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“That Little Exhibition”: The Late Douglas Crimp on His Show that Anointed “The Pictures Generation”

Ten years ago, I had a chance for a brief but illuminating chat with Douglas Crimp, the influential critic, curator and art historian who died Friday at the age of 74. We were at the press preview for a show at the Metropolitan Museum that had its genesis in Crimp’s pioneering work defining what became known as “The Pictures Generation”—artists who “brought both a critical and playful attitude toward the plethora of images that surrounded them,” in the words of the Met’s press release.

Douglas Crimp at the Met’s April 2009 press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

As you will see in the excerpts, below, from my CultureGrrl Q&A with Crimp, he had a refreshingly irreverent attitude towards both his own landmark five-artist exhibition (at Artists Space in 1977) and the Met’s reinterpretation of the movement in its 30-artist show organized by the Met’s then associate curator (now curator) of photographs, Douglas Eklund.

Met curator Douglas Eklund at the “Pictures Generation” press preview
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Here are the excerpts from our conversation (full text here):

Rosenbaum: If you could control it, how would you do things differently than this [the Met’s show, to which I gave a mixed review]?

Crimp: I have no interest in controlling. I did something: I did a little exhibition; I wrote a text; I rewrote the text and published it a couple of years later in “October.” It had effects. A lot of it is very gratifying to me. A lot of the attention has been paid to that little exhibition, but also to what I wrote about a group of artists and a phenomenon.

It’s been interesting to see how much that has had an effect and I guess it has proved to me that all of us who participate are making art’s meanings—the viewers of art, the critics of art, obviously the artists and the museums that make exhibitions. All of these constitute meaning in works of art. Meanings don’t inhere in the objects themselves. They actually have to do with reception.

Rosenbaum: Are the meanings that you see here different from the meanings that you intended back then and the meanings that you would attribute to these things now? How does your perspective differ from the point of view reflected in this exhibition?

Crimp: In what Doug [Eklund] was just saying [in his remarks to the press], he gave a certain amount of attention to the importance of women and I think that has to be really emphasized. In his first wall text, he mentions feminism but then he goes on to define the influence of feminism as something like: “It doesn’t matter what the gender of the artist is.” [The wall text stated that feminism “made it possible for woman artists to define themselves as artists who happened to be women.”]

I think that’s NOT the lesson of feminism. The lesson of feminism is in the kind of art that’s being made and the kinds or propositions that were being made through the art—the critique of originality, for example, which is something I already argued for early on with respect to Sherrie Levine and Cindy Sherman. I think that’s a feminist perspective and that is a crucial aspect of this formation of artists. I didn’t recognize that at the time.

I don’t think that the work of Louise Lawler—probably the artist I feel closest to, in relation to my subsequent work—can be understood without taking account of second-wave feminism.

The work of the Met in its 2009 “Pictures Generation” exhibition (including Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Barbara Kruger, Robert Longo, Jack Goldstein, Sherrie Levine, Troy Brauntuch, Sarah Charlesworth and the generation’s father figure, John Baldessari, among others) cannot be understood without taking into account Douglas Crimp’s critical contribution.

But while the museum’s press release for the show (linked above) acknowledged its debt to “the landmark 1977 ‘Pictures’ exhibition at the not-for-profit New York venue Artists Space,” it failed to name the organizer—perhaps the institutional equivalent of “appropriation art,” a signature strategy of the Pictures Generation.

In tribute to the late Crimp, an art history professor at the University of Rochester at the time of his death, it’s time to belatedly rectify that unfortunate omission.

an ArtsJournal blog