THE INDEPENDENT VOICE OF THE VISUAL ARTS
Tabboo! (Stephen Tashjian),
Mark Morrisroe, 1985. Acrylic on canvas. Detail of installation view courtesy of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and Gordon Robichaux.
Frank Moore, Weed, 1989. Oil on canvas with glass eyes, with wood frame covered with white Madagascar mica with cast plaster and wood gilded ornaments. Detail of installation view courtesy of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
Maxine Fine, Landscape with Grey Sky, 1987. Detail of installation view courtesy of the Lesslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
by Michel Ségard
“After Stonewall: 1969-1989” commemorates the Stonewall Uprising of 1969 and expresses through art the LGBTQ politics that emerged thereafter. The exhibition was large enough that it had to be shown in two venues. Chronologically, the Leslie-Lohman Museum housed the first half of the show, which concentrated on the “coming out” of LGBTQ rights in the 1970s. The second half of the show, located at the Grey Art Gallery of New York University, dealt more with the politics in the 1980s that surrounded the AIDS epidemic.
The political tone of the first half of the exhibition was set by Ellen Turner’s The White Out of a Daycare Demonstration, one of the first pieces in the show. The painting depicts an event during a 1973 demonstration in New York against planned cutbacks to childcare funding, ergo the whiteout of parts of the painting. Working women of New York City were fighting for social justice, and the LGBTQ liberation movement was part of that struggle.
But not all LGBTQ artists live in New York. Delmas Howe’s The Three Graces from 1978 shows how LGBTQ artists outside of major urban centers found ways of expressing themselves. Raised in rural New Mexico, Howe created a series of paintings called the Rodeo Pantheon Series, of which this piece was the first. Three well muscled, bare chested young farmers stand in a row, arms on each other's shoulders. His work makes one think of Paul Cadmus in its clandestine homoeroticism. Over time, much of his art has come to depict male homosexual feeling directly, and that has become his primary focus.
Judy Chicago, Test Plate for Virginia Woolf from The Dinner Party, 1978. Glazed porcelain. Detail of installation view courtesy of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
Test Plate for Virginia Woolf from The Dinner Party by Judy Chicago returned to the feminist aspects of this part of the exhibition. A friend and contemporary of Howe (she also lives in New Mexico), Chicago’s The Dinner Party is her best-known work and one of the most famous emblems of the ’70s feminist movement. This piece is an abstraction of female genitalia and obliquely references Woolf’s love affair with Victoria Mary Sackville-West while also mirroring forms found in the flower paintings of Georgia O’Keeffe.
One of the earliest pieces in the show from 1969 is Allegory of the Stonewall Riot (Statue of Liberty) Fighting for Drag Queen, Husband and Home by Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt. He was actually inside the Stonewall the night the uprising occurred. This piece expresses his aspirations for liberty, marriage, and acceptance that the LGBTQ community is finally beginning to enjoy.
A surprise in the show was David Hockney’s large portrait of the drag performer Divine. Done in 1979, it is uncharacteristic of his photo-based work and borrows a little from Matisse with a hint of the great British painter Francis Bacon. The piece alludes to the gender bending trend of the 1970s and ’80s, such as in John Waters’ camp 1972 movie, Pink Flamingos, in which Divine starred, and the gender ambiguous costumes of some of the ’80s rock groups like Queen.
Continuing the theme of gender ambiguity, E.K. Waller contributed a pair of photographs documenting the Natalie Barney Collective, a Los Angeles women’s group from the 1970s. In one photograph the women are dressed in romanticized female attire; in the other some are dressed in men’s clothing. Here, the stereotypes of femininity and lesbian identity are lampooned.
David Hockney, Divine, 1979. Acrylic on canvas. Detail of installation view courtesy of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
This half of the exhibition closes with a 1982 portrait of Louise Bourgeois by Robert Mapplethorpe. Bourgeois holds under her arm one of her noted sculptures, Fillette (French for little girl). The sculpture is decidedly phallic even though Bourgeois is on the record as having denied that intent. Yet she is smirking in the portrait and is quoted in the accompanying wall label as saying that Mapplethorpe was “famous for his objectionable sexual representation… and this photograph fitted in his album.”
