Craig Owens: Portrait of a Young Critic

A rare, newly-published interview with the late October editor, reveals an art critic intent on changing the terms of the debate

Craig Owens often upended received ideas. 'I have very little patience', the art writer, theorist and editor once said, 'for those critics and practitioners who sit around and say, "Well, art has never changed the world, will never change the world." I think it's a mistaken idea. We are attempting to change the terms of the debate that determine how affairs in the world are conducted.' Instead of falling into the change versus no-change debate, Owens outlined what he thought was at stake: the terms used to describe culture. It's a simple way of saying that criticism can challenge the status quo by questioning the power of representation; that words frame our thoughts. This debate, or rather, Owens's part in it, ended abruptly in 1990, when he died from AIDS-related complications. He was 39. He had yet to publish a book.  

In the late 1970s, Owens was an associate editor of October magazine; he spent the majority of the 1980s at Art in America, first as associate editor, then senior editor. It was during his tenure at the former that Owens became central to the application of postmodernist theory to contemporary art, and a vital member of the artistic scenes that were establishing themselves throughout the city. First came the performance artists, energized by the likes of Vito Acconci, Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer; then, when Owens relocated to Art in America, the appropriation artists: Barbara Kruger and Sherrie Levine, among others. He was generous with friends and colleagues, sharing his love of cooking, Fauré, Schubert and Strauss. (Nancy Marmer's obituary of Owens, published in Art in America, describes how, towards the end of his life, he rented an entire parterre box at the Met for his friends). But while Owens was by no means an obscure figure, neither socially nor professionally, he remains undervalued.

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Craig Owens seated in Barbara Kruger’s loft, New York, 1988. Photograph: Barbara Kruger

Craig Owens seated in Barbara Kruger’s loft, New York, 1988. Photograph: Barbara Kruger

In 1984, six years before he died, Owens was interviewed by his friends and artists Lyn Blumenthal and Kate Horsfield as part of their ongoing video series ‘On Art and Artists’. The transcript of this discussion was published last month by Badlands Unlimited as Craig Owens: Portrait of a Young Critic, which also includes a preface by Kate Horsfield, an introduction by frieze columnist Lynne Tillman and a number of archival photographs of Owens himself. Portrait preserves the voice and experiences of a figure living through what was complex time for art in New York. The practices of the early 1970s had developed into what became known as the Pictures generation, while a red-hot market propelled neo-expressionism into the mainstream. Owens championed the former; strongly critiqued the latter.

When he sat down with Blumenthal and Horsfield, Owens had been at Art in America for four years, during which period he brought out the strengths of a variety of styles and voices, from the scholarly to the plainspoken, while also creating a platform for those who had previously been overlooked. 'I thought of myself as a sort of delegate', he says, referring to his tenure at Art in America, 'sent up to represent all of these marginalized practices in the mainstream.' In 1986, it was Owens who invited Lynne Tillman to write under the moniker 'Madame Realism'; Tillman's essays and short stories have since set a precedent for an entire generation of young writers to consider writing not a separate institution to art, but its parallel.

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Craig Owens, Martha Rosler (centre), and Martha Gever (right), Thanksgiving 1984, New York. Courtesy: Lyn Blumenthal and Kate Horsfield

Craig Owens, Martha Rosler (centre), and Martha Gever (right), Thanksgiving 1984, New York. Courtesy: Lyn Blumenthal and Kate Horsfield

Owens himself uses the term 'parallel' to describe his own attitude towards art writing. At one point in Portrait, Blumenthal asks if he thinks his criticism exists 'alongside of the artwork'. Owens replies: 'Yes. More than being an explanation of the work or promotion of the work, it's trying to carry out a parallel activity.' His own essays are evidence of this, forming the song-line of his thought and conjuring the image of a writer who, from the 1970s through to the late '80s, remained dedicated to and occupied with the terms through which we engage with art. Two years after his death, Owens's major essays were collected in Beyond Recognition: Representation, Power, and Culture (1992). The collection gathers together early pieces from October – on Laurie Anderson, Robert Wilson and Philip Glass's Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Yvonne Rainer – to later writing from Art in America, which looks at the art market, feminism and artists such as Barbara Kruger. While Owens's ideas evolved over time, they also remained in dialogue with previous versions of themselves. In what is perhaps his best known essay, 'The Allegorical Impulse: Towards A Theory of Postmodernism' (1980), he provides an analysis of Anderson's performance Americans on the Move (1979), while in a later piece, 'The Discourse of Others: Feminists and Postmodernism', written for the 1983 anthology The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays of Postmodern Culture, he returns to the work in order to address what he had previously neglected: namely, Anderson's relationship to feminism. 'For in my eagerness to rewrite Anderson's text in terms of the debate over determinate versus indeterminate meaning', he notes, 'I had overlooked something – something that is so obvious, so "natural" that it may at the time have seemed unworthy of comment. It does not seem that way to me today.'

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Craig Owens speaking with students at the University of New Mexico public series ‘ART/MEDIA’, Albuquerque, New Mexico, February 10, 1986. Photograph: Eve Andrée Laramée

Craig Owens speaking with students at the University of New Mexico public series ‘ART/MEDIA’, Albuquerque, New Mexico, February 10, 1986. Photograph: Eve Andrée Laramée

Owens's willingness to reconsider his own position is evident in Portraits. 'My original impulse to begin to address questions of sexual difference', he tells the interviewers, 'came as a reaction to an article by Benjamin Buchloh on collage and montage aesthetics […] What struck me as extraordinary was that all of the practitioners that he was writing about were women, and yet that fact was not addressed at all and led to certain kinds of ideological slippages in the text.' He and Blumenthal go on to discuss the genesis of his own ideas on feminism, and the way in which certain male critics were becoming interested in feminism at a similar time. 'It seems that in many instances', Owens says, 'feminism has been seized upon by male critics in order for them not have to deal with more traditional "forms of political analysis and debate".' He pauses. 'Now that I think back on it, Buchloh's text on collage and montage may have a motivation for not mentioning feminism. He wants to establish collage and montage as an oppositional strategy within a more conventional Marxist, art-historical approach. It just occurred to me.'

While his method of thinking is refreshing for its tenacity, scrappiness and openness, it is also remarkable how much of Owens's writing remains topical. His discussion of the relationship between gay men and feminism, for example, resembles what we have come to term 'intersectionality'; his critiques of the economics of the art world are now taken for granted as commonplace; while his late attempts to think outside of Euro-centrism anticipate a globalizing art world. There is, of course, a certain melancholy to Portrait. Each generation's new idea becomes a received one to the next, and in this sense Owens's death was a loss, not only for his friends and colleagues, but for the rest of us, unable to witness how his thinking might have evolved and continued to change those terms.

With thanks to Betsy Baker and Lynne Tillman

Craig Owens: Portrait of a Young Critic (2018) is published by Badlands Unlimited.

Aaron Peck is the author of The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis (2008) and Jeff Wall: North & West (2016). His writing has appeared in The New York Review of Books ‘Daily’, Artforum and The White Review, among others. 

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