In remembrance of the Stonewall Riots that took place on June 26, 1969, catalyzing the modern LGBTQ movement, Holland Cotter spoke to twelve queer artists for our June 1994 issue. “As a direct result of Stonewall, sexual difference has become an area of open inquiry and exploration in contemporary art,” Cotter explained, “whereas a mere generation ago this content was either suppressed or introduced in highly coded form.”
Twenty-one years after Cotter’s article appeared (and 46 years to the day after the Stonewall Riots), the LGBTQ movement achieved a huge milestone when the U.S. Supreme Court declared same-sex marriage legal on June 26.
Celebrating this landmark decision, we have reproduced statements below from four artists—Ross Bleckner, Zoe Leonard, Lyle Ashton Harris and Nicole Eisenman. Texts by the remaining eight artists—Frank Moore, Deborah Kass, Cary S. Leibowitz, Hugh Steers, Louise Fishman, Donald Moffett, John Lindell and Ellen B. Neipris—are available in PDF form in the slideshow accompanying this article.
–Eds. July 7, 2015
It has been 25 years since the Stonewall Riots signaled the beginning of the gay rights movement and the profound social transformation that has accompanied it. Here, a dozen gay and lesbian artists talk about their lives, their work and the culture at large.
On a June night in 1969 in New York’s Greenwich Village the police conducted a routine raid on a gay bar called the Stonewall Inn. It would have been just harassment as usual, except that this time the men in the bar fought back. Spilling out into the streets, they chased the police off with bottles, rocks and—the crucial ingredient—a united anger.
The celebration this month of the 25th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots is the occasion for the 12 interviews with gay and lesbian artists which follow. Ten of them were taped this spring in New York; Donald Moffett and Zoe Leonard contributed written responses to specific questions. Only one of the artists was actually in New York in 1969. The majority were too young to have known the nascent gay and lesbian movement at first hand.
What is important, in any case, is not the event per se but the states of mind and being that have emerged from it. As a direct result of Stonewall, sexual difference has become an area of open inquiry and exploration in contemporary art, whereas a mere generation ago this content was either suppressed or introduced in highly coded form.
One of the questions these interviews explore is how artists have bypassed such coding or reworked it to create a new language which is both specific to a subculture yet accessible to a larger audience. Other questions include: Is there a “gay art” or a “lesbian art”? Do such labels result in ghettoization and, if so, is this good or bad? What is the role of the gay or lesbian artist in a predominantly heterosexual culture, one which includes the art world?
There is no doubt that much has changed in a quarter century. This is clear in the simple fact that some of the younger artists interviewed consider their sexual orientation “second nature.” Yet should one move outside the protective environment of the major cities, or even to the wrong neighborhood within them, one finds cause for worry. Civil rights legislation for gay people has been passed since 1969, usually grudgingly, but it has also been withdrawn. Art has become more bold, but so has censorship. The AIDS crisis continues unabated and government funding for research remains inadequate. There is, in short, no question that should the gay and lesbian community lose its political cohesiveness, we, its members, are all at risk.
As of this writing, plans are in place for observing the 25th anniversary of Stonewall with a march to the United Nations on June 26, in a gesture of affirmation of international lesbian and gay rights. As the gay and lesbian movement identifies itself with and becomes part of the global political picture and as openly gay and lesbian artists, with their rich personal histories and their diverse and challenging work, become part of the fabric of international art, there is every reason for optimism as we approach a new century.
For William H. Martin (1950-1993)
There are some things that are almost corny about the way we end up being who we are. One of them is that gay people—at least the gay people I know—feel more or less like outsiders at critical points in their lives. I think that one feeling, more than anything, comes to define your view of the world. It’s a view from the outside. It’s a view from feeling different. When I was young I didn’t know the word oppressed and I can’t say that I felt oppressed but I did feel that my difference was a bad difference and—this is the corny part—it gave me a certain sadness. I had a heaviness as a teenager that I didn’t see in other teenagers. I didn’t feel like a participant in the life around me. I would pretend; I would mimic the social strategies I saw, but I knew that for me they didn’t have the emotional resonance. You pretend to date when you’re in high school. You do it; you go through the motions. But you don’t really care, and most of all you just don’t want to be found out. So you spend a lot of your early years covering up and creating disguises.
It took me a long time to be gay-identified on a personal level, and oddly enough the situation repeated itself when I was first becoming a professional artist because most of my friends were heterosexual. The art world’s a lot more conservative than people might imagine. If you look at the work and the way the work gets thought about it’s a very bourgeois world and it’s predominantly heterosexual in its values. People are comfortable with being around their own kind, I suppose.
But the art and literature that I responded to at the time weren’t based on the kind of bravado that my male counterparts used to praise. I liked quieter symbolic work, work that was more coded. I read a lot of Roland Barthes and he was always talking about this “other,” this lover. I always felt he was talking about how I felt. There was a kind of genderless sense of longing in his work. I feel it in a painter like Cy Twombly. What I’ve always responded to in his painting is a sense of pining.
