Craig Owens’ name is among those in ‘The Witness Project.’ He was a brilliant art critic--and he was a special friend.
I think it was the second time I visited the exhibit “Devil on the Stairs: Looking Back on Art of the Eighties"--which closes Sunday at the Newport Harbor Art Museum--that I felt a surge of pain, a sudden reminder of the death of someone I loved, inappropriately but sincerely, many years ago.
A continuous red band of paint high on the gallery walls carries the names of 74 artists, critics, museum professionals, dealers and collectors whose lives were cut short by AIDS. The list, formally known as “The Witness Project: A Census of AIDS in the Arts,” was initiated in the ‘80s by the New York-based arts professional group Visual AIDS as a testimony to the terrible devastation this disease has wrought in the art community.
Among all those names, one leaped out at me.
When Craig Owens died at 39 on July 4, 1990, he was one of America’s leading art critics. He was not widely read. Rather, he wrote for magazines with five-figure circulations and specialized readerships, publications whose writers are expected, as a matter of course, to pull out the heavy intellectual artillery.
Owens was known best for articles he wrote during the late ‘70s and ‘80s for October (a journal of art theory and criticism he helped edit) and Art in America magazine (where he became a senior editor) in which he helped define the basis of postmodern art according to European critical theory. One of his chief subjects was the relationship between power (of men over women, of empire-builders over their colonial territories) and representation in art.
His essay “The Allegorical Impulse: Toward a Theory of Postmodernism,” written in 1980, is a prime example of the way he drew effortlessly on a dazzling array of cultural references to illuminate his ideas. It is included in “Art After Modernism: Rethinking and Representation,” an anthology edited by Brian Wallis (1984, The New Museum of Contemporary Art, N.Y./David R. Godine Inc.).
In the modernist view--now more than a century old--art criticism is supposed to confine itself to explicating and evaluating the formal relations of works of art, and promoting a select few to “masterpiece” status.
But there is no such thing as culturally value-free criticism. By ignoring the ways art impacts larger economic, social and political issues, these critics are in fact tacitly promoting the status quo. Postmodern criticism, on the other hand, is frankly “interventionist,” as Wallis puts it, dedicated to using the written word as “a positive means for social critique and change.”
In his complex 32-page essay, Owens defines postmodernism by comparing the construction of an allegory--a story in which people and things are given symbolic meanings--to the way certain artists take images and “empty them of their resonance, their significance, their authoritative claim to meaning.”
Using this theoretical framework (which I am simplifying drastically), he discusses the work of certain artists who then were emerging into the big-time art world: Sherrie Levine’s deliberate copies of other artists’ work, Robert Longo’s reliefs made from film stills; Cindy Sherman’s photographic self-portraits with costumes, poses and settings reminiscent of the ‘50s and ‘60s; and Troy Brauntuch’s enlarged reproductions of Hitler’s drawings.
Owens constructs his argument by citing such disparate sources as Marxist philosopher Walter Benjamin, French 19th-Century poet and art critic Charles Baudelaire, English 19th-Century poet and essayist Samuel Taylor Coleridge, artist Robert Smithson, Cold War-era literary critic Northrop Frye, liner notes on an album recorded by performance artist Laurie Anderson, an obscure French film theorist, and the Italian Renaissance poet Dante Alighieri.
It was this gloriously broad field of reference, and the ability to see connections between ideas in different fields of knowledge, that accounted for Owens’ dazzling impact in intellectual circles while he was still in his 20s.
But his strengths weren’t all on paper. Impossibly tall and thin--with straight blond hair and a handsomely pale and serious large-featured face--he was a brilliant, witty conversationalist and an attentive listener. He always made you feel your thoughts were important, even when you realized his were a lot more interesting.
I met him in the summer of 1966 when we both attended a theater workshop for high school students at Ohio State University. His primary interest at that time was in the theater, and even as a teen-ager living with his parents in a Pennsylvania suburb, he had managed to become a walking authority on avant-garde playwrights and off-off-Broadway theater circles.
At 16, he already had taken the rigorous, seriously pre-professional summer theater program at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) in his native Pittsburgh. In the far more relaxed ambience of Ohio State--which probably bored him, come to think of it--we spent most of our free evening hours together, walking around and discussing the cultural stuff that we were just discovering.
Or rather, I was discovering it. He already seemed to be an expert in everything. His interests included foreign films, dance, classical music (especially opera) and literature (he would major in English at Haverford College in Pennsylvania, graduating with honors and a Phi Beta Kappa key).
After 26 years, I still remember being mesmerized by the way his thoughts would branch out from one subject to another, fueled by knowledge and sparked by imagination. I still can see his hands, with their long, tapering fingers--"artistic” hands, people would have said in another era--sketching out a point he was working out in his mind. I can see the graceful slouch that reduced his 6 1/2-foot frame by a few inches, so as to be more politely approachable to a short, young woman hanging on his every word.
In those days, however, I was frustrated by his seeming reticence in another vital area. One night I burst into my room--which I shared with two other teen-age girls in the program--and announced that he still hadn’t kissed me. Not that being kissed was an everyday experience. Au contraire . But I adored this young man, we spent huge amounts of time together, and I expected something romantic to happen. I couldn’t figure it out.
Curiously enough, I also remember my statuesque roommate from Arkansas--a warm and gregarious country girl--asking me if I knew what homosexuals were, because she had just heard that term for the first time.
Oh yes, I knew what they were. We knew about such things in New York. And I proceeded to tell her, I guess, that they were men who loved other men instead of women. (Gently reared in a more innocent time, I had rather vague information about the physical realities of sex, homosexual or otherwise, and was quite unaware one could be gay and female.) If my roommate was trying to tell me something, I couldn’t hear it. I still viewed Craig as my physically shy “boyfriend.”
He and I did keep in touch by mail for a while and got together once during our senior years in high school to see theater in New York--an event I anticipated with frantic hopes and the purchase of a new dress. Needless to say, the magic did not happen.
After college, as I later learned, he went on to study art history at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Although he didn’t earn a graduate degree, he later was able to combine his editing positions with teaching at such places as Hunter College, the Whitney Museum and the School of Visual Arts at New York University.
Out of the blue in the early ‘80s, I saw the familiar pale face peering out at the audience at a dance critics’ conference in New York.
I went up to him afterward and suggested going out for coffee. I remember his long, long legs slanting elegantly under the cafe table. Needless to say, by now I knew that his romantic tastes did not run to women. But the passion for art and ideas that we had shared, I finally realized, was something far rarer than a teen-age love relationship.
Our chat over coffee didn’t--couldn’t--recapture those breathless discussions of the Summer of ’66. He had adopted a languid, world-weary air in the intervening years, and he seemed to view the world at a semi-indulgent remove. He moved in a rarefied world of cultural heavyweights and academic authorities; I was an art critic at a suburban newspaper. Still, he was unflaggingly cordial as we made small talk about our jobs and lives.
He was the first victim of AIDS I had known in more than a passing way. To think of him cut down at 39, after a year of unimaginable pain. To think of a world deprived of his ideas, of friends and colleagues deprived of his wit and generosity. I can see him wincing at my cliches. But tragedy brings us down to hard and simple truths. I’ll remember him always, and I curse the blind injustice of a disease that has wiped out some of the most creative minds of my generation.