Action Around the Edges (Sixteenth Annual Kessler Lecture Delivered by Douglas Crimp)

Douglas Crimp, Fanny Knapp Allen
Professor of History at the University
of Rochester, delivered the Sixteenth
Annual David R. Kessler Lecture honoring
his lifetime achievements in the
fi elds of LGBTQ Studies. Crimp’s lecture,
Action around the Edges, was
drawn from his memoir of New York
in the 1970s, tentatively titled Before
Pictures. Following are testimonials
by Henry Abelove, Wilbur Fisk Professor
of English at Wesleyan University,
and Rosalyn Deutsche, Professor of
Art History at Barnard College, and
excerpts from Crimp’s lecture.

The day in August I’d
chosen to move from
Greenwich Village to
TriBeCa was one of the
hottest of the summer of 1974. I
rented a van and got my on-again,
off-again boyfriend Richard to help
out. My apartment on Tenth Street
west of Hudson was a fourth-floor
railroad flat; my new place was a
spacious sky-lit loft on Chambers
Street, also west of Hudson. I’d
arranged to use the freight elevator
in the loft building for the
day, a rickety old elevator operated
by pulling down hard on the
hoist cable on a pulley system and
stopped by yanking the other cable.
It was a challenge to bring it level
with the floor. After piling all of
my belongings on the elevator’s
platform, Richard and I and the
artist next door from whom I was
subletting my loft managed to get the overloaded
elevator to start its
ascent, but by the
time we’d reached
the third floor it
came to a grinding
halt and started sliding
back downwards. We all
grabbed the cable to try to
slow the elevator’s plunge and
did manage to prevent a free fall,
but it crashed onto the basement floor
nevertheless. After recovering our wits
and finding ourselves luckily unharmed,
we had to lug my belongings
through the old industrial building’s
dank basement and up the back stairs,
make our way with them through
a jam-packed hardware store on the
ground floor, and then haul them up
four more flights of stairs.
My new loft had some other amenities
besides the skylight, one of them
with a classy provenance. The space
had previously been rented by the set
designer Robert Israel, from whom I
bought the fixtures. Among these was
a stage-like platform about ten feet
square and standing two feet above the
floor, which Robert must have used
for mock-up designs; I positioned it
underneath the skylight and used it as
a spatial demarcation for my bedroom.
I didn’t pay undue attention to the
symbolism of bedroom-as-brightly-litstage,
but I guess it was apt for that
moment of my life. The fixture with
the provenance was a large refrigeratorfreezer
that had been given to Jasper
Johns by Marion Javits, the art collector
and socialite wife of New York
State’s famous liberal Republican senator.
Johns had given it to Robert, and
Robert sold it to me.
My move from the Village to
TriBeCa came about as a result of my
decision to get serious about being an
Sara Warner, CLAGS
Board member and Sarah
Chinn, CLAGS Executive
Director at the Kessler
Reception
art critic, to replace the gay scene with the art scene. I suppose it was a moment
of my latent Calvinism taking hold. I’d come to feel myself adrift, not
accomplishing enough, not spending enough time with the crowd to which
I “rightly” belonged. My exchange of one scene for another was destined to
fail, but my attempt to achieve it with an essentially spatial implementation
interests me now. The immediate impulse is not easy for me to reconstruct,
but it had something to do with the sometime boyfriend who helped
me move and crashed with me in the elevator. A friend had told me that
Richard was “inappropriate” for me, something that has been said more
than once about the objects of my sexual interest. But in this case I took
the opinion more or less to heart, because Richard had become my tormentor.
The on-gain, off-again character of the affair was in fact quite brutal:
as soon as I became really hooked on him, he’d abruptly ditch me, and then
just as I was getting over being jilted, he’d come back pleading that he
couldn’t live without me, and I’d get hooked once again. This emotional
S&M had its physical side too, which is no doubt what enthralled me in the
first place. But beyond these commonplace facts of what’s called “a relationship,”
Richard was indeed very different from me, intellectually, politically.
