Q&A ,

The Big Picture: A Talk With Douglas Crimp on the Changing Role of the Curator, the State of the Art World, and His New Memoir

Daniel S. Palmer and Douglas Crimp photographed in New York City on October 18, 2016. ©KATHERINE MCMAHON

Daniel S. Palmer and Douglas Crimp photographed in New York City on October 18, 2016.


In 1977, Douglas Crimp, then a grad student at the City University of New York, organized a group exhibition called “Pictures” at the small downtown New York alternative gallery Artists Space. The show launched the careers of Troy Brauntuch, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Robert Longo, and Philip Smith, who had in common their interest in appropriation (or, as Crimp put it in an accompanying text, “representation freed from the tyranny of the represented”) and who, in the years that followed, became known (along with others like Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince) as the “Pictures Generation.” So influential was “Pictures” that it seems only appropriate that Crimp should call his new memoir Before Pictures (Dancing Foxes Press and University of Chicago Press, 2016), as it recounts the events, and his experiences, leading up to that landmark exhibition. In the book, Crimp, who was born in 1944 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and made his way to New York in 1967 after studying art history on a scholarship at Tulane University in New Orleans, chronicles his intellectual coming of age in downtown Manhattan in the late 1960s and 1970s—a time of great creative and social foment. For curators of my generation, who began their careers in the mid-2000s and who studied “Pictures” in graduate school, Crimp is a role model, and not just for that one show: in the decades that followed it, he became a vital force in AIDS activism, and continues to this day to write incisive criticism and to train art historians in his capacity as professor at the University of Rochester. He also continues to curate—in 2010, he co-curated “Mixed Use, Manhattan” at the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid with Lynne Cooke, then the director there, and was a co-curator of the 2015 edition of “Greater New York,” the quinquennial survey show at MoMA PS1. When I sat down with Crimp this past fall in New York, I wanted to hear about not just his multifaceted career, but also how he feels the role of curator has changed since his “Pictures” days. How should curators respond to the current crisis in our profession that has been brought about by the recent expansion of the art industry both geographically and financially? Is it productive to look back to what we see—perhaps idealistically—as the purer spirit of the past?

Daniel S. Palmer: When you arrived in New York City as a young art historian, curator, and critic, who did you look up to?

Douglas Crimp: No one. I was too naive to know who to look up to. You have to understand that we didn’t study contemporary art back then. When I was a student, I took a modern art class that ended with Jackson Pollock, and even that was considered avant-garde. I come from an extremely provincial background, and I went to college in New Orleans. I had some experience of a local art world because my department was both art history and studio, and I was friendly with MFA students. My only knowledge of New York was through reading—ARTnews and Art in America. I had never seen a proper exhibition until I moved to New York. The first one I saw was a Joseph Cornell show at the Guggenheim that Diane Waldman curated. I got a job at the Guggenheim quite by chance, and I became Waldman’s curatorial assistant. That was my introduction to the art world and to curating.

DP: Waldman was a mentor to you?

DC: Diane was definitely a first mentor and someone with whom I worked and became friendly. Her friendship with Betsy Baker, who was at that time the managing editor of ARTnews, was extremely important to me. Betsy commissioned me to write my first published article, which was about the Georgia O’Keeffe retrospective at the Whitney Museum in 1970. Diane and Betsy would often go to galleries together on Saturdays, and I would tag along. My sense of what was interesting and important in the late ’60s and early ’70s was shaped by Diane and by Betsy. They had sophisticated taste, which I came to share with them, largely.

I thought I wanted to write about art. So getting a job in a museum was not in order to become a curator. It was simply a job. And because I was trained as an art historian I figured that’s what one did. You know, I was a really naive kid. I was actually on my way to the Met before I went to the Guggenheim. I figured I’d be a guard or something like that. So it was a matter of luck that I ended up working for a curator. I don’t honestly remember thinking so much about that as a career path. At that time, it was possible to imagine supporting oneself as a writer, which now is unthinkable, and even then was probably pretty unthinkable.

DP: Well, did your art history background inform how you approached contemporary art?

DC: I just think the situation was really different from what it is now. The art world is so much more thoroughly organized, and curators visiting artists’ studios is something that’s better organized. Today, people wouldn’t just write to you, as a curator, and ask, “Would you please come to my studio?” and you feel obligated to visit them no matter who they were. You wouldn’t have time to do anything else if you did. But the whole mechanism of galleries essentially making initial curatorial choices—that was already in place.

