Douglas Crimp

Today brought the sad news that Douglas Crimp has passed away. Crimp’s work has been important to me and other art historians and activists in many different ways. I wanted to share with you all a bit of my review of his wonderful memoir, Before Pictures, originally published on Cleaver Magazine. The book made a strong impression on me in bringing together personal and cultural history, both toward thinking about art deeply and with freedom.

As Crimp notes at the end of [Before Pictures], “the art scene as I experienced it in New York from 1967 to 1977 was small enough to seem fully comprehensible. That, of course, no longer holds true. And because it is so clearly not true, it seems unlikely that it could really have been true then.” This new sense of perspective “has allowed me to write about what attracts me, challenges me, or simply gives me pleasure without having to make a grand historical claim for it.” The excerpts of Crimp’s historical writing from the earlier period included in Before Pictures show a constant effort to historicize and place art within trends and moments. While sometimes this proves simple, occasionally, as in the case of the painter Agnes Martin, it becomes a challenge and perhaps a limitation. The greatest enjoyment of this book is seeing Crimp’s contemporary writing on art from his past liberated from simple historical argument, focusing on a multitude of types of art and open to complication. There is as much interest in pleasure, from wherever it comes, a trick or a photograph.

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Within Crimp’s frame of the subway line and the time before Pictures, he moves past simple delineations of the intrinsic and extrinsic. The many frames of his life (historical, artistic and biographical) are made both central and destabilized. The political, social, and sexual context is placed equally alongside discussions of art. It is through its many diversions and side routes from a simplified frame that Before Pictures becomes such a quietly remarkable book. In both an act of scholarship and self-examination, Crimp offers a unique and varied exhibition of images and moments from his own coming of age and formation as an art historian. The images which are chosen here are all carefully selected and telling, including everything from Arnold Schwarzenegger posing at the Whitney to beautiful “cruising pictures” by Peter Hujar. A period of art history and a moment in New York is brought to life and newly complicated. The book allows us to see the omitted frame around Pictures and brings forward a new richness.