PRINT October 2019


James Nares, Douglas, 2015, HD video, color, silent, 8 minutes 56 seconds.

IN OUR FORTY-THREE YEARS of close friendship, I witnessed several transformations in Douglas Crimp, who had the wisdom to change his mind. When we met in the 1970s, he was a precocious Ph.D. student whose essays, most notably “Pictures” (1977, revised 1979), theorized postmodernism as a critique of desire and subjectivity in visual representation, helping to reshape the discourse of contemporary art. In the ’80s, taking what he called his “big swerve,” he became a militant AIDS activist and queer-theory scholar, whom more than a few gay men credit with saving their lives. Toward the end of that decade, his queer-theory perspective led to his forced departure from his long-standing position as an editor of the journal October. He emerged from this painful episode as a beloved professor of art history and of visual and cultural studies at the University of Rochester, in New York, where he stayed until his death. His students remember him for his gentleness and, in the words of Amanda Ju, “as the teacher who knew the most about the pleasure of being open to experiences that take one outside of oneself to find that thing one ‘likes.’”

In his later work, he himself discovered the pleasures of moving outside the narrow confines of his official field, letting go of the idea that he could comprehend the historical necessity of any particular kind of art and bringing his personal life into his work. He wrote about Andy Warhol’s films, about dance, and about dance on film (his essays on the latter two topics will be released as a book this spring). He published an uncommon memoir, Before Pictures (2016), which integrates the sexual and aesthetic experimentation of his early years, overcoming the compartmentalization of the two that had marked his strictly art-historical work. What remained constant was his fidelity to a conception of ethics as the refusal of conservatism.

Douglas’s most remarkable transformation took place while he was sick with, and then dying from, multiple myeloma. At that time, he took a spiritual turn and there was a softening of certain things that had been rigid in his heart. I don’t remember the exact date, but not long after his diagnosis in 2016, when we did not yet know that his disease would be terminal, he expressed interest in meditation and became a daily practitioner. I knew it would help him with whatever lay ahead and bought him Thich Nhat Hanh’s little book How to Sit (2014), which he read over and over again. Other friends gave him additional meditation texts. At one point, Morgan Bassichis started to meditate with him four or five times a week. They developed a ritual: reading a short text by Pema Chödrön or a Japanese death haiku; taking hold of the meditation beads given to them by Gregg Bordowitz; striking a large Tibetan singing bowl (Douglas always did this) that Juliane Rebentisch had sent Douglas for his birthday; and meditating for twenty minutes. After, or sometimes before, they read chapters of the Bible, which neither of them had ever done prior to these meetings. Douglas’s approach to all of this was secular, but he began to refer to “my spiritual life,” words I could not have imagined hearing him say in the earlier years of our relationship.

Douglas felt a desire to learn to appreciate poetry and resolved to read a poem a day. Late last year, Morgan created “Poems for Douglas,” a collection of Douglas’s friends’ favorite poems. Gregg read and discussed poetry with him, including the work of Robert Duncan, until a few days before Douglas’s death. Poetry books and Buddhist literature piled up all over his loft in downtown Manhattan.

Toward the end of March 2019, Douglas decided to stop undergoing treatment, which had been causing him great suffering, and which, his hematology oncologist told us, offered only the smallest chance of significantly improving his condition. The exhausting round of visits to doctors and hospitalizations ended. Douglas entered hospice care at home and there began what I now think of, perhaps idealistically, as a golden period. He recovered his appetite, gained back thirty pounds, and felt better. Hospice managed his pain, although he chose to experience some pain in order to remain alert. At first, he could walk with the help of a cane and went to a number of performances and exhibitions. Even when reliant on a wheelchair, he attended cultural events. In the first couple of weeks of hospice, to everyone’s amazement, he finished the final chapter of his dance book and then settled his archive at New York University’s Fales Library. His greatest pleasure was a steady stream of visits from devoted friends and family. Often they would share dinners cooked by his beloved caretaker Alan—Douglas described him as “a completely kind person”—and, more frequently, by his beloved spouse, Yoshiaki Mochizuki. Louise Lawler sometimes brought frozen dumplings or kabocha squash and other vegetables, which Yoshi transformed into delicious and gorgeously presented Japanese meals. One particularly memorable evening, when Douglas’s sister, Sandi Bloem, and brother, Gregg Crimp, were visiting from Idaho, Yoshi outdid himself. We ate, among other dishes, what Sandi called “the best fish I’ve ever tasted,” and the siblings reminisced about their childhoods as the sun set and the lights of the city came on outside Douglas and Yoshi’s huge windows.

We die as we live, it is said. Douglas faced death with equanimity. He approached it the way he had always approached problems—by reading about it, particularly Buddhist texts. He thought that this activity counterbalanced his work on the book and archive. He was at once living and letting go of life. We made funeral and burial arrangements. He chose a green burial and is interred on the shady side—his choice—of the beautiful natural burial ground that is part of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery near Tarrytown, New York. He found the thought of it soothing and for me, surprisingly, so is the reality. In early July, after a little more than three months in hospice, he suffered a precipitous decline. He experienced intermittent pain and was in and out of consciousness. He was confused by the randomness of the thoughts he was expressing—“I’m not sure why I said that”; “I have to think about what I meant.” Knowing he was surrounded by Yoshi and some of his closest friends, he said, “I’m very lucky.” He died two days later. We meditated together hours before, following his and Morgan’s ritual. He struck the bowl. I’ve already said this to a couple of reporters, but it still astonishes me: As his body withered, his spirit bloomed. 

Rosalyn Deutsche is an art historian and critic who teaches modern and contemporary art at Barnard College/Columbia University.