DP: That has definitely become more pronounced, but there have always been alternative voices. How did you start to organize your own exhibitions outside the Guggenheim, specifically, your Agnes Martin show?

DC: It was very simple: I was teaching at the School of Visual Arts and I was invited to do an exhibition there, and it was my decision to show Agnes Martin because I had fallen in love with her work. The Guggenheim owns the early grid painting White Flower, and I remember seeing a great many of her drawings at the Robert Elkon Gallery. Elkon was her dealer at the time, but Virginia Dwan showed her too. Looking at the list of people and institutions who lent to that show is completely dumbfounding—MoMA, the Whitney, the Lannan Foundation—this was a small gallery with no climate control, hardly any security.

DP: I’ve been there too, doing the no-budget, scrappy show. In your memoir you talk about how you did the installation and light yourself. You went on to write about Agnes Martin, who has a posthumous retrospective on view at the Guggenheim right now. How did you see her work then, and how do you see it now?

DC: My visit to Agnes . . . was an odd experience. What was probably most astonishing about it was seeing how thoroughly isolated she was, and how solitary her life was. There’s something about her work that’s a little hard to capture, but it’s deeply moving. What I wrote about her work was more in line with her being shown with minimal artists, but looking back on it now, I think I was wrong. You know, I wouldn’t have been moved in the same way by a Donald Judd.

Now, I see that she really does belong to her own generation. I think I was drawn to her work for reasons that I didn’t understand at the time. And when I grappled with trying to understand it, I wrote three different pieces that considered her work. They’re contradictory. Now, I think one of them is completely wrongheaded. But that’s what you do as a critic when you’re challenged by work or when you’re moved by work. You try to figure it out and you might be wrong. You might want to go back and rethink what you’ve done. But, for me, the process of grappling with it—that’s what criticism really is.

DP: It seems like that exhibition and article started to blend the roles of the curator and critic for you. Did preparing the exhibition inform your writing about her work?

DC: I didn’t write a catalogue for the Martin exhibition, even though I firmly believe that an essential part of curatorial practice ought to be to make an argument in words as well as in the choices and juxtapositions of the show itself. Which works you choose, how you hang them in relation to each other, and so on, that’s a kind of argument.

DP: You were organizing exhibitions of, and writing on, artists you were passionate about. Do you feel that curating today is more cynical, or superficial?

DC: Well, the art world isn’t uniform. The curator that I most admire in the world is Lynne Cooke, and Lynne has always written about the work that she’s shown. She is extraordinarily dedicated to seeing as much work as is possible. And it’s not limited to visual art. For her, it’s also dance and film and theater and opera. She devotes a great deal of scholarly attention to the work that she’s showing. I watched Lynne when we installed “Mixed Use, Manhattan” at the Reina Sofía in 2010 having a photograph moved one inch in one direction or another in a show that had thousands of photographs. Of course, when she was at [the] Dia [Art Foundation from 1991 to 2009], she had real support for what she did, and she didn’t have to do what a lot of curators have to do. She didn’t have to meet with trustees and take them to art fairs, and all the kinds of things that are now expected of curators because we have no public support of the arts. This is killing for the intellectual work that must be done to be a proper curator.

When I was at the Guggenheim, the staff was very small, but the museum, in its own mind, was competing with MoMA. There was a collection curator and two exhibition curators when I was there, and each of the exhibition curators had a curatorial assistant. But the pace was relentless and I was paid next to nothing. I worked 12 hours a day, and often seven days a week. . . . And I did not have to take trustees on trips, either.

DP: I think that pace has intensified. Do you think the pace or market complicity has negatively impacted the ability of the curator to use the exhibition as a potential tool for social change or to make an argument?

DC: When I started out, the relation of art to the market was nothing like it is now. Money in the art world has changed it so drastically. But I think the role of contemporary art in art culture has also changed. One of the things that I write about in my memoir is the show that Henry Geldzahler did for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s centenary [in 1969]. He cleared the Met’s European galleries and installed Abstract Expressionism through Minimalism and Pop in those spaces. It was a scandal for some people because they couldn’t understand a lot of the stuff there as art. [Since the time of that show], the valuation of contemporary art has completely changed. The Met has leased the Breuer building and is building a new wing only for contemporary art, when, heaven knows, we don’t need any more spaces for contemporary art.