I think that one of the fundamental needs all artists have is to say something about who they are and how their life became what it is. And I think any artist’s work comments on what it means to be an artist at a given point in time. For both reasons being gay has always been a critical part of what it means to me to be an artist. Because being gay has so much to do with being on the outside, it results in a kind of tenderness toward things. The people who can’t get into the dominant culture in the “normal” ways are the ones who have to invent different languages—languages that can speak clearly and persuasively. Tenderness is part of that. Inventing a language is the way I’ve tried to use being gay as an advantage. I always knew there was something that made me see things a little differently, that opened up some other kind of meaning for me.
And then there is the fact of the artist reflecting his time. The AIDS paintings I first showed at Boone certainly were a product of the years when I painted them. It was a period when the events, the social realities, [pq]”Part of being an artist is having a sense of who you’re being an artist for. It’s a worldview. I like to think of the people responding to my painting as being gay people who have to deal with the problems of being gay. The joy and the sadness of it.”–Ross Bleckner[/pq]surrounding our lives totally ruptured our ideas and expectations. It had never occurred to me before that anyone who lived to be 70 or 80 was really lucky. Since then, life has come to look more and more like an obstacle course and the ones who get through it are the lucky ones. It’s not just AIDS. Now if you don’t die from a drug overdose or a car accident as a teenager you may end up a suicide. For different phases of life there are just different reasons, but the danger is the same.
I am the president of CRIA, the Community Research Initiative on AIDS. It’s just something I decided to try doing, to take a more activist position instead of being an isolated, insulated painter, which is easy to be, and which I like to be. Oddly enough, in dealing with this crisis, I’ve learned how to be happier and more productive. Maybe all of us in the gay community have. It’s a tremendous price to have paid and to keep paying, but what else can you get out of catastrophe if not that? It’s for this reason that the newer gay-oriented work by younger artists is often celebratory, setting a positive model of gay identity. They’ve realized they have to enjoy who they are.
Part of being an artist is having a sense of who you’re being an artist for. It’s a worldview. I like to think of the people responding to my painting as being gay people who have to deal with the problems of being gay. The joy and the sadness of it. Hopefully, they can be celebratory as well as mournful because I think gay life is both—much more than other life, in fact.
There’s one important point I want to make. I don’t for one minute make any presumptions that being gay is the main ingredient in my painting. The main job of being an artist, for any artist, is to make interesting paintings. I think that the fact that I’m gay helps make my paintings interesting, adds a dimension, you might say, especially at this point in time. It all works together: my work is really about painting and painting is really about identity and identity, for me, is really about being gay.
One question before we start: Why is it that the work of minority artists is always examined for signs of difference? Why is it always us—the dykes and fags, the women artists, the black poets, the Asian playwrights—who are asked about our sexuality or our race? What does being a white man have to do with Robert Ryman’s work or Jeff Koons’s? What does being heterosexual have to do with Picasso’s? I don’t mind being a woman artist. And as a lesbian I’m as out as can be. But it’s the double standard that bugs me.
I was born poor, grew up with a brother and a divorced working mother in an inner city. We were first-generation Americans. We’re white, half Polish. My mom was a refugee. She worked as a reservations clerk for TWA, so even though there was no money we traveled a lot. I got languages and exposure to different cultures early on. I spent lots of summers outside, alone, crawling through the mountains of Greece, swimming and bringing turtles and donkeys back to our tent. All these things add up.
I dropped out of school at 15. A year later I borrowed my mom’s Rollei 35. After that got stolen/broken/lost, I bought my own camera. I’ve always kept a camera with me. I traveled all over. Worked as a waitress, busboy, hostess, mail room clerk, hat check girl, stripper, prostitute, artist’s assistant, gallery assistant, artist’s model, housepainter, carpenter. Photography was the one thing I kept coming back to. I make work about what’s on my mind. What disturbs me, excites me, or confuses me. My fears, my desires. That’s photography. I point my camera at something that interests me. Then I show it to you. You literally see my point of view. You see what moves me, scares me or disgusts me.
Not much of my work is about love—at least so far—or sex. But being a dyke and being a woman have formed me, formed my perspective. They aren’t the only elements but they’re the ones that run through everything in my life. Certain things keep happening because of those facts. I get crushes on women, I get [pq]”Demand respect. Treat others with kindness. You can create inspiration. And inspiration creates change.”–Zoe Leonard[/pq]harassed a lot. I hang out with lots of other dykes and fags. I’m afraid of being gay-bashed. I’m afraid of being raped. I’m angry because so many of my friends have died of AIDS. They—we—were often disrespected, treated like shit—not allowed, for instance, to put the word “lover” in a New York Times obituary. Those things add up.