This first part of “After Stonewall” gives equal time to and does justice to the lesbian community. Some of the other exhibitions this year on this theme have fallen short, especially regarding their political activism. It also does a good job of recording the slow and varied process of the LGBTQ community coming out that took place in the 1970s. There is a joy and a sense of freedom about this part of the exhibit.
The other half of this exhibit at the Grey Art Gallery is not so upbeat. The 1980s saw the emergence of the AIDS epidemic, which infused the LGBTQ community with anxiety and anger.
This atmosphere of uncertainty is subtly captured in David Armstrong’s 1983 photographic portrait Stephen Tashjian (Tabboo!). Tashjian is an artist and drag performer who goes by the name of Tabboo! Tashjian himself captured this anxious mood in his portrait, Mark Morrisroe. Done in 1985, the figure’s expression hints at the loss of the optimism of the previous decade. A fragment of the U.S. flag’s star field in the corner also suggests the disappointment of a lost dream.
Still, life goes on. Marc Lida was an artist and social worker for AIDS service organizations. In his Grace Jones at the Saint watercolor from 1982, he captures the continued energy of New York nightlife even in the face of the epidemic. Note the couple embracing in the lower right and the man next to them with a somber expression.
Marc Lida, Grace Jones at The Saint, 1982. Watercolor on paper. Detail of installation view courtesy of the Lesslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
But in this decade, AIDS eventually dominates the personal, social, political, and artistic life of the LGBTQ community. Especially notable were the works of Gran Fury, the graphic propaganda arm of ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). The Government Has Blood on Its Hands from 1988 is one of many posters wheatpasted all across New York City in its effort to bring awareness of the neglect of the AIDS epidemic by government agencies.
Frank Moore had a more personal way of expressing his frustration with the AIDS epidemic. His 1989 painting Weed shows a hand grasping a plant with 20 bright blue flowers that has just been yanked out of the ground. Each flower has a glass eye for its center. In the background a stairway leads to ghostly outlines of skyscrapers. Are the flowers symbols of friends he has lost to the epidemic, untimely plucked out of existence?
Even when not in major urban areas, AIDS resonated in the art of LGBTQ artists. Lesbian and feminist art pioneer Maxine Fine left New York City for rural New Mexico in the 1980s, and yet, her work Landscape with Grey Sky from 1987 echoes the grief felt throughout the community. This semi-abstract painting depicts a rain of humanoid forms falling from the sky in a desert-like scene. The sense of loss is palpable.
Unlike the Mapplethorpe exhibition, “Implicit Tensions”, at the Guggenheim Museum, the artistic proficiency of the participating artists is not the major focus of “Art After Stonewall.” It is the artists’ social and political content that takes center stage. The show documents those rollercoaster emotions of the 1970s and ‘80s as it poignantly chronicles a defining epoch in the history of America’s LGBTQ community.
"After Stonewall, 1969-1989" was on view at both the Leslie-Lohman Museum and the Grey Art Gallery of New York University from April 24 through July 20, 2019.
Michel Ségard is the Editor in Chief of the New Art Examiner. He is the author of numerous exhibition catalog essays. Before retiring, he was the curator of KPMG's Chicago art collection. He was also an adjunct assistant professor at the School of the Art Institute, where he taught for 11 years.
Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, Allegory of the Stonewall Riot (Statue of Liberty) Fighting for Drag Queen, Husband and Home, 1969. Courtesy of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
Robert Mapplethorpe, Louise Bourgois, 1982. Silver gelatin print. Courtesy of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation.
David Armstrong, Stephen Tashjian (Tabboo!), 1983. Silver gelatin print. Detail of installation view courtesy of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
Gran Fury, The Government
Has Blood on Its Hands, 1988. Offset lithograph. Courtesy of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
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