DP: Do you think that’s about the tourists, or donors and the market?

DC: Or just being in the game. I don’t really know what the thinking behind it is. Especially given that the Met doesn’t have a collection rich in contemporary art. So it means they’re starting with a handicap. And in terms of resources, it costs a lot more money to buy a Richter painting than it does to buy a Courbet or Ingres.

Installation view of "Pictures," at Artists Space, New York, September 24 – October 29, 1977. ©D. JAMES DEE/COURTESY ARTISTS SPACE, NEW YORK

Installation view of “Pictures,” at Artists Space, New York, September 24 – October 29, 1977.


DP: I wonder if part of it has to do with the valorization of your generation of curators and artists. Maybe the era of your “Pictures” exhibition gives people hope that that kind of discovery can happen again. Also, consider that—to be cynical about it for a moment—the “Pictures” artists sell for enormous sums now but were “emerging artists” when you showcased them. What was it like to organize “Pictures”?

DC: I became friendly with Helene Winer when she came to New York in order eventually to become the director of Artists Space. Artists Space had become a hub for a scene. It was one hub, Franklin Furnace would have been another, and the Clocktower and PS1, another. Helene and I had worked on a project together, called Art Information Distribution, where we compiled sets of slides of contemporary art to sell to university art departments and art schools. And I wrote several texts that went with these slides. So that was a project that we worked on in 1974, ’75. Artists Space eventually moved down to Hudson Street, where the “Pictures” show was. Helene invited me to do this exhibition. A liquor company gave them some money to cover the costs of a show and catalogue, so it was different from Artists Space’s usual shows. There had never before been an outside curator or a catalogue, nor had there been a show that traveled until the “Pictures” show. So, it was kind of a new venture, and Helene asked me to be the curator.

DP: The slide project sounds like a thematic exhibition in and of itself….

DC: It was a condensed choice of artists to represent what we thought was significant in the art of our moment, and then there’s an argument and the choice in the introductory texts.

DP: Did you use that same method to assemble “Pictures”?

DC: The “Pictures” show was just a small show that I took very seriously because I took Helene seriously. I didn’t know that generation of artists the way Helene did. It was Helene who introduced me to them. We went up to Buffalo together and saw the show that Linda Cathcart had organized for the Albright-Knox that included Cindy Sherman and Robert Longo, and we also visited Hallwalls, which was founded by Longo and Charles Clough, among others. At that time I was also in graduate school, and by the end of the school year I also became an editor at October. It was a pretty crazy time for me. So once it came to making a decision, I decided to show fewer artists in order to give each of them more space in the gallery and more attention in the catalogue essay. I struggled to figure out what to say about the work, how to interpret it. I was not entirely happy with the catalogue essay. I remember writing the revised version for October much better than I remember writing the original one.

DP: For me, one of the things that makes “Pictures” so influential is that you were making an argument through an exhibition, as a critic or art historian would. It seems that is increasingly rare these days.

DC: I think there’s a segment of the art world that operates pretty much the same way now as we did then. Artists Space has done a series of extremely crucial exhibitions in the past few years. They have not often produced catalogues. However, they do have their artists’ books and talks series. So I think that the art world of which I feel a part still today is not that different from the art world that I experienced back then, except insofar as looming around us now is this other—this kind of Jeff Koons, zillions-of-dollars, hedge-fund, art-fair world. We can’t pretend that that doesn’t exist or that it doesn’t affect what we do in all sorts of ways. Nevertheless, part of the way to resist that is to continue to inhabit a world in which art matters in the way that it has mattered to me all along. That is, that it opens us to a world of otherness, to a world that we hadn’t understood before. It challenges us, it makes us think differently; it takes us outside of ourselves. It has a critical relation, a political relation to the extremely distressing world that we live in.

DP: Absolutely. “Mixed Use, Manhattan” and your contributions to the 2015 “Greater New York” exhibition at PS1 are such strong examples of how exhibitions can be acts of social activism, and can be generous and hopeful.