The emotional turmoil of my affair with Richard had come to symbolize
for me my participation in the gay scene more generally—unjustly, of
course—and my sense that I’d be better off living further downtown in
TriBeCa was determined, in my memory of it now, by an event that represented
a substitute love object. Sometime in the spring of 1974, I saw the
Grand Union perform. The Grand Union was an improvisational dance
group that grew out of Yvonne Rainer’s late-1960s Performance Demonstrations,
especially Continuous Project, Altered Daily. Its members were mostly
dancers who had played a role in the Judson Dance Theater. I’d seen very
little dance since my first ecstatic exposure to it in Merce Cunningham’s
Brooklyn Academy of Music engagement in the winter of 1970, where I
saw, most memorably, RainForest, with Andy Warhol’s helium-filled silver
Mylar clouds and the set and music by David Tudor. I date my love of
dance to that moment, so I can’t understand now why I didn’t continue to
pursue it. It was, in fact, more performance art than dance that I was drawn
to in the improvisational antics of the Grand Union dancers. And indeed, it
was performance art that seemed to beckon as a substitute object for my libido.
By this time, I had seen early works by Joan Jonas, who acknowledges
a debt to Judson. In 1971 I sat with other audience members on the floor of
Jonas’s loft on Grand Street in SoHo to watch her Choreomania, performed on
a swinging mirrored wall constructed by Richard Serra. Here is a description
of the performance space that Jonas and I wrote together ten years later
for her Berkeley Art Museum exhibition catalogue:
A twelve-by-eight-foot wall of wood hangs by chains from the ceiling
two-and-a-half feet from the ground. Ropes and handles are attached
to the back so that the five performers can climb the wall unseen by the
spectators. The right-hand third of the front of the wall is mirrored. The
wall can be swung back and forth and sideways by the performers, and
their movements are choreographed in relation to the wall’s motion.
The wall is hung so that it bisects the long narrow space of the loft.
The spectators sit in the front half of the loft, facing the prop. The spectators’
space and the spectators themselves are reflected in the mirrored
portion of the wall as it swings from side to side. Because this wall is
also the fourth wall of the spectators’ space, the illusion is created that their space is swaying.
The main function of the wall
is to fragment the performance in
such a way that much of the performance
action is seen only around
the wall’s four edges. The appearing/
disappearing actions recall a
magic show.
My title “Action around the Edges”
is meant to resonate not only with
this description of Choreomania but
also with the periphery of the city,
its piers, and what some of us did on
those piers. In 1971, an old pier just
south of Chambers Street was the site
of Projects: Pier 18, a series of performances
and events orchestrated by
Willoughby Sharp and devised to be
photographed by Harry Shunk for an
exhibition at the Museum of Modern
Art. The most enduring work made
in relation to Projects: Pier 18 was, interestingly
enough, not photographic
and not in the show. The work, a later
version of which is currently installed
in the garden of Dia: Beacon, is Louise
Lawler’s Birdcalls, in which Lawler (I
borrow Rosalyn Deutsche’s concise
description here) “squeals, squawks,
chirps, twitters, croaks, squeaks, and
occasionally warbles the names—primarily
the surnames—of twenty-eight
contemporary male artists, from Vito
Acconci to Lawrence Weiner.” Lawler
explains that the work
originated in the early 1970s when
my friend Martha Kite and I were
helping some artists on one of the
Hudson River pier projects. The
women involved were doing tons
of work, but the work being shown
was only by male artists. Walking
home at night in New York,
one way to feel safe is to pretend
you’re crazy or at least be really
loud. Martha and I called ourselves
the due chantoosies, and we’d sing
off-key and make other noises.
Willoughby Sharp was the impresario
of the project, so we’d make a
“Willoughby Willoughby” sound,
trying to sound like birds. This
developed into a series of bird calls
based on artists’ names.
