Magazine article Artforum International

Transformer: David Joselit on Gregory Battcock

Magazine article Artforum International

Transformer: David Joselit on Gregory Battcock

Article excerpt

IN APRIL 1970, Gregory Battcock appeared in his underwear on the cover of Arts Magazine, the publication he would briefly lead as editor some three years later. Like "Andy Warhol's Travel Piece," the three-page spread it announces, the cover's design, credited to Warhol, looks unfinished. Battcock is pictured in a Polaroid photo, its black jacket still attached, which has fallen at an informal angle on the gridded layout form used for the magazine's pasteup. In the midst of this arch disarray, the critic--a notoriously handsome, sexually voracious bon vivant who was particularly fond of travel (on ocean liners if possible)--perfectly occupies the position of gay icon. He wears white briefs and a sleeveless T-shirt and is seated with his legs splayed, sexy mustache dominating what's visible of his backlit face (cut off, in the photograph, just above his eyes). Here we have the writer as malleable object, sponsored by Warhol to travel to Paris with fellow critic and intimate David Bourdon for the express purpose of producing a project for the magazine (though without any explicit agenda for their stay). Indeed, Battcock had already experienced Warhol's laissez-faire direction as a player in the film Horse (1965) and as the star of Eating Too Fast (1966), a "remake" of the better-known Blow Job (1964). (1) But Battcock's appearance on the cover of Arts is perfectly consistent with his writings within its pages--it epitomizes "criticism without apology," (2) as he once described the writing of Village Voice critic and lesbian activist Jill Johnston.

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Can exhibiting your well-shaped legs in the same magazine that recently published your analysis of Herbert Marcuse's theory of anti-art really qualify as criticism? Or, does the frank display of male eroticism break down textual communication altogether by soliciting a gape as opposed to theorizing a "gaze"? These are questions I think Battcock considered carefully. In the late 1960s and early '70s he regularly contributed chatty, amusing, and very smart columns on art and life for such underground tabloids as Gay and the New York Review of Sex, and in 1977 with Ron Whyte he launched his own zinc, Trylon & Perisphere, a delirious mash-up including criticism, satiric accounts of actual New York galleries, and soft-core eroticism: It showed promise of being well subscribed before it ceased publication after just a few numbers. (3) In the inaugural issue, it was not Battcock himself, but Neftali Medina--his companion at the time, who would later be a suspect in the critic's unsolved and gruesome 1980 murder in San Juan, Puerto Rico--who appeared on its cover as a gay icon, dressed in a tiny jockstrap, tight cutoff T-shirt, and hard hat.

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It is perhaps important at this juncture to emphasize that Battcock was no marginal figure in the art world, but a prominent operator who by 1970 had made a name for himself publishing the first three in a series of successful Dutton paperbacks that anthologized critical writings on new tendencies in art. The topics of these hooks would range from Minimalism to Super Realism and eventually span several media including video, cinema, new music, and performance. When one recognizes that Battcock's New Artists Video came out in 1978, just two years after Rosalind E. Krauss's now canonical essay "Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism" was published in October, and that it included, in addition to Krauss's essay, a rich collection of alternate theories and counterarguments about the meaning of video, it becomes clear how creative and prescient Battcock was in quickly identifying tendencies in "new" media and delineating their contours. His first anthology, The New Art, published in 1966 and revised in 1973, was reported to have sold an astounding 160,000 copies. (4) I, like many of my generation, learned the history of post-war art by reading Batrcock's collections in college. …

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