Memorabilia from “Gregg Bordowitz,” 2018.

Memorabilia from “Gregg Bordowitz,” 2018.

Gregg Bordowitz

Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery, Reed College

Memorabilia from “Gregg Bordowitz,” 2018.

“I’ve always wanted to be a New York, Marxist, Jewish writer of the ’30s; that’s my idea of fun,” said Gregg Bordowitz in a 2007 interview with artist Amy Sillman. In this first retrospective of his career to date, viewers had a chance to see what happens when an ideologically precocious, queer Jewish kid from Long Island arrives in the big city, not in the era of Clifford Odets and Joseph Stalin, but fifty years hence, in an era of punk and plague. What would Delmore Schwartz, the intellectual angel on Bordowitz’s shoulder, do when confronted by the Ramones, the camcorder, and the pink triangle?

Many things, it turned out. In Some aspect of a shared lifestyle, 1986, an early single-channel documentary that greeted viewers upon entry to the gallery, the many facets of Bordowitz’s intellectual method are already on display. A pastiche of found and created footage, the video includes segments of straight news reportage on the aids crisis, an interview with a homophobic young man on the subjects of freedom and sodomy, data on “third world” aids rates, and clips of Bordowitz himself playing an anchorman who delivers an acerbic report on hiv/aids, backed not by floating still images (as per the CBS Evening News convention) but by bland text fragments: image of a crime victim or image of a smurf. In form and content, the video partakes of the deconstructive spirit of the time, marshaling a McLuhanesque collage aesthetic in the service of searing informational journalism. It’s as if Bordowitz, writing his essay in pixels, has taken the Partisan Review electric.

At the center of the show—curated with economy and generosity by the Douglas F. Cooley Memorial Art Gallery’s Stephanie Snyder—were a wall and a vitrine filled with memorabilia from Bordowitz’s life on the barricades: a photo of the artist with queer theorist Douglas Crimp; a copy of Pony Press, a newsletter by and for New York sex workers; act up flyers, pins, and stickers; newspaper clippings; photos of demonstrations in the ’80s; and an artist statement by activist and painter Lee Schy. Offering a trip into the ’80s and ’90s subcultures of political resistance, the artifacts are at once inspiring and tragic, recording an era in which Bordowitz and his comrades not only lived according to the avant-garde mandate to engage fully with their times but also were forced to turn their artistic ambition to the project of survival itself.

Also on view were a plethora of Bordowitz’s film and video projects, including Fast Trip, Long Drop, 1993, his feature-length independent film and possibly best-known work. Another collage of documentary footage, staged parody, and vintage film clips, the film meditates on the specter of death circa Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, which had fallen darkly over Bordowitz and his peers. Other long-form works on display included The Suicide, 1996, a dramatic adaptation of a 1928 play by Russian playwright Nikolai Erdman, and A Cloud in Trousers, 1995, a staged reading of a poem by Vladimir Mayakovsky. That Bordowitz as a director/dramaturge is drawn to the early twentieth century’s fusion of poetry and politics is perhaps not surprising. The wing tips were exchanged for combat boots, the discourse of historical materialism for theory. But the lifestyle of the radical mind remains in some ways continuous.

The show additionally featured a handful of portraits, sculptures, and documentation of performance work, none of which strayed far from the artist’s ambit of romantic polemic. The tone was aggressive, cerebral, sometimes even Talmudic, but also valedictory in places, such as in the single-channel video Gimme Danger (installed beside Some aspect of a shared lifestyle). A document of a 2018 lecture-performance at Triple Canopy in New York, the video gives us Bordowitz in a digressive mode, introducing himself via lecture and interview to what one presumes is an audience of freshly politicized art-world youngsters. Casual, incisive, angry, and comical, the talk offers lessons aplenty for the children of intersectionality, as well as for anyone yearning to become an intellectual in New York City or to turn their youthful days of rage into a lifetime of artistic labor.