Douglas Crimp’s Before Pictures is the sort of book that can make its readers feel as if they have made an interesting friend (or at least an acquaintance) without the bother and awkwardness of getting to know an actual person. We hear our new friend’s favorite stories, polished to a high gloss, and gain access to a trove of memories, preoccupations, and regrets. Crimp, whose books include Our Kind of Movie: The Films of Andy Warhol (2012), On the Museum’s Ruins (1993), and Melancholia and Moralism: Essays on AIDS and Queer Politics (2002), tells us about his aesthetic passions, his private life, and his career as an art critic, curator, and significant force in the downtown art scene during the final decades of the twentieth century.
His new book takes its title from the influential gallery exhibition “Pictures” that Crimp curated at the nonprofit Artists Space in 1977, and that is said to have christened the so-called Pictures Generation of artists. This group includes Cindy Sherman, Robert Longo, Richard Prince, and Laurie Simmons, though only Longo was included in the original show. Before Pictures is an immersion in the art and sensibility of a time and place, a portrait of a vanished world, and a cautionary lesson about how rapidly such worlds can vanish. Crimp tells us what it was like to be a gay man in New York during the celebratory period bookended by the Stonewall uprising and the AIDS crisis. Some admirable part of that spirit has persisted in Crimp, who remains grateful for the leather bars that existed “until Chelsea was transformed into an art district” and that he discovered after his arrival in New York. “I would have to learn how and where to be queer all over again, since being queer is a matter of a world you inhabit, not something you simply are.”
Beginning in the 1980s, with the essay “Mourning and Militancy,” a consideration of the relationship between grief and activism, Crimp has written extensively about AIDS and its effect on the individual psyche and the larger society. His spirited essay “How to Have Promiscuity in an Epidemic” (1987) applauds
a new phase in gay men’s responses to the epidemic. Having learned to support and grieve for our lovers and friends; having joined the fight against fear, hatred, repression, and inaction; having adjusted our sex lives so as to protect ourselves and one another—we are now reclaiming our subjectivities, our communities, our culture…and our promiscuous love of sex.
Crimp recreates the fertile climate of prelapsarian Soho, when gifted and ambitious young artists could afford to inhabit drafty lofts with sketchy plumbing and manual elevators. It…
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