Lawler’s work responds comically
not only to the exclusion of women
from so many of the experimental
projects of the period but also to the
dangers that some of the city’s spaces
of experimentation held because of
their out-of-the-way locations. Vito
Acconci made these dangers the
implicit subject of his project for
Pier 18, called Security Zone. With
hands bound behind his back, blindfolded,
and wearing earplugs, Acconci
entrusted his safety to fellow artist
Lee Jaffe. The piece was, Acconci
said, “designed to affect an everyday
relationship” by forcing himself to
develop trust in someone about whom
he had “ambiguous” feelings. Looking
at the photographs, you sometimes
can’t tell whether Jaffe is about
to push Acconci off the edge of the
pier or saving him from falling off.
Gordon Matta-Clark, currently the
figure most completely identified with
the spirit of downtown Manhattan as
a site of artistic experimentation in
the 1970s, also made a project for Pier
18, but his reference to endangerment
is, as in so much of his work, one of
bravura, of physical derring-do rather
than psychological vulnerability. At
Pier 18, he planted an evergreen tree
in a pile of debris and suspended
himself by rope upside down above
it. But this was only an easy rehearsal
for what would be Matta-Clark’s most
audacious act and certainly one of his
most magnificent works, Day’s End, of
1975, his summer-long transformation
of the dilapidated Pier 52, which
stood at the end of Gansevoort Street
in New York’s meat-packing district.
In an interview with Liza Baer, Matta-
Clark explains how be found the site:
Originally what I had sighted on
were the façades because as you go
down the Pier, driving down the
pier along that empty highway in front, the façades are an incredible,
animated grouping of different eras
and different personalities. And I
wanted to deal with one of the earlier
ones, which this is—a turn of
the century façade. There’s a classic
sort of tin classicism. And to cut at
the façade. So the ones that I found
originally were all completely overrun
by the gays. And S&M, you
know that whole S&M shadows of
waterfront…
Matta-Clark referred to the three
months of work on Day’s End as his
summer vacation by the water. Judging
from the film shot of it, it wasn’t
a restful vacation. Working with his
friend Gary Hovagymian, Matta-Clark
used such heavy tools as a chain saw
and a blowtorch to cut through the
timbers of the pier’s floor and the corrugated
tin roof and façade. The most
dramatic moments of the film show
Matta-Clark wielding the blowtorch
as he dangles on a small platform
strung up by rope pulley about twenty
feet above the pier’s floor. Often shirtless
but wearing protective goggles,
Matta-Clark cuts the west-end oculus
through the tin siding as sparks fly
about him in a performance that is
equal parts Buster Keaton and Douglas
Fairbanks. Matta-Clark speaks of
the “absurdity of the whole activity,”
even as his references to the basilicalike
structure and “rose window” that
he added to it sacralize the setting.
Some of those who had the good
fortune to see Day’s End relate a sense
of awe enhanced by fear. Sculptor Joel
Shapiro recalls that “the piece was
dangerous,” that Matta-Clark “was
creating some kind of edge—flirting
with some sort of abyss.” But Matta-
Clark intended the opposite sort of
experience:
The one thing that I wanted was
to make it possible for people to
see it…in a peaceful enclosure
totally enclosed in an un-menacing
kind of way. That when they
went in there, they wouldn’t feel
like every squeak or every shadow
was a potential threat. I know in
lots of the earlier works that I did,
the kind of paranoia of being in a
space where you didn’t know who
was there, and what was happening
or whether there were menacing
people lurking about, was just distracting.
And I just wanted a more
joyous situation….
