The genre of the new book by critic and art historian Douglas Crimp is not easy to classify. One of its layers has the character of a memoir. The author very briefly recounts the years in his home town in Idaho and his studies in New Orleans; other chapters deal with the period between 1967 and 1977 – from the year when Crimp settled in New York City to his second exhibition Pictures at the Artist Space gallery that he is mostly associated with even today. Nothing we expect from a good memoir is missing – the career ups and downs and milestones, the scenes from his private and intimate life. Crimp’s openness is obviously motivated by his intent to capture the lifestyle of gays in New York City during the years of their emancipation and before the onset of the HIV epidemic. His attention to the Manhattan topography, when describing his moving to various apartments, is not an end in itself either. Crimp offers a vivid picture of the city after it was struck by a wave of deindustrialization and how the abundance of free space stimulated experimentation in the New York art scene.
The book most deviates from the memoir format when each of the five chapters ends with an analysis of a specific artwork or a group of works. With a little imagination, we can read it as a collection of critical studies. If we see the purpose of criticism in the ability to discover the relevant aspects of the artwork, which would otherwise remain unseen, then the texts are extremely compelling. For example, the chapter on Elsworthy Kelly is excellent. An intimate biographical plane with a more general queer topic describes a short romance of the critic with the artist, twenty years his senior, which ended with a quarrel. Then, Crimp returns to one of his older texts on Kelly which dealt with the relationship between the surface and spatial illusion in a rather tedious spirit of tired Greenbergian formalism. “I’m ashamed of few texts I had written between my twentieth and thirtieth year more than of this one,” comments Crimp on his previous writing, offering a new alternative. He refers to critic Betsy Baker from Art News who, already in 1973, regarded the fact that Kelly’s graceful and clean forms are usually derived from real world themes as an essential feature of his works.
“I love the idea that strange fragments of reality ‘reinforce’ the otherwise too elegant, abstract art,” agrees Crimp, who continues with a reflection of Kelly’s line drawings depicting two leaves of a ginkgo tree in an elegant contour line. It is not possible to follow all the intricacies of his rich interpretation, but what is interesting is that instead of dry formalist analyses, he pays most attention to the tree (imported from China to Europe in the 18th century and relatively widespread in New York in the 1970s), whose exotic leaves attracted the critic’s attention, and that of Goethe well before him.
Finally, Before Pictures can be read as a great argument against critical formalism in the broadest sense, which can include any approach reducing the works of art to solutions of general problems and issues – whether semiotic, institutional, political or media ones. In the book, the interest in art is a part of life which also includes sexuality, fashion and wild nights in New York disco clubs. Besides Kelly’s Ginkgo, we could mention the passages on Cindy Sherman, describing her film photographs, search for locations and evening walks in the deserted streets outside Manhattan nightclubs, and especially the first chapter dealing with Daniel Buren. This chapter is based on Crimp’s experiences in his first two jobs in New York – the several weeks he worked as an assistant to fashion designer Charles James, and the subsequent period when he worked as an assistant curator for the Guggenheim Museum, where he had the opportunity to see the furore caused in 1971 by Buren’s installation of a giant striped fabric suspended from the ceiling of the circular museum atrium. The installation was withdrawn from the Sixth Guggenheim International Exhibition before the opening night, possibly at the instigation of Dan Flavin, who with a marked disdain had described the work as “a French curtain”. It is not possible to summarize all the visual analogies Crimp works with, but all of them lead to what he calls “decorative unconsciousness”. Buren’s curtain seemed provocative due to its emphasis on decorativeness or on the chic form of Wright’s architecture, which resemble James’s models appreciated by the period critics mainly for its formal refinement.
Before Pictures it is not a classic autobiography, but it shows why biographies can be not only amusing, but also useful. They add some reality to the over-abstractness of art forms, concepts and problems. To show that an elegant line is also an outline of a leaf from the tree that the artist and the critic liked looking at in Central Park is not only to mention an external circumstance: it reveals a new and relevant aspect of the artwork to the readers. It should be noted that I too belong to those who do not believe that a work of art can appeal to anyone only by “solving the problem” of the relation between the canvas surface and the spatial illusion.
Crimp, Douglas. Before pictures. University of Chicago Press, 2016. ISBN 978-0-226-42345-6.