiting my family in Idaho, my father died unexpectedly. He and I had a strained and increasingly distant relationship, and I was unable to feel or express my grief over his death. After the funeral I returned to New York for the opening of an exhibition I’d organized and resumed my usual life. But within a few weeks a symptom erupted which to this day leaves a scar near my nose: my left tear duct became badly infected and the resulting abscess grew to a golf-ball sized swelling that closed over my left eye and completely disfigured my face. When the abscess finally burst, the foul-smelling pus oozed down my cheek like poison tears. I have never since doubted the force of the unconscious. 

The second part of this story was difficult for me to hear. As the abscess burst and the pus oozed, I felt queasy and uncomfortable. Yet it was precisely the vividness of Douglas’s words, along with the conviction and deep timbre of his voice, that carried me through. I have gone back to this passage many times over the years, often in the context of teaching. (Initially published in October, the lecture is reprinted in Douglas’s Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics [2002].) Its first-person rawness and physicality make it a remarkably effective articulation of the power of the unconscious. Like Douglas himself, it is tough and unforgettable. His “poison tears” story led to the main point of the talk, which was that AIDS activists should acknowledge grief rather than repress it. Douglas concluded with a call for his listeners “to recognize—along with our rage—our terror, our guilt, and our profound sadness. Militancy, of course, but mourning too: mourning and militancy.”

When the talk ended, the crowd in the large auditorium gave Douglas a standing ovation. It was not as though a few people stood up first and the rest followed suit. It was the spontaneous response of at least two hundred people. I had never seen an audience at an academic event express its adulation and gratitude so freely. I have never seen it since. Far from simply convincing his listeners of an argument, Douglas demonstrated the collision between psychic life and political commitments in the context of AIDS. He did this in a way so immediate and openhearted that the audience was moved more intensely than anyone expected.

I arrived in New York three years later to research my dissertation on censorship and homosexuality in American art. Douglas and I shifted from an exclusively intellectual relationship to one that included going to bars and clubs, seeing exhibitions, (cheap) restaurant outings, shopping, and various forms of boy talk. I lived in an apartment on the corner of Waverly Place and Christopher Street (just down the block from the Stonewall) and my living-room window was easily visible from the sidewalk. I told friends to ring my doorbell anytime they saw the light on, and I’d throw the keys down to the street, as there was no functional buzzer. Only one person ever took me up on the offer—Douglas—and he did so repeatedly. Over the course of several months, we became friends by the light of my living-room window.

But there was another place we became friends, and that was on the page. For a time, we exchanged drafts of our work and talked about the process of writing, the problem of self-critique, the tyranny of deadlines, and about what blocked us, sometimes pleasurably, from getting our work done. Douglas urged me to think beyond the boundaries of conventional art criticism and academic scholarship and, more broadly, to think beyond the boundaries of conventional thinking.

Two lessons I learned from reading his work: 1) Don’t ignore a challenge to your thinking or try to neatly resolve it. Describe the challenge so that the reader can come along for the ride. 2) Use the first-person voice to draw the reader out rather than simply to draw attention to yourself. These rules (which Douglas would never have explicitly articulated or imposed as such) come together in “The Boys in My Bedroom” (1989), his great essay about postmodern appropriation and the culture wars over homoerotic art. At a key moment, Douglas narrates an anecdote about Sherrie Levine’s rephotographed images of Edward Weston’s studies of his nude eight-year-old son, Neil:

For several years I had hanging in my bedroom Levine’s series of Weston’s young male nudes. On a number of occasions, a certain kind of visitor to my bedroom would ask me, “Who’s the kid in the photographs?” generally with the implication that I was into child pornography. Wanting to counter that implication, but unable easily to explain what those photographs meant to me, or at least what I thought they meant to me, I usually told a little white lie, saying only that they were photographs by a famous photographer of his son. I was thereby able to establish a credible reason for having the pictures without having to explain postmodernism to someone I figured—given the nature of these encounters—wouldn’t be particularly interested.