Joyous, dangerous, absurd, sacred,
flirting with the abyss—Matta-Clark’s
and others’ descriptions of Day’s End
make it impossible for me not to
think of the experiences of those other
pier occupants, the ones from whom
Matta-Clark seems in nearly all his
statements about the work to want to
differentiate himself—“you know, that
whole S&M,” as he put it. Although
in many instances Matta-Clark aligns
his work with others who occupy
or otherwise make their mark upon
abandoned areas of cities, particularly
workers and disenfranchised youth, in
the case of Pier 52, Matta-Clark not
only disavowed any bond with the gay
men who were using the piers as cruising
grounds but went so far as to lock
them out by closing with barbed wire
the holes people made to break in and
putting his own lock on the entrance.
It may be that Matta-Clark had
no particular animus toward the gay
men who used the piers but simply
that he wanted to be able to make his
work undisturbed, to protect himself
from intruders of any kind. But it’s
difficult to say, because Matta-Clark
wasn’t particularly careful to differentiate
among the various dangers that
journalists writing at the time about
the sexual activity at the piers tended
to conflate : hazardous, disintegrating
structures; threatening, perverse sexuality;
and criminals who preyed on,
robbed, and sometimes even murdered
the piers’ clandestine users.
Gay men were acutely aware of the
piers’ dangers, and, together with
vernacular art work and graffiti, they
painted signs warning fellow cruisers
to watch their wallets. Moreover,
Matta-Clark wasn’t the only one who
took to the piers for a summer vacation
by the water. Shielded from public
view by the warehouse structure,
gay men used the pier’s end that jutted
far out into the river as a place to
sunbathe. It doesn’t, I think, diminish
the accomplishment of Days End
to say that a romantic grandeur was
perceptible in the ruined piers before Matta-Clark ever wrought a single
change on Pier 52 and that much of
the pleasure that gay men took in being
in the piers was what drew artists
to them as well. It’s not just that they
were there and available; they were
vast and hauntingly beautiful. Nor
was the sex play in the piers only of
the rough and kinky variety, unless
you think that any kind of sex outside
a domestic setting is kinky.
The entire range of pleasures and
dangers of the piers was captured by
a too-little-known African American
photographer, Alvin Baltrop, who
documented goings-on there during
the 1970s and ’80s up to and
including the piers’ demolition in
the late 1980s. Several of Baltrop’s
photographs show gay men at Pier 52,
taking in the beauty of Matta-Clark’s
Day’s End along with whatever other
beauties they might be pursuing. Indeed,
these photographs wonderfully
portray the “peaceful enclosure” and
“joyous situation” that Matta-Clark
said he wanted to achieve with Day’s
End. Like Matta-Clark, Baltrop also
hoisted himself on a harness to make
his work. In the preface for a book
that he worked unsuccessfully to complete
before dying of cancer in 2004,
Baltrop wrote:
Although initially terrified of the
Piers, I began to take these photos
as a voyeur, but soon grew determined
to preserve the frightening,
mad, unbelievable, violent, and
beautiful things that were going on
at that time. To get certain shots,
I hung from the ceilings of several
warehouses utilizing a makeshift
harness, watching and waiting for
hours to record the lives that these
people led, and the unfortunate
ends that they sometimes met.
The casual sex and nonchalant
narcotizing, the creation of artwork
and music, sunbathing, dancing,
merrymaking and the like habitually
gave way to muggings, callous
yet detached violence, rape, suicide,
and in some instances, murder.
The rapid emergence and expansion
of AIDS in the 1980s further reduced
the number of people going
to and living at the Piers, and the
sporadic joys that could be found
there.
Unlike Baltrop, I didn’t feel consciously
afraid of the piers. They were
part of my neighborhood cityscape
and one of many nearby places to play
outdoors. Located a short walk from
my apartment on Tenth Street, Pier
44, which no longer had a structure
on it, was a local place to hang out
and be cooled by the Hudson River’s
breezes on hot summer days and
watch the sun set over New Jersey in
the evening. Even closer was Pier 45,
the main gay cruising pier, where the
upper floor warren of rooms along the
West Street end of the pier functioned
day and night like a sex club with no
cover charge. Pier 45 was only one
of many nearby places for outdoor
sex play. Another Greenwich Village
haunt of men seeking other men
was known simply as the Trucks, a
designation for the empty lots along
Washington Street north of Christopher
Street where delivery trucks were
parked at night. After the bars closed
at 4:00 a.m., gay men gathered in the
spaces behind the trucks and often up
inside the back of them for group sex.
