A chronicle of both the hot, sweaty action at West Village discos and curatorial intrigue at the Guggenheim Museum, Douglas Crimp’s fascinating memoir Before Pictures details an especially active decade of the estimable critic and art historian’s youth during a fecund period of this city. His autobiography spans 1967, when Crimp, an Idaho native and Tulane graduate, first arrived in New York as a 22-year-old, to 1977, the year that he curated the influential “Pictures” exhibition at Artists Space, the first milestone of a storied career that includes thirteen years as an editor at the art journal October, several essays and books on AIDS and activism (he was an early member of ACT UP), and an essential 2012 volume on the films of Andy Warhol. Before Pictures maps out multiple milieus: the gay scene, the art world, and the points where they intersected and diverged.
Crimp’s memoir celebrates — without eulogizing — New York, and the city has been returning the favor. To commemorate the book’s publication, Galerie Buchholz, on the Upper East Side, mounted a densely packed exhibition, which ran September 8–October 22, featuring works by key artists discussed in Crimp’s memoir: a 1977 painting by Agnes Martin, the subject of a show he organized in 1971 at the School of Visual Arts; photographs by Alvin Baltrop, the great documenter of gay carnal abandon on the West Side piers; and films by Jack Goldstein, one of the five artists included in ’77’s “Pictures,” to name just a few. On September 19, Greenpoint’s indispensable micro-cinema Light Industry hosted an evening with Crimp, who read a passage from his memoir devoted to his movie madness as a means of introducing an all-time favorite, Joseph Cornell’s fantasia Rose Hobart (1936). And on November 21 at the Kitchen, the redoubtable arts venue in Chelsea, Crimp will be in conversation with Yvonne Rainer, Silas Riener, and Adrian Danchig-Waring, three luminaries from dance, another of the writer’s consuming passions.
Crimp, who landed one of his first jobs, as a curatorial assistant, in New York simply by walking into the Guggenheim while en route to the Metropolitan Museum of Art from his Spanish Harlem apartment, has a way of turning any encounter in the city into an adventure, as I discovered during our meeting a few weeks ago for this article. When the restaurant where he had first proposed I interview him — just around the corner from the financial district apartment that’s been his home since 1976 (Crimp teaches one semester a year at the University of Rochester, where he’s been since 1992) — was unexpectedly closed, he suggested we head a few blocks west to Eataly via the Oculus. My inaugural visit to this blindingly white shopping emporium/transportation hub was made all the more memorable by Crimp’s piquant observations on both the structure’s beauty and its absurdity.
That talent for shrewd examination, of not only his life but also New York’s cultural history, distinguishes Before Pictures as a reminiscence untainted by sentimentality. “I was conscious of the problem of nostalgia but can’t say exactly how I combated it,” Crimp, now 72, recalled during our elevenses at Eataly. “I decided that each chapter would be very arbitrarily centered on some piece of writing that I had done, some exhibition that I had organized, some move toward my career that I had made during that period. And I knew that there were particular anecdotes I wanted to include: my brief liaison with Ellsworth Kelly, the visit to Agnes Martin in Cuba, New Mexico. The writing became a kind of process of association.”
Some of those associations conjure sublimely queer incongruities: of Crimp, during a summer at Fire Island, where he secured a rental on the homosexual Arcadia in 1973 using money from an NEA art-critics fellowship, basking on a beach while glued to a transistor radio listening to the Watergate hearings. That memory, in turn, leads to an even more fruitful — and fruity — digression, culminating in Nixon’s top aides assembled in a White House bunker to watch the film Tricia’s Wedding (1971), a druggy, drag burlesque about the nuptials of Tricky Dick’s elder daughter performed by the Cockettes, the outlandish San Francisco theater group.
Although Crimp was at one point concerned that the pages devoted to Watergate were “maybe too much,” the episode about that clandestine viewing of the Cockettes’ movie — which he came across while reading the memoirs of the scandal’s principals as part of the research for Before Pictures — made him realize that the detour belonged in his book after all, “because there was this great queer story to tell.”
Yet the greatest queer stories in Before Pictures are Crimp’s own, especially those from the mid-Seventies, a time that he calls his “disco years,” the days and nights divided between the arduousness of crafting essays and reviews and the ecstasy of street cruising and dancing at nightspots like 12 West. “It was a mixture of back-and-forth between trying to figure out a career path and who I could be as a writer, what I wanted to write about, and how to play in various forms,” Crimp explains.
12 West, of course, like many of the West Village (and beyond) landmarks so vital to the decade Crimp discusses in his book, is long gone, the neighborhood itself “changed 100 percent” from the era he depicts. What remains constant is Crimp’s boundless curiosity, for both the metropolis that has been his home for fifty years and so much of what it has to offer: “The city for me now is a place where there’s an enormous amount of culture to participate in, to see, that I have a relationship to that’s partly professional and partly about pleasure,” he says. “Now I go much more often to Brooklyn or to Queens. It used to be that we all lived in Lower Manhattan. But I do move about the city a lot. And so I experience a large swath of it.”
Before Pictures is available now from Dancing Foxes Press and University of Chicago Press. “Douglas Crimp: Before Pictures” takes place at the Kitchen on November 21.