Annette Michelson, who helped shape the way filmmakers, visual artists, students, curators, and critics alike understand avant-garde cinema, has died, according to sources close to her. She was 95. A cause of death was not immediately made available.
It is difficult to overstate the many ways in which Michelson contributed to both the film and the art worlds. She was among the first to teach at New York University’s Cinema Studies department, which was among the first of its kind in the United States. And, with Rosalind Krauss, in 1976, she cofounded the journal October, which spurred on a widespread interest in critical theory—in particular the writings of French post-structuralists like Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida—within the New York art world of the 1970s and ’80s.
Like those of her colleagues at October, Michelson’s writings tended to merge philosophy, formalism, and elements of film and art history. Throughout her career, her topics included the films of Dziga Vertov, Sergei Eisenstein, Nagisa Oshima, and Stan Brakhage; the paintings of Agnes Martin and Jasper Johns; the sculptures of Robert Morris; the dance works of Yvonne Rainer; and, perhaps most importantly, musings about the relationship between viewers’ bodies and motion pictures.
However dense and theoretical they may have been, Michelson’s essays and books never came off as anything less than extremely personal intellectual pursuits. Through a somewhat removed lens, Michelson explored what makes a person react to an artwork and how the moving image can challenge and change us.
One of her most famous works remains “Bodies in Space: Film as ‘Carnal Knowledge,’ ” an essay about Stanley Kubrick’s then-newly released 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) that was published in Artforum in 1969. The essay seeks to understand the relationship between Kubrick’s experimental techniques and his audience’s intense reactions to them. It begins with Michelson recalling a photograph of George Meliès’s studio that she encountered at a Centre Pompidou exhibition in Paris. “Men—gentlemen, formally dressed and hatted—stand about, supporting [his studio’s] flats, ready to catch them should the screws fail and they fall,” she writes. “The image is, of course, ‘moving’ because it restores to us the feeling of the primitive, the home-made and artisanal modesty, the fragile and precarious underpinnings of a grandiose venture.” Some 8,000 more words follow, much of them devoted to an impassioned defense of Kubrick’s film, which had been savaged by critics who failed to understand why the filmmaker relied on such experimental techniques for a science-fictional narrative.
Michelson wrote and edited for Artforum during the 1960s and ’70s, and offered the magazine a laser-eyed focus on film, which had only recently come to be considered noteworthy by art publications in the U.S. She even went so far as to guest-edit an entire issue about cinema for Artforum in 1971.
As the 1970s progressed, and as Michelson continued to write for the magazine, she and Krauss, who was also an editor at Artforum at the time, grew frustrated with the publication’s shift in style. John Coplans, the editor-in-chief of Artforum starting in 1971, began turning the publication away from modernist criticism toward something glossier and, to some degree, more accessible. A fracas involving a controversial Lynda Benglis advertisement featuring the artist holding a dildo to her pelvic region only inflamed matters. (The advertisement has come to be considered one of the central works of the feminist art movement during the 1970s.)
“We both stormed out of John Coplans’ Artforum in total disgust with his policies,” Krauss told ARTnews in an email. “All he thought about was the bottom line; so advertising space was so bloated that there was practically no editorial space. Also, it meant he didn’t want anything in the magazine that galleries wouldn’t support—this [meant] Annette’s passion for film and her growing interest in performance were unacceptable to him—as was French theory.”
Together, in 1976, Michelson and Krauss launched October, a journal dedicated to an unabashedly heady form of criticism reliant upon formalist critique and international theory. (The name was a reference to the Eisenstein film of the same name about the 1917 October Revolution in Russia.) It had no ads, and it was printed entirely in black-and-white. It was, in other words, for those willing to think hard. “It was inspiring both to found and to run the magazine with her. . . . Being around Annette was endlessly exciting and stimulating—to me and, I think, our readers,” Krauss said.
October is still considered one of the most important publications to 20th- and 21st-century art history. It has since gone on to publish influential essays by Yve-Alain Bois, Homi Bhabha, Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, Douglas Crimp, and Hal Foster, and is now considered something of an art-world institution in academia worldwide. Cinema is still a major component of its subject matter.
But before she established herself as a film critic, Michelson made a name for herself in the art world. Born in 1922, Michelson attended at New York’s Brooklyn College, and went on to receive a degree in art history and philosophy from Columbia University. She then studied at the University of Paris; it was her time in the French city that gave her access to art publications abroad. She served as an adviser to Éditions René Julliard starting in 1954, and left three years later to become the art editor of the New York Herald Tribune’s international edition and the Paris correspondent for Arts Magazine. Between 1962 and 1964, she was Paris editor of Art International.
Michelson returned to America in 1966; the following year, she became a faculty member at NYU’s Cinema Studies department, where she went on to teach courses about Dada, Surrealism, and other 20th-century avant-garde movements. In 2004, she became a professor emerita in the department; a theater at the school is named after her.
In 2015, Michelson donated her archives to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles. With materials dating back to 1950, the archive has become an essential resource for those studying Michelson. It includes Morris’s 1973 drawing Blind Time, which the Conceptualist artist dedicated to Michelson herself.
It took until last year for an anthology of Michelson’s writings to be published. Titled On the Eve of the Future: Selected Writings on Film, the book features essays on Maya Deren, Marcel Duchamp, Hollis Frampton, and many others. Speaking to Artforum about the tome, Michelson admitted that it was gratifying to finally see her writings put together neatly in the form of a book. With a laugh, she said, “I think everybody who knows me knows that it should have been out quite some time ago.”