If you lived in the Village, this was
an efficient way to bring your night
at the bars to a satisfying end without
having to repair to a bath house in
another neighborhood
Come to think of it, maybe I was
afraid of the piers—afraid not only
of their very real dangers, of which I
tended to be overtly and stupidly dismissive,
but also of their easy proximity
and constant promise. I was struggling
to write about art professionally
as a freelancer then, which took more
discipline than I could usually muster,
since the frustrations of being
unable to find a good subject, devise
a sound argument, even compose a
sentence I was happy with or choose
a word that rang true could be easily
if only momentarily alleviated just by walking out my door and into the
playground that was my immediate
neighborhood. This is why, I think,
seeing the Grand Union perform
sticks in my mind as being such a
momentous event for me, why it
propelled me to another part of the
city and another world. Apart from
monthly reviewing for Art News and
Art International, the most ambitious
writing I managed during the
several years I lived in the Village
were a monographic essay on Agnes
Martin and a commissioned essay for
the catalogue of an exhibition held
in Milan of American minimalist
painters from Martin and Ad Reinhardt
to Brice Marden and Richard
Tuttle. In both essays I struggled
to think beyond the Greenbergian
formalism that still held sway in so
much American art criticism at that
time. What would finally free me
from its grip was not painting but
performance art.
The block in TriBeCa to which
I moved in 1974 bordered the site
of what had been perhaps the most
ambitious and imaginative use of
the de-industrializing city as the
stage for an art work, Joan Jonas’s
performance Delay Delay of 1972.
Once again, Jonas and I describe the
performance space of Delay Delay in
our 1983 book:
The spectators view the performance
from the roof of a five-story
loft building facing west, located
at 319 Greenwich Street in
lower Manhattan. The performing
area is a ten-block grid of city
streets bounding vacant lots and
leveled buildings. Beyond these
lots are the elevated West Side
Highway, the docks and piers
along the Hudson River, and
the factories of the New Jersey
Skyline across the river. Directly
in front of the spectators at the
back of the performance area is
the Erie Lackawanna Pier building
painted with large numbers
20 and 21. These indicate the
old pier numbers.
By the time I moved to TriBeCa
these downtown piers had been torn
down to make way for Battery Park
City, which was then put on hold
during the city’s fiscal crisis. New
York was going bankrupt, and its
infrastructure was badly deteriorating.
Beyond the razed blocks that
had once been part of the Washington
Market was the elevated highway,
now empty too, and beyond
that, where the piers had been, a
barren landfill that Lower Manhattan
residents christened “the beach.”
A few years later, a newly founded
arts organization called Creative
Time would begin its series of outdoor
exhibitions there called “Art
on the Beach.” An era of officially
sponsored public art was underway,
with its commissioning entities,
panels of experts, permits, contracts,
and eventually its controversies and
court cases.
I didn’t manage to change worlds
by moving to TriBeCa. I still spent
nearly every evening in the Village,
but now most of them ended with
a long walk down the west side to
my new neighborhood. It was a
time when I could cherish the illusion
that these Manhattan streets
belonged to me—to me and others
who were discovering them and
using them for our own purposes.
And I did manage to become an art
critic. The first article I wrote after
moving downtown was “Joan Jonas’s
Performance Works,” published in
a special issue of Studio International
devoted to performance art. Jonas
was perhaps more clear-sighted than
I about the possibility of appropriating
city spaces. I quote her in my
essay as saying: “My own thinking
and production has focused on issues
of space—ways of dislocating it,
attenuating it, flattening it, turning
it inside out, always attempting
to explore it without ever giving to
myself or to others the permission to
penetrate it.”