‘His spirit just bloomed’: Renowned AIDS activist, art scholar Douglas Crimp, who grew up in Coeur d’Alene, dies at 74
July 26, 2019 Updated Sat., July 27, 2019 at 10:31 p.m.
As the sun was setting, light shined through the expansive windows of Douglas Crimp’s New York City loft in May. He was surrounded by family: his husband, Yoshiaki Mochizuki; Rosalyn Deutsche, a friend he had known since graduate school at City University of New York; his brother, Greg Crimp; and Sandi Bloem, his sister and the former mayor of Coeur d’Alene.
Mochizuki prepared an intricate Japanese meal, as beautiful as it was delicious, and they gathered around a small glass table, spending the evening comfortably reminiscing. Deutsche described the time together as idyllic, and the great love between Douglas and his siblings as apparent.
Two months later, on July 5, Crimp – a renowned and controversial art scholar and vocal AIDS activist with ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) – died of multiple myeloma at the age of 74.
In his New York Times obituary, Sarah Cowan wrote, “In his writing, Mr. Crimp reflected on how the two cultures in which he moved – the alternative art world and the liberated gay one – functioned like a two-way mirror.”
As a scholar, Crimp engaged in a conversation with the art world that many of his contemporaries viewed as an important and disruptive challenge to the status quo. His work was seen as changing the conversation within contemporary art. As the curator of a landmark 1977 exhibition in New York called “Pictures,” he explored the idea that an artwork’s meaning should be viewed within its historical and social context.
In his work with October – a contemporary art journal – Crimp edited an issue titled “AIDS: Cultural Analysis/Cultural Activism” that offered an unflinching statement about the urgent need to bring attention to a disease of then-epidemic proportions, that had wide implications for society as a whole.
The issue’s cover featured a photograph of a window installation at the New Museum. “SILENCE=DEATH” was spelled out in neon lighting, with a pink triangle – the Nazi symbol for a gay person – above the lettering. Below were a photo-mural of the Nuremberg Trials and life-sized silhouetted cut-outs of “AIDS criminals.”
In his introduction, Crimp wrote, “AIDS intersects with and requires a critical rethinking of all of culture: of language and representation, of science and medicine, of health and illness, of sex and death, of the public and private realms. AIDS is a central issue for gay men, of course, but also for lesbians. AIDS is an issue for women generally, but especially for poor and minority women, for child-bearing women, for women working in the health care system. AIDS is an issue for drug users, for prisoners, for sex workers. At some point, even ‘ordinary’ heterosexual men will have to learn that AIDS is an issue for them, and not simply because they might be susceptible to ‘contagion.’ ”
The New York where he established a commanding presence in arts and activism might as well have been a different world from the one he grew up in: Coeur d’Alene in the 1950s and ’60s.
Crimp grew up in a home on Sanders Beach, and to Sandi and Greg – his sister and brother – he was Doug.
“We had a wonderful place to live, and Coeur d’Alene was a great community in a lot of ways,” Bloem said. “ It wasn’t an easy time to be anywhere at that time, being gay, and that was one of the reasons he fought so hard for what he did.”
Greg remembers some of the sadness of Doug’s teenage years and said it was hard to see his older brother bullied. Doug was mocked for supposedly throwing a pole like a girl, and one of his close friends had attempted suicide, Greg said. Though Doug and his mother were close, his relationship with his father was strained.
Rachel Haidu, chair of University of Rochester Art and Art History Department, pointed out there were some bright spots. For example, he went to prom with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Marilynne Robinson, who was a childhood friend. Haidu has worked at Rochester since 2003; Douglas has been a professor there since 1992.
Douglas’ journey to New York began with his escape to Tulane University in New Orleans in 1962. Deutsche asked him if he wished he could have fit in, and his answer was a resounding no.
“Painful as it had been in Coeur d’Alene, he didn’t regret being not part of the norm, because when he finally went to Tulane, he felt so liberated,” Deutsche said. “He said it was so pleasurable.”
Deutsche said the day before it became clear his illness would prove terminal, he told her a story of the party he threw for his parents’ Tulane visit.
“All of Douglas’ friends had long hair and ’60s kinds of dressing and the parents were critical afterward,” Deutsche said. “ I was impressed that he would do that, knowing how conservative his parents were, but he … somehow thought that they would enjoy his friends. And then they were critical of them, which I think was quite painful.”
Douglas refused to see the world in black and white, and his feelings for Coeur d’Alene were no different. Later in life, Greg said Douglas was able to enjoy himself during his visits home.
“He was just much more comfortable here at home, it seemed,” Greg said. “He wanted to get a feel for what our life was like here, which of course included our kids.”
When his nieces and nephews jumped on the paddleboard, Uncle Doug was the first to join. Bloem said the children loved and respected their uncle.