I’ve had to come out. No straight person knows about coming out. I’ve had to find a desire inside myself and follow it, even though it goes against the grain of all the social patterns around me. That process of discovering, examining and trusting my own desire is formative. I was already fucking girls, but figuring out my sex and choosing to come out made me a dyke.
So my sex is part of who I am, how I’ve been treated, how I treat others. It’s developed in tandem with other influences. Being queer has partially formed my worldview. And my worldview is always in my work, even when my subject isn’t sex.
My work is changing right now. I’m not sure exactly where it’s going. I’m writing more, drawing and making objects. I’m still taking pictures. My earliest work was about travel: time, order, maps and structures. Then my work went through a phase so creepy it scared me: the female anatomical models with exposed viscera, the head of a bearded woman, the chastity belt, the beauty calibrator. That work was really about violence and fear—institutional violence, dismemberment, hatred. Documenta IX in 1992 was a break for me. I was finally able to inject funny, sexy, powerful images directly into a stymied and claustrophobic atmosphere [see A.i.A., Sept. ‘92].
I’ve been involved in a fair amount of direct-action political work. I believe strongly in the ability to get results with that kind of work, especially if you address very specific goals, like getting pieces of legislation passed. But for true, deep-rooted social change many other elements are necessary—art, activism and conversation. Art puts ideas forward, adds to the dialogue, through a picture, a film, a piece of music. But nothing works by itself. It’s the context that’s created, the people who are touched and brought together that’s important.
My art work isn’t political, though, in the sense of being direct action. It doesn’t replace direct action. But it is political in the sense that I place my perspective—the perspective of a radical—into the arena. My ideas are circulating. I can criticize the status quo. I can offer up my fantasies for a better world. Listen, I don’t think I can change Rush Limbaugh’s mind. But I think what sometimes happens is that we feel things inside—mysterious, curious, angry things that we can’t name. And if we see someone else naming those things, it gives us courage. Like when I first read Sartre or Jean Genet or Audre Lord or Adrienne Rich. When I saw An Angel at My Table or Tongues Untied, I thought: Yes, I can think this. Yes, I can take this one step further and live my life the way I want to. Demand respect. Treat others with kindness. You can create inspiration. And inspiration creates change.
Lyle Ashton Harris
My most recent body of photographs, titled “Queen, Alias, and Id,” is a collaboration with family and friends. The portrait of my mother and her sister is called The Beautiful Ones. The Empress, the Emperor and His Divine Staff is of my grandparents. Sisterhood is a picture of me and the Nigerian conceptual artist Ike Ude. I shot these images over two days in the Polaroid 20 x 24 Studio in New York City. The atmosphere was very intense, very charged. There was a lot of pre-production, setting up what was basically a movie set. The real effort was getting up the nerve to bring all of these very different people together. Once I resolved that, everything happened.
I’m from the Bronx and went to public schools. After my parents divorced, I relocated with my mother and brother to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for a couple of years, attending an English-speaking Swahili school. I came back to the States, finished high school and went to Wesleyan to study economics. My grandfather’s an economist. I wasn’t too happy with that field so I switched to art. I had been taking pictures for some time, carrying on the tradition of my grandfather who has taken over 10,000 slides documenting his family and friends from the last 40 years. I see “Queen, Alias, and Id” as a culmination of my grandfather’s project, as an homage to his vision.
My early gender and race drag self-portraits were taken while at Wesleyan in the late ’80s. Although my photography professor wasn’t able to engage in the theoretical issues around the work, he did say that my images made you want to get to know me. Sometimes the simplest comments are the highest compliments. Although the art program was formal and traditional, it helped me to further develop my awareness of beauty as a subversive strategy, as an instrument of seduction, a way of drawing people into a space where you can begin a dialogue and an exchange. I’m not interested in alienating people, but rather in bringing them in.
There are lots of ways to read my work. People who are resistant to the images tend to read them on the most superficial, dismissive level: “These remind me of Mapplethorpe,” for example. Clearly our work does have a relationship in that we are both interested in the black male body. But our approaches are very different. Mapplethorpe is a quintessential dinge queen, which is gay subculture slang for a white man with sexual [pq]”I experience mainstream gay culture and politics as provincial in its racism, exclusivity and classism.”–Lyle Ashton Harris[/pq]predilections for black men. I’m not criticizing that; I find it charming, particularly since Mapplethorpe was quite open about it. He was interested in black men as beautiful objects, both in his studio and in his bed. As Kobena Mercer and Isaac Julien have brilliantly stated, “Mapplethorpe’s carefully constructed images are interesting, then, because, by reiterating the terms of colonial fantasy, the pictures service the expectations of white desire: but what do they say to our needs and wants?”
I am interested in objectifying people also, but in more self-disclosing ways. Although I am ambivalent about Mapplethorpe’s project, I am not trying to kill the phallic white father. Instead, like my soul brothers the late Marlon Riggs, the late Rotimi Fani-Kayode, Essex Hemphill and Thomas Allen Harris, I am deconstructing