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In the present cultural moment, the unearthing of previously obscure queer heroes is a much-needed balm to the rightward swing of the political pendulum. When asked to write this review, I admittedly came seeking some of that particular brand of soothing. I approached Joseph Grigely’s edited volume Oceans of Love: The Uncontainable Gregory Battcock as a curiosity of those heady days of queer New York, before the pall of the plague years descended upon us all. My experience of the text was filtered through that golden glow we so often ascribe to a largely imagined better time. It is certainly a common thread in a number of currently exhibiting queer artists whose work excavates our hidden and coded queer pasts. In light of this trend and the trauma of our current political circumstances, I feel I might be forgiven for any lapse in scholarly criticality in the paragraphs that follow.
In his preface, Grigely weaves an engaging tale of cultural excavation, with all the romance and excitement of discovery native to such narrative landscapes. A prime example of that romanticism is the image of Grigely and a friend hastily gathering as much of Battcock’s archive as could be saved from the wreckage of the recently shuttered Shalom storage company. That image sets a tone for the remainder of the text that is hard to shake; from that point forward the text takes on an air of mystery. Grigely’s introduction, in which he details Battcock’s professional and personal lives, culminating in his unsolved murder in December 1980, only serves to further deepen this feeling of perplexity.
In the introduction, Grigely presents his subject as a figure almost archetypally familiar to any within artistic circles; a quintessential art-world bad boy, at once brilliant and intellectually sharp as well as contentious and recalcitrant. Battcock is an arch and witty critic, a name-dropper offering his readers an insider’s peek beyond the velvet ropes that still define the borders of the art world. This side of his writing style is most evident in the articles he published for the underground newspaper Gay, such as his firsthand account of an impromptu dinner party that was instigated by artist, critic, and friend Jill Johnston, who barged into his apartment unannounced with the Esquire magazine journalist Susan Brody and the feminist activist and lawyer Brenda Fasteau and her husband Marc. The characters that feature in his underground essays, previously published in his column “The Last Estate,” and those that pop up in his personal correspondence range from noted museum directors, artists, critics, and academics to editors of various publications both high- and lowbrow.
Battcock is an engaging writer with a keen understanding of the subjects he explores: Minimalism, art criticism, anti-art, anti-criticism, the joy of travel by ocean liners, and so forth. His preoccupation with the idea that travel by ocean liner is in itself a form of anti-art borders on obsession. He published critical essays on the subject as well as accounts of his travels in Gay. Battcock’s critical assessments of the state of art and art criticism in the 1960s and 1970s are as apt now as they were then. He calls out the poisonous commercial relationships between galleries, artists, art critics, and moneyed investors driving the whole endeavor. In the section of “Unpublished Texts,” Grigely has included an outline for a novel Battcock wanted to write on the art world. In it, he points to five ways in which “the art world, in each and all of its many parts, industries, investment agencies, educational, museum, aesthetic institutions is corrupt.” Included among these corruptions are criticisms that read as if they were a handy Buzzfeed list-icle: it is managed by the rich; it feigns concern for social ills but acts against social interest; museums, galleries, and others exist solely to increase the value of works for investors’ gain; the individuals with controlling interests in the art world often lack any training or education in the arts; and auction houses are run by banks and staffed by society girls and unemployable art historians. Entertainingly, Battcock plays within the systems he critiques through his academic publications and also vehemently defends his work for underground gay papers that offered greater freedom to say what he wanted.
Battcock’s personal letters, underground essays, and cruising diaries provide a rare look at the life of a gay man of his time. While his public writing is rich with style and flavor, his cruising diaries, in particular, border on clinical. They reveal few details and tend toward a dehumanizing gaze that reduces the various players into rough sketches of cock size, skin color, and general physicality. Battcock’s articles for Gay and the New York Review of Sex and Politics do not shy away from sex in the least, though they approach the subject somewhat differently. These published texts tend to be more florid in detail, and his lovers and sexual companions are also often anonymous, but the details of the world around them are fleshed out and imbued with more life and depth. The distinction between the dark figures in his nighttime trysts and the bright smiling lovers that slip in and out of his published works hints at the duality of queer city life in the era, a paradoxical mix of public and private identities mediated by an urban permissiveness that still has somewhat mercurial borders.
My initial reading of the text was based in ignorance of Joseph Grigely’s works. I read Oceans of Love as I would any biographical text. I was interested in the figure of Battcock, what he did, what he thought, and how he wrote. Initially, I failed to give equal weight to Grigely’s intentions or his own personal practice. In considering this text, there is potential value in determining whether this publication is simply an edited collection of Battcock’s ephemera or part of Grigely’s artistic works. There are a number of published collections of Battcock’s writing, but they tend to focus exclusively on his critical essays and do not often touch on his less academic work. For Grigely, the full breadth of Battcock’s various public and private writings is central as, for instance, in his installation The Gregory Battcock Archive at the 2014 Whitney Biennial. The audience’s engagement with that work is both visual and textual, with juxtapositions of a variety of texts and images being clearly understood as part of Grigely’s artistic manipulation of the material. The format of the book, by comparison, lacks that clearly defined aesthetic arrangement and presents a more organized and seemingly straightforward collection of texts.
On its own, this collection of essays, diary entries, and correspondence provides an interesting glimpse into the life and character of Battcock. Yet their arrangement and inclusion in this volume seems unclear. While Grigely spends some time contextualizing the life of his subject, he spends less time articulating his rationale for including these specific texts. There is no clear indication of why the cruising-diary entries, with their dry recitation of clandestine sexual encounters in public parks, should be considered alongside letters to famous art-world friends or essays on Minimalism and art criticism. The text is entertaining and provides a curiously holistic look at the writings of an influential art critic, but suffers slightly from Grigely’s distance.
As a work of art or as a work of academic research, the book, somewhat frustratingly, leaves the reader with many unanswered questions about Battcock’s life and Grigely’s interest in the material. In the experience of the text, the reader is presented with a complicated man who lived his life near the margins; half in and half out, traversing the bright-white worlds of gallery walls and the halls of academia, as well as the darker worlds of gay cruising and underground queer culture. Grigely addresses but never attempts to solve the mystery of Battcock’s death, as a biographer might. Instead he simply presents Battcock’s writings as evidence of a life public and private, published and unpublished, and the marginalia as integral to the whole.
Artist and independent scholar
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