Last winter, while Caitlin Crimp, Greg’s daughter, was undergoing her infectious diseases rotation at the University of Washington medical school, the attending physician made the connection that Douglas was Caitlin’s uncle. Douglas’ work involving the AIDS epidemic had been required reading when the attending physician was in school.
“She said, ‘Oh my god, he is so well known and a hero in trying to help find a cure for AIDS,’ ” Greg said. “Doug was thrilled to hear that. He said, ‘I’m so happy she’s heard of my work!’ ”
When Haidu saw a picture of Douglas canoeing from a trip three summers ago, it struck her how much he loved this place she had heard so much about.
“I think there was a realization, a kind of romance to the place that he could finally enjoy,” Haidu said.
Haidu said Douglas had a great deal of pride in his family’s legacy, and the role they played in the community, including Bloem’s time as mayor. Haidu regrets not asking him how Idaho had influenced his work, but she suspects his time there was important.
“He was very focused on New York City, which was his home as an adult, but there is probably a way to think about how his early life in Idaho formed something in him,” Haidu said. “I would guess that some quality of the elegance of his writing and the lucidity of his thoughts, that you can maybe start to hypothesize it has to do with where he grew up.”
Though their view was from the outside, Greg and Bloem were proud of their brother’s work: his accomplishments in the intellectual and art worlds, his activism for the rights of the LGBT community, his advocacy for a cure for AIDS, and the kind and generous way he lived his life.
“He was very humble,” Bloem said. “He would tell us now and then that he was doing something, or he had been honored for something, but he never really talked about himself, about what he had done for our world today.”
Greg said that of all of his brother’s accomplishments, he was most proud of what he did for the LGBT community. ACT UP is a “nonpartisan group of diverse individuals united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” Douglas’ role in the organization meant he would be at the front line for protests as well as chronicling the group’s efforts in his work.
“I think he has been a major player, especially in the beginning with ACT UP, in making life easier – and we still have a long way to go – but making life easier for the entire LGBTQ community,” Greg said. “I think there are a lot of people in that community who, he changed their lives.”
For Greg, it wasn’t just what Douglas did, but how he did it.
“He was just one of the kindest people,” Greg said. “He fought really tough battles, but he did it with grace.”
Perhaps one of Douglas’ most difficult moments professionally was in 1990, when he was pushed out of October – an influential arts journal he had worked for since 1977 – after fellow editors refused to publish essays that looked at art from gay men responding to the AIDS crisis in nuanced ways.
“It was a terrible period,” Deutsche said, noting that October is planning a special remembrance issue for Douglas. “It was very, very painful. … I think it was homophobic what they did, and they wanted to protect the purity of their publication.”
Deutsche said Douglas went through numerous transformations in his work throughout his adult life, and this was just another one of these tipping points. His final transformative period, preparing for death, was no different.
Consuming book after book, Douglas studied death the same way he would anything that was important to him. With great consideration, he chose to discontinue chemotherapy and switch to palliative care. With a secular approach, he read Buddhist writings and meditated daily. His friends read him poetry. He was open.
“The way I think about it is that as his body was dying, his spirit just bloomed,” Deutsche said.
Deutsche didn’t know if this softening was in part due to his siblings’ visit, or if his last transformation was what made their visit so special, but either way, she said the time Douglas spent with Greg and Bloem was crucial for him.
“One of the things that I did learn – even though we had talked about them over the years – I learned how much love there was among them,” Deutsche said. “Douglas died very happy about his relationship with them.”
Haidu said Douglas took care planning his siblings’ trip long before they arrived, selecting quiet restaurants so they could easily converse.
“It was incredibly meaningful,” Haidu said. “He was so eager to see them. … It was really indescribable.”
Throughout his decline, Douglas was never alone. His closest friends became loyal caretakers, and friends visited from all over the world. Haidu said this last stage made all of the sense in the world – Douglas was an extraordinary, generous and loyal friend.
“He valued and he treasured friendship like nobody else I’ve ever known,” Haidu said. “What was very moving in the last couple of years is his friends, who he lavished so much attention and so much love, became his caretakers.”
Deutsche was one of those caretakers. Friends for more than 40 years, Deutsche will miss the way Douglas had supported her work from the beginning. Before he died, Douglas made Deutsche promise she would gather her essays and publish a book, and she made a promise in return: She would dedicate the book to him.
The day Douglas died, he meditated with Deutsche, and she thinks it helped him to die fearlessly. She described it as an “elegant death.”
The trips to New York were the closest they would get to closure, Greg said. He remembers walking through the city and noticing a tourist bus and being acutely aware that instead of seeing New York as a tourist, he was seeing New York through his brother’s eyes. Leaving was difficult, but he was comforted by the community that loved and cared for his brother.
“I don’t think he knew how loved he was,” Greg said. “I think he found out.”
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