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Stonewall at 50: A Roundtable with Vaginal Davis, Michela Griffo, and Jonathan Weinberg

Peter Hujar, Gay Liberation Front Poster Image, 1970.

LESLIE-LOHMAN MUSEUM, GIFT OF THE PETER HUJAR ARCHIVE, LLC

In the early hours of June 28, 1969, the police raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. Had it been any other night in what had become a monthly routine, the police would have confiscated the booze, collected their payoff from the Mafia men who ran the establishment, and Stonewall would have gone back to business as usual. But something about that sweltering night was different. Fed up with the constant harassment, the patrons rioted. While there had been queer uprisings before, what set the Stonewall Rebellion apart—and what turned it from a flashpoint into a kind of shorthand for queer liberation—are the groups and actions it has incited in the decades since. Among them, the Gay Liberation Front banded together as a group shortly after the riot and, in 1970, the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March set the stage for what would evolve into the annual NYC Pride parade that continues today.

What ignited the night that lived on as legend is a matter of conjecture. Was it patrons throwing coins and yelling “here’s your payoff”? Or someone throwing a shot glass (or was it a brick)? A stiletto heel flung from a paddy wagon into a cop’s chest? Still another possibility attributes the riots to gay icon Judy Garland’s funeral, outside which fans stood vigil only hours earlier. Crucial actions were also taken that night by trans women of color, particularly Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera, and Miss Major Griffin-Gracy, whose roles that night have only recently been acknowledged in a historical record that neglected them for years.

In 2016 President Barack Obama designated the Stonewall Inn and the surrounding area, including nearby Christopher Park, a national monument. What has been less commemorated is the role that Stonewall played not just in the lives of queer artists but in the art world at large. Last fall, the New Museum in New York staged an exhibition in which Chris E. Vargas invited fellow artists to reimagine monuments to Stonewall. This spring, a more comprehensive examination of the subject arrives in the form of “Art After Stonewall: 1969–1989,” an exhibition opening in April at two venues in New York—the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and Grey Art Gallery at NYU—before traveling to the Frost Art Museum in Miami and Ohio’s Columbus Museum of Art, which organized the exhibition.

In advance of the show, ARTnews spoke with Jonathan Weinberg (who curated the exhibition with Tyler Cann and Drew Sawyer) and two artists included in the show: Vaginal Davis, who was born in the 1960s and currently lives in Berlin, and Michela Griffo, a New Yorker who was 20 when Stonewall rose up.

ARTnews: Michela, you lived close to Stonewall in 1969. What was your impression of that night?

Michela Griffo: I was not gay when Stonewall happened. I was living with my fiancé on Horatio Street, and he had been my high school sweetheart. Homosexuality wasn’t on my radar at all. I was an art student at Pratt Institute at that time. When Stonewall occurred, for me it was just another riot in the village. I was naive in many ways.

ARTnews: When did you realize you were gay?

Griffo: There was a feminist group, the Redstockings—women who would stand on the corner of Sheridan Square in 1968, ’69, getting spit on, getting called all sorts of names. That whole area was a hotbed of revolutionary movements. I used to go to their meetings at Washington Square Methodist church on West Fourth Street. There was a woman who used to go to the church; she was Eileen Ford’s top model at the time. One day, she asked me if I wanted to get coffee. This was August 1969, and my fiancé and I had separated in July. She asked me if I wanted to go to Andy Warhol’s party—her best friend was [actress and model] Viva. She used to come over all the time, but I had no idea we were dating. I didn’t know she was gay. Well, when she kissed me I knew. When I told my friends that I was with this woman, they were like, “You could lose your apartment and you’ll be fired from your job.” I looked in the Village Voice and saw a [notice] for the Gay Liberation Front and that was it. I never looked back.

ARTnews: What was the Gay Liberation Front like?