DC: Well, I have the privilege of not actually being a curator. That’s not how I make my money. I make my money as a professor. So when I’ve done curatorial projects like “Mixed Use, Manhattan” or “Greater New York” I can bring my scholarly knowledge to it. Lynne Cooke invited me to co-curate what became “Mixed Use, Manhattan” because she had an idea about a certain configuration of artists, including Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, and Zoe Leonard, and she knew of my interest in Alvin Baltrop. She came to me with just that, and then it grew and grew. I agreed to participate only because I admire Lynne so much and welcomed the chance to work with her. We had to make the exhibition really quickly. But of course she had all the staff at the Reina Sofía. It’s the curators who get all the glory for making exhibitions, but that’s not entirely fair. There are so many extraordinarily professional people who help make exhibitions happen. I especially felt that working on “Greater New York.” When [PS1 curator] Peter Eleey asked me to do the show it was a similar sort of thing and actually was an opportunity to bring some of what we had done in “Mixed Use, Manhattan” to New York.

DP: Yes, curators do tend to get all the glory. And now there is also this deluded idea of the curator as artist or auteur.

DC: I don’t have to play the multiple roles museum curators do these days because it isn’t my job.

DP: I see your exhibitions as an extension of your role as a writer and critic. As you’ve done in your writing, your exhibitions also make arguments and articulate them in ways that have really changed the way that people see and think about art.

DC: Well, one way that I come to understand something is to write about it. It’s not as if I have something to say and I then sit down and write it. It comes out in the process of writing. That was particularly true in this new book because the book has no agenda, no goal. But also, doing “Mixed Use, Manhattan” was a process of discovery of a lot of work that I didn’t know. It was a different kind of argument about what I would call genres of photography that I didn’t think belonged together, but that I came to see differently within a new interpretive framework, the framework of artists using the city. So you could put Peter Hujar and Cindy Sherman in the same exhibition, for example. I don’t think you would necessarily get very far trying to write an article that juxtaposed “Projects: Pier 18” with Danny Lyon’s “The Destruction of Lower Manhattan,” even though geographically they sort of belong together, but the juxtaposition within the exhibition was extremely telling. . . . You know, I honestly think that the most important thing one does with an exhibition is to show works of art. I think that some people make arguments at the expense of works of art.

DP: Absolutely. They can instrumentalize them.

DC: I do think there’s a self-indulgent way of juxtaposing this work with that one that’s about calling attention more to the curator than to the work. On the other hand, putting this next to that can be extremely meaningful. So you have to be extremely cautious. That’s where I think you can see the work of a great curator, in the way the actual works look in the exhibition in addition to the choices that one makes and the arguments that you are implicitly, or in some cases even explicitly, making.

DP: And what about the audience standing before the pictures?

DC: Well, that person is free to have the experience of the individual work, the argument that’s being made, to have his or her own interpretive response. As a curator, figuring out what form the exhibition should take is a fundamental part of doing one. And of course a lot of exhibitions are very much collaborations with artists. A certain amount of trust is involved. But that can also really go bad when curators relinquish too much control to artists and their galleries. Curators have to figure out so much in making an exhibition, juggle so many different demands. I think to be a really great curator is something very special, and something quite unlike many of the celebrity curators trotting about the globe these days. I don’t know how much of this is the fault of curatorial studies programs; that opens a whole other can of worms.

DP: We don’t have to name names, but those celebrity curators are more often than not the ones doing the big international biennials, triennials.…

DC: I don’t quite understand the trend toward gigantic international exhibitions—the Documentas, the Biennales. There would never be enough time to do something so enormous responsibly, and so it almost gives you license not to do a thorough job because you couldn’t possibly anyway.

DP: And the shows are so big, it’s hard for audiences to engage with the whole thing.

DC: I guess if I were asked to do a Venice Biennale, the first thing I’d do would be to scale it so far down that it would become an exhibition that you could see in a day. My first inclination would be to just make it tiny.

I’m completely different from a curator who has to constantly come up with exhibition topics or new artists to work with. I’m a professor, and I’m 72 years old. I have to keep up with things intellectually to teach my classes. I work very hard. But I don’t have to do what museum curators do. The luxury is that I feel an obligation only to see the exhibitions of my friends. But, luckily I’m also engaged with a lot of younger people, who steer me toward newer work. I guess what I’m saying is that I can pick and choose. A lot of people have to go to art fairs whether they like them or not. I don’t have to network. I can inhabit an art world that doesn’t offend me.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 74 under the title “Q&A: Douglas Crimp.”

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