Composition: Writing About Douglas Writing About Douglas Writing
by Godfre Leung
To my knowledge, the first time Douglas Crimp wrote publicly about his previous writing was in his article “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism,” published in October in 1980. Looking back at “Pictures,” from the same publication in the previous year, he admits: In my attempt to continue the logic of the development I was outlining, I came eventually to a stumbling block…. I effected that transition with a kind of fudge, an epigraph quotation suspended between two sections of the text.1 The quotation was from Henry James’ ghost story “The Jolly Corner” (1908): The presence before him was a presence.
Douglas goes on to elaborate on that caesura by discussing Sherrie Levine’s photographs of other photographers’ photographs, writing: The presence that such photographs have for us is the presence of déjà vu, nature as already having been seen, nature as representation. He added to his theory of postmodernism — which, in “Pictures,” he had expressed in his now-endlessly quoted line underneath a picture there is always another picture — a new, crucial inflection, something he was not yet ready to articulate when he wrote it the first time. The essay ends: In our time, the aura has become only a presence, which is to say, a ghost.
Eventually, writing about his previous writing came to constitute a generative practice that dislodged criticism from its historical present (now the past) and held it up to the (new) present. In “The Photographic Activity,” he describes Levine’s photographs of Edward Weston’s photographs of his son, which themselves quote the classical sculptures of Praxiteles, known to us by Roman copies of the lost Greek originals. I’d like to take this mise en abyme as an allegory for Douglas’ enterprise.
I first decided I wanted to pursue a graduate education in art history — and, furthermore, to do this at the University of Rochester, where Douglas taught — when I read the introduction to his first book, On the Museum’s Ruins (1993). Douglas introduced the book’s stakes by way of a personal anecdote: when men he’d brought home for sex asked about the above-mentioned Levine photographs hanging on his bedroom wall, he’d fudge the truth — they were pictures by a famous photographer of his son — because it was more expedient than explaining appropriation art. But denying the erotic subtext that Levine was responding to in the Weston photographs, he continues, also disavows her critique, which rested squarely on the line between art photography and child pornography. Douglas’ introduction identifies queer politics — wholly absent from the subsequent chapters, which were written five to 15 years earlier — as a concern that he now understood to be central to them. This realization was spurred on, he explains, by the condemnation in the Robert Mapplethorpe obscenity trial of the non-normative sexual subcultures depicted in Mapplethorpe’s photographs. The prosecution’s argument hinged on the guilt-by-association inferred by spurious allegations of child pornography. Although it was a successful tactical maneuver for the purposes of the obscenity trial, the aesthetic-merit defense made no case at all for the rights of sexual minorities to self-representation.
I was floored that this collection of essays that art students of a certain age remember as foundational and discipline-defining — including “On the Museum’s Ruins,” “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism” and “Redefining Site Specificity” — could not only be prefaced by an anecdote about the author’s late-night trysts but have their purchase on the world expanded by it.
The week before I met Douglas for the first time, I bought Melancholia and Moralism, his 2002 collection of writings on AIDS, and read it over two nights. In the introduction to that volume, Douglas examines the circumstances that had caused him to contract HIV. That italic is there because at the time of his seroconversion in 1995, Douglas was a longtime committed AIDS activist and world-renowned scholar on the epidemic. He had written art history’s most convincing account of the integration of art into life — his discussion of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis’ Safer Sex Comix in “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic,” from his then-already legendary special issue of October, “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism” (1987) — and that achievement was only a footnote to its more urgent obverse: that the Republican attack on art that we now call the “culture wars” was simultaneously an attack on lives.
The passage is profoundly vulnerable. Douglas articulates the book’s thesis — that any meaningful AIDS activism necessarily requires mourning — in relation to what he describes as his “midlife crisis.” The book identifies sex, and the homophobic repudiation thereof, as the prime agent in the loss of lives to the epidemic, and insists that sex therefore must be actively named and defended. My youthful sexual confidence and sense of desirability waned, he admits, before offering several inconclusive hypotheses on why or how that loss led him to risk his seroconversion. His other admission was that he didn’t really know. All I know for sure is that feelings of loss pervaded my life.
Douglas’ memoir Before Pictures was published just less than three years before his passing in the summer of 2019, at the age of 74. He had been working on it for as long as I’d known him. It was my great privilege to have observed Douglas writing his memoir about his first decade in New York during what was essentially the first decade of my career writing about art. I not only watched him write, I watched him write through his earlier writing and make new sense of things that, as he once pointed out to me — simultaneously an advisorly caveat and a humblebrag — I wrote when I was probably younger than you are now.
In my first semester, Douglas was revising a lecture he had delivered at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum that spring for an upcoming speaking engagement at the Hammer Museum. The essay, which became the first chapter of Before Pictures, was Douglas’ origin story, only it was actually two stories: his entry into the New York art world in 1968 as a curatorial assistant at the Guggenheim, and a short-lived earlier gig assisting Charles James in preparing the great fashion designer’s own memoir. There is a looseness to the way the two anecdotes fit together, and to how they each spin off into asides. There isn’t a thesis, per se — and, if I’m being honest, that threw me completely for a loop when I heard him deliver it to our department as a practice talk that fall — but the essay’s varied strands set up the memoir’s leitmotif: Douglas’ navigation between two worlds (straight / gay, professional / recreational, public / private) that, to use one of his favourite adverbs, promiscuously intersected.
There is, however, possibly another fudge. After recounting the first anecdote, he pauses to admit: I’ve told this story so many times over the years that I no longer know how much of it is simplified in the interest of narrative design and how much is embellishment in the interest of amusement.
The fudge, in his original sense of that word from “The Photographic Activity of Postmodernism,” had become, by 2005, a structuring device in his writing. It allows him to write Daniel Buren, Charles James and Frank Lloyd Wright together in Before Pictures’ first chapter, and to place subsequent chapters on cruising at the abandoned Chelsea Piers, the architecture of the discotheque 12 West and the cheap seats at the New York City Ballet back-to-back-to-back.
When I’ve cited the influence of Douglas on my writing in grant proposals, I say that I aspire to the achievement of Before Pictures, which wholly convinces the reader (that is, me) to want to experience the work of art through the author’s eyes. But this is maybe not quite the right way to put it. The ways that the things Douglas writes about abut each other create new architectures and geographies; if his entire oeuvre has strived to deprivilege origins and challenge authenticity in one way or another, I think the places he takes us to are not his worlds as he experienced them but actually somewhere just beyond the edges of his writerly imagination.
Early in my cohort’s methodology colloquium with Douglas, we were reading Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks (1952) and, in the exasperated way that is his alone, he expressed his frustration with parsing the passages where Fanon quotes at length from the poetry of Aimé Césaire, Léopold Senghor and others. He said that he just had never understood poetry, which was a little like learning that Beethoven was deaf. A decade later, when my students would express their frustration with the seemingly paratactic section breaks in “On the Museum’s Ruins,” I’d tell them that the fudges — though that’s not the word I used — are the poetry of the argument.
Buried near the bottom of Douglas’ New York Times obituary, after all his immense contributions: In his final months he wanted to learn to appreciate poetry. His friends collected and compiled their favourite poems, from which they would read to him.