Griffo: We welcomed everyone. We were all colors. It was a rainbow. Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were part of our group. I marched in the first gay pride march for diversity. We worked with Black Panthers and the Young Lords Party [the Puerto Rican activist group]. Some of us went to Cuba with the [activist coalition] Venceremos Brigade. Our focus was on changing the world. There was no way I was going to sit around and do abstract paintings. I wanted to tell the truth of what I saw in our society. My paintings became very political. That was something that was very dangerous then—and sometimes even now.

Michela Griffo, My Funny Valentine, 1979.

JOSH NEFSKY/LESLIE-LOHMAN MUSEUM OF GAY AND LESBIAN ART, GIFT OF THE ARTIST

ARTnews: Vaginal, you were a child at the time. How did Stonewall impact your life and work?

Vaginal Davis: The work I do is influenced by the activities of that time. I was born and raised in Los Angeles. I’ve never been a New York–based artist, but since the early ’80s I was going to New York and had a lot of mentors. I had first heard about all these rebellions that happened shortly before Stonewall in the late ’60s: at the Black Cat Cafeteria in Los Angeles and Compton’s Cafeteria in San Francisco. I was fascinated by the Stonewall Rebellion because of the connection to Judy Garland. That’s always been something that has inspired me because of my connection to film. In my work I’ve referenced female golden era Hollywood film stars and that milieu.

When I moved to Berlin in 2005, I was fortunate to meet one of the early Stonewall-oriented personalities: John Edward Heys, who did a magazine, Gay Power, that featured artists like Robert Mapplethorpe. John later became a muse to [photographer] Peter Hujar. Knowing John, who was old enough to be active during that time, stays with me. And, of course, I admire people like Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson. Stonewall was such a big influence on the modern Gay Liberation Movement and its interconnections with the feminist movement and also with the Black Power struggle. In those days, even though it wasn’t called “intersectionality,” those movements did influence each other. They coalesced back then.

ARTnews: What are some of your other influences?

Davis: My mother became radicalized in the late ’60s. She was known as the Barracuda of Femme Tops. She ruled a sort of lesbian separatist bevy of Butch Bottoms.

Weinberg: What was your mother’s name?

Davis: Mary Magdalene Duplantier. She moved to California as part of the Great Migration of blacks from the South. My mother was very outsider and she ruled this bevy of proper Butch Bottoms who lived in a big Queen Anne–style house. I’m the youngest of four sisters, so it was definitely an all-feminine household. Having that wondrous background influenced the kind of work that I do.

[Read more from the Spring 2019 edition of ARTnews: “The Name of This Issue Is Not Queer Art Now.”]

ARTnews: What do you make of Stonewall’s legacy 50 years on?

Davis: People forget that Stonewall was a riot. [Laughs.] It’s not just a brand name. It’s important to think outside of commercialism, of consumerism, this horrible cutthroat capitalism. It’s imperative that we think in terms of distancing ourselves from being co-opted into those kinds of power structures.

Griffo: Recently, I and several surviving members of the Gay Liberation Front went to the Heritage of Pride and the Reclaim Pride combined meeting [at The Center on West 13th Street in New York]. I stood up and said, “We risked our lives for you. And now . . .” I was in Hanoi with my family when I saw the tape of this year’s march, a “parade” as it is now called, and all I saw were corporations that would have fired our asses in 1969. I said to the people seated there, “Where is your anger? What has happened to our march that used to be for social justice?” When we marched with the Gay Liberation Front [in 1970], the Mafia wanted us dead. The police weren’t going to protect us. I went to Pablo “Yoruba” Guzmán because I worked with the Young Lords on the Lower East Side. And I said, “Yoruba, we have no protection whatsoever. Would some of your guys be willing just to stand along the route, just if you see anything.” And do you know, the straight, heterosexual Puerto Rican boys came and stood along the march. I never forgot that. That was the kind of protection we had. Nobody else.

Cathy Cade, Sisterhood Feels Good, Los Angeles, 1972.

COURTESY THE ARTIST

Weinberg: There’s been a lot of research with claims that the funeral of Judy Garland—she died that week—wasn’t what brought on the riots. But I don’t care. There’s something about that. This idea of: “We are fed up. We have to act out. We have been traumatized. We can’t deal with this anymore.” But as much as I believe in what you two are saying about making trouble, I also realize that people were at very different places at the time. For somebody to come out [of the closet] was a huge thing, right?