Douglas’s seemingly discreet language (“a certain kind of visitor to my bedroom”) is in fact a way of imparting information that is quite the opposite. His indirection is at once effective and tongue-in-cheek. (Every time I read this essay, I half expect Douglas to refer to his visitors as “gentleman callers,” but that would have been too camp for this context.) He acknowledges his own uncertainty about how to explain postmodernism to his casual partners but also, and more surprisingly, about what Levine’s photographs mean to him. Rather than avoid uncertainty, Douglas pursued it as an occasion to push his ideas further. This is precisely what he does when he turns in the next paragraph to the broader implications of the questions posed by his visitors about “the kid”:

But some time later I was forced to recognize that these questions were not so naïve as I’d assumed. The men in my bedroom were perfectly able to read—in Weston’s posing, framing, and lighting the young Neil so as to render his body a classical sculpture—the long-established codes of homoeroticism. And in making the leap from those codes to the codes of kiddie porn, they were stating no more than what was enacted, in the fall of 1989, as the law governing federal funding of art in the United States. That law—proposed by right-wing senator Jesse Helms in response to certain of Mapplethorpe’s photographs—directly equated homoeroticism with obscenity and with the sexual exploitation of children.

Douglas moves, all but seamlessly, from casual, pre-sex conversation to the legislative and symbolic conditions of the culture wars. He tells us what he learned from the boys in his bedroom, namely, that the homoeroticism of the nudes had to be admitted, particularly within the context of a Far Right attack on art that sought to exploit stereotypes of gay men as sexual predators and pedophiles.

When I read Douglas’s essays and books, I can’t help but think about what lies beyond the page—stories told, gossip exchanged, frustrations vented, judgments passed. Douglas’s sense of humor was so dry that at times I didn’t know if he was joking. I once invited him to see a Broadway show, and he said he didn’t like going to the theater because he felt embarrassed for the actors, up on stage pretending to be people they were not. (And this from the man who had famously criticized Michael Fried’s modernist attack on “theatricality”!) When I told Douglas that I had a musical in mind, he said that was even worse, because the actors would not only pretend to be other people but would also suddenly burst into song as though this were perfectly natural.

Douglas was droll about narcissism in the art world and academia. He once recounted how he’d participated, fairly early in his career, in a panel discussion with Craig Owens and another leading art critic. When the audience showered Craig with attention during the Q&A, the other critic grew agitated, finally turning her chair around onstage and sitting with her back to the audience. For Douglas, her gesture embodied the aggression with which intellectuals often turn their backs on interests that do not conform to their own.

I never knew Douglas to do this. He not only engaged with difference, he sought it out, theorized it, helped to clear space for it. He realized the potential of bringing together subjects that would otherwise seem irreconcilable. Douglas took Andy Warhol’s idea of “somehow misfitting together” as a model for art and life.

I visited Douglas at his home a few days before he died. I happened to mention the standing ovation he’d received decades earlier for “Mourning and Militancy.” He told me that was one of the most meaningful moments in his life. I asked about his current book project on dance. Douglas said he had finished the manuscript and was grateful to have lived long enough to do so. This was not something he could take for granted. We talked about the book’s title and how it would be laid out on the cover, something that Douglas had discussed with Joseph Logan, a designer he loved working with. The title will appear as a column of words:

Dance Film

No commas, no colon, no punctuation. In refusing typographic divisions, the title speaks to the way Douglas broke down the barriers between art (in this case, dance) and writing while remaining beautifully attentive to both.

In our last conversation, Douglas told me that he was happy to have lived a productive life. I was struck by his humility—“productive” hardly captures the scope of his achievements as a writer, editor, teacher, curator, mentor, and activist. Like the title of his forthcoming book, Douglas’s intellectual spirit lies beyond the limits of predictability, standard practices, or punctual end. 

Richard Meyer is Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in art history at Stanford University.