Griffo: Absolutely.

Weinberg: For a person who was young, to be on the barricades, that was huge. I remember in the ’80s going to ACT UP, but I didn’t want to get arrested. It just wasn’t in me to be hauled off to prison. But I wanted to be there. That’s one thing that we have to keep in mind: that people were at many different levels. I worry when people say, “Well, there were these guys and all they wanted was to have sex together. That’s all they cared about.” But the act of having sex together—that was radical at the time. That was making trouble too.

Griffo: We just wanted to live our lives.

ARTnews: How important is it for young people to know their history? If we forget the struggle, is history bound to repeat itself?

Griffo: History is repeating itself. The Gay Liberation Front had a reunion in 2015, when gay marriage became legal. People who had been at Stonewall were there. The New York Times sent a reporter. The only thing this guy wanted to know about was what we thought about gay marriage. I said, “I’m thrilled that we’ve got parity to heterosexual marriages.” But I also said, “I am very aware of the fact that there are people whose homes are being burned in Oklahoma, and drag queens and transgender people are being set on fire in Georgia.” Our whole attitude in the Gay Liberation Front is, “We are not free until we are all free.” I told the reporter, “I prefer to be an outlaw.” When he wrote the article, the only thing he said was, “Michela Griffo prefers to be an outlaw”—with no explanation.

Weinberg: That’s one of the things that we talked a lot about in the exhibition because we have so many different artists. Having an exhibition and having this stuff on the wall makes it seem like everybody is on the same page, that we are all marching together. In fact there were tremendous disagreements.

Griffo: Oh, the arguments!

Weinberg: One of the things that we felt was really important in the exhibition was that we weren’t going to make all these hierarchies about what is good art or bad art, or distinguish between mediums. A poster shares the same wall with a painting and a sculpture and a video because these are the things that kept people going—it wasn’t about necessarily getting your work into an art gallery or a museum. It was about putting it out on the streets, making trouble within as well as outside the community. The Gay Activist Alliance headquarters [in SoHo] burned down, and they never discovered who did it.

Griffo: Not just their headquarters but, all over the country, gay community centers were burned down over one weekend in 1974.

Weinberg: A 40-foot mural by John Button and Mario Dubsky burned down with the GAA headquarters. [A re-creation will be included in “Art After Stonewall.”]

John Button and Mario Dubsky, Agit-Prop, 1971. (Click to enlarge.)

©JOHN BUTTON ESTATE, MARIO DUBSKY ESTATE/JOHN BUTTON PAPERS, 1964–2004, ARCHIVES OF AMERICAN ART, SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION

Davis: Knowing your history is important. A lot of people put down millennials as having no sense of anything other than their computers and cell phones, but I get invited to teach at a lot of colleges and high schools, and there are always young people who do their own personal investigating. When I was young, it was really important to me not just to be around other young people but to be around people of varying ages and generations. Those were the people who mentored me. Young people I encounter now are interested in social justice. When I mention something they’ve never heard of, they research it.

Weinberg: As both an artist and a queer historian, there’s a lot of anxiety about feeling boxed in. What I thought was so fantastic about Vaginal’s work in the show is the way it troubles the idea of anybody having any identity, because you have all these different layers of what the self might be. Recently there has been a revival of this sort of essentialized notion of identity, and that troubles a lot of people who are radicals in the queer movement.

Davis: When I started out, I never really thought of myself as doing art. I was the first person in my family to go to university, but I didn’t study art. I was just always being creative, like my mother. She’s the real artist in my family. I just basically copied her. I was doing it because I had to. I never thought in terms of having any kind of career in the art world. It wasn’t fathomable because of my not coming from privilege, coming from a very poor background growing up in Los Angeles. Nowadays, younger people are much more career-oriented. Younger artists are groomed from art school to be part of the hierarchy of the art world. I feel very fortunate that I had mentors who recognized that there was something special in me even if I didn’t see it myself.

ARTnews: How did your practice become so multifaceted?

Davis: People would say, “You need to stick with one form of art, either performance or poetry or making the little crazy short films that you do.” I never really listened to that. I was doing installation art and photography and sculpture. I followed my own path organically, what I felt that I should be doing.

ARTnews: Michela, you said you stopped participating in the gallery system at a certain point. Why?

Griffo: I have always made art because it was my voice. In the ’60s, ’70s, and early ’80s, it was rare to see a woman doing anything that was provocative or political because galleries wouldn’t support it. Early on, when I was starting to show my work, my mentor was [gallerist] Holly Solomon. When I started doing work that was provocative and political and slightly gay at the time, she said, “I can’t show that.” And she kept saying that to me. Then there was a lesbian art show in 1978. I wanted to put a piece in it. She said, “It will ruin your career.” She wasn’t homophobic, because she was also showing Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s work. But that was the attitude: lesbians were the bottom of the barrel.

Weinberg: Louise Nevelson was supposedly approached to do the Stonewall monument. She was interested in doing it and then was talked out of it.

Griffo: It wouldn’t be until years later that I would find out that people like Agnes Martin were lesbians. I didn’t think there were any lesbian artists.

Weinberg: In interviews I’ve done, a lot of gay artists say, sadly, that it was often gay curators and gay gallery owners who were the least supportive of out gay art in the ’70s. They say, “I don’t want to be known as a queer artist. I want to be known as an artist.” Is that something that worries you?

Griffo: I don’t lose sleep over it because a lot of my paintings are not just about gay stuff. The only thing that stopped me from producing was that I became so depressed. I got involved in the ’70s/’80s drug and alcohol scene. From probably about 1984 until 2002 I disappeared. I had to leave the whole idea of the art world behind. I got sober in 1984, and I have been sober ever since. But it was a very difficult time for me. I am glad that I didn’t hang my future on the idea of making a lot of money. I lived across the street from Julian Schnabel, and I’d see the limousines pull up. I thought, “That’s never going to happen to any woman.” It has now—and God bless. I’m happy for every woman’s success. But it wasn’t going to be my story.

Weinberg: I am also a painter and I have no problem being called a queer artist, but I’ve found it very frustrating. Let’s say I were an artist who did paintings about miners. Critics wouldn’t say, “This is only of interest to people who work in mines.” But somehow when you do queer art, people think it’s only for that constituency.

Davis: Whatever label they want to throw on me is fine. In my work I never really expected that there would be any interest in the mainstream commercial art world. I paint with makeup and household items that you find in your bathroom or kitchen. When I first started to be in group shows in the ’80s, I was more known for my performance work and writing with the queer zines that I did. They were cut-and-paste-style zines made on a 1920s Royal typewriter. My day job at the time was at UCLA’s Placement and Career Planning Center. I would go in to the office on the weekends and use the Xerox machines to make my zine and then have parties with people to help me staple them together. I always joke that that was my grant.

Vaginal Davis’s zine, Fertile La Toyah Jackson no. 2, late 1980s.

COURTESY THE ARTIST, ADAMS AND OLLMAN, DAN GUNN, INVISIBLE-EXPORTS, AND ONE NATIONAL GAY & LESBIAN ARCHIVES AT THE USC LIBRARIES

ARTnews: What was your reaction when people started paying attention to queer zines?

Davis: When mainstream publications started to write about the queer zine movement, I couldn’t believe it. It seemed so odd. I think the reason why it got this much attention was it looked so different from anything else that was out there. I was surprised because I knew that getting attention wasn’t the kind of thing that someone from my background does. If anything, you just get erased.

Weinberg: We talk about history and why it’s so important. We are in this terrible moment now, and I don’t want to be like an old fart and say, “Oh my God. We suffered then.” Because that’s not the point. Just as [the AIDS activist art collective] Gran Fury was such an incredible model for other groups that were fighting the government. There is such a model here for how to resist, how to sustain radical movements. That’s why history is so amazing. It was Walter Benjamin who said that you can use history and tradition against the present. People tend to use tradition as a way to maintain prejudice. But now you can use tradition against that.

Griffo: Alicia Garza, who founded Black Lives Matter, is a lesbian. She based the whole movement on the principles of the Gay Liberation Front—they would have no recognizable leader so that nobody could focus on one person. In 1970, Huey Newton, who was the head of the Black Panthers, gave a speech saying that gays were the most revolutionary of all groups.

Weinberg: The mural at the Gay Activist Alliance headquarters had Huey Newton right at the center. He said that gays have to be part of the movement. That was a big deal for him to say that.

Griffo: Even now, these young kids like the Stoneman Douglas high school kids in Parkland, Florida, the young woman who is a lesbian, that spirit is the same spirit that motivated us: This is unacceptable, something has to be done, and we are not going to sit here and take it anymore.

Davis: When I see young people like the Parkland youth, I see a new generation blossoming. They have a voracious spirit of inquiry, and also whimsy. A lot of them use humor in a wonderful, lively way. That brings tears to my eyes and makes me really excited—and happy.

Gran Fury, Riot, 1989.

COURTESY THE ARTISTS

ARTnews: Are you seeing any artists today who are taking up the kinds of tools that groups like Gran Fury used?

Griffo: There are a lot of artists [from whom] I know I am going to see something, like Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, Eileen Myles, Sue Coe. But I am disappointed by a lot of the art I see. There are some shows that I call “Whitney Speak.” They’ve got this big huge thing as you enter, and their artist statement, this crazy salad of words. When I was living in Buenos Aires, I saw amazing political work. The first biennial in Colombia, in Cartagena, I saw work that was mind-blowing.

Davis: When I get invited to Germany and Austria and smaller cities with art schools like the Academy in Malmö, Sweden, what excites me is that there are wonderful feminist collectives who get together, create, and put on incredible shows. And they do it with no funding, with no major support. They’re doing things almost in the same do-it-yourself fashion of people in the ’80s, during the queer-core scene. They work in such wonderful mediums. They all do zines. They all paint. They all do sculpture. They make films. They have art-punk bands. In the States, students from NYU, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, schools in Portland and Southern California—they have wonderful manifestos that they put out.

Griffo: I saw this in Mexico City.

Weinberg: The universities in the U.S. are now tremendously supportive of political art and of a kind of post-minimalist conceptualism coming out of artists like Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Robert Gober, who are in the exhibition. But a lot of the work in “Art After Stonewall” is not art that was sanctioned by universities and museums and galleries at the time it was made. There were attacks on it. Being, as you say, “outlaws”—working against something—gives you a lot of energy. It’s not good when artists are oppressed or not allowed to show their work. But on the other hand, there is some kind of energy that is missing.

Davis: I tell my students, “Don’t listen to me. I’m going to give you my opinions about things, but don’t take anything that I or your other professors tell you as gospel truth.” I love it when they fight back and don’t just take everything that the teachers tell them. I love those kinds of students the most.

Weinberg: Often they say to me, “We don’t feel like we are getting enough criticism. You’re being too supportive.” It’s almost like they want something to react against.

ARTnews: What is the significance of a show like “Art After Stonewall”—with a focus on the impact of queer art in New York and beyond—now?

Weinberg: People have a fantasy that there have always been shows like this. In the late ’90s, they were saying, “Queer art is over. Queer theory, it’s passé.” The reality is, there have been very few shows like this where a major museum has put money into a show that looks at Stonewall in terms of the art world. There have been very few queer survey shows, and almost none in mainstream institutions. There have been gay artists who have been celebrated, usually men. But nothing like this. It’s so important to get artists out there. One of the best paintings in the show, by Delmas Howe, had been under somebody’s bed for, like, 20 years.

Davis: You are completely right. The first institutional show I was in was “Dress Codes” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in 1993. Before that was “Against Nature” at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE) in the late ’80s. But these were very rare.

Weinberg: It’s been hard to put together this show. There is a tendency to see everything through biography, seeing every work of art as just an expression of the artist’s identity. It worries me that people will say everything is just a kind of coming out. It shouldn’t be a matter of what is the artist’s identity? Who are they sleeping with? It should be, what is the work about? How does it activate? How does it work with other works? The key issue is visibility. This is central to the notion of coming out—making things visible. That’s what artists do well. They show you things. But then it’s up to you to make sense of it and to understand it. Putting works together in the same room that were made at the same time can be radical.

Shelley Seccombe’s Pier 52, 1978, shows sunbathers near a Gordon Matta-Clark cutout on the Hudson River.

COURTESY THE ARTIST

ARTnews: Radical in what way?

Weinberg: I am fascinated by the fact that in the ’70s, Gordon Matta-Clark, who is now so celebrated, was making huge cutouts in the exterior walls of buildings on the West Side Piers, right alongside gay men having sex. Around the same time, Tava, who nobody’s ever heard of, was doing gigantic murals of naked men near Matta-Clark’s cutouts. Most people had no idea who Matta-Clark was, but they saw Tava’s murals. I’ve been told that when you took the Circle Line boat cruise [in those days], the announcers would say, “Everybody look: We are going by Hoboken. This is where Frank Sinatra was born”—so that nobody would see the naked men. In 1979 Tava’s murals were much better known than the Matta-Clark cutouts, but Tava’s disappeared. Visibility is really important.

Griffo: I am excited about getting to know some of these artists in the show who may have had the same reaction to the gallery scene that I did. A lot of lesbian artists became well-known for abstract art. They weren’t necessarily doing political art. For me, this is a chance to see work that would not have been in a gallery somewhere, that I would not have seen before. I cannot tell you my gratitude toward Jonathan and [art historian] Flavia Rando, who pushed my work. I’m sure, Jonathan, you had no idea who I was, right?

Weinberg: I have to admit that Flavia introduced me to your work. One of the things that the show does is put Michela’s work alongside works by artists who also aren’t well-known, like Lula Mae Blocton or Fran Winant. It’s going to be interesting to see works that are more in-your-face next to works that are, as you say, more abstract. Audre Lorde had this notion that the erotic is a source of power. To put Mapplethorpe in the same room with Harmony Hammond’s work or with your work—it’s going to be interesting.

Griffo: It makes me proud now to say that I am a lesbian artist, whereas I never would have said that before. My identity was basically that I was an artist. But the thing is, my work comes from being an outlaw, somebody who was put on the sidelines. It does not come from being a part of the system.

Davis: Lesbian visibility is important. When I was doing performances in Los Angeles, it wasn’t the punky gay boys that supported all the bands that would perform. The gay boys only came once in a while. It was always the women, the feminist collective. Queer women would come every single week.

ARTnews: How different was it to be political back at the time of Stonewall?

Griffo: I would go to the marches. When the march became a parade, I stopped marching.

Weinberg: In the ’60s there was lots of rioting, but people didn’t think of queers rioting. The stereotype of a gay person was effete.

Griffo: A swish, a fag. And a dyke was somebody who drove trucks.

Weinberg: When Vaginal brought up Judy Garland, I reacted. But a lot of young people wouldn’t because they don’t watch Judy Garland movies. One of the paintings in the show is called Friends of Judy. To understand camp, you have to know the history. It is a secret language—a secret language that is now public.

ARTnews: How would you explain Friends of Judy to someone of my generation?

Weinberg: There were very few gay characters in movies, so you would project yourself onto these incredible women who were strong and also very vulnerable and sad. It’s the idea of living vicariously. We lived our lives not having works of art that necessarily reflected us, but we empathized.

Griffo: We had a culture that was unto itself. Like any other culture, we had our language, which was camp. We had secret signals. We knew who we were. [Filmmaker and AIDS activist] Vito Russo once said, and it’s burned in my brain, “When our secret world is no longer secret, we are going to miss it.” I knew exactly what he was talking about. I guess that is what I was saying to the reporter for the New York Times: I wanted to be an outlaw.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue of ARTnews on page 86 under the title “Stonewall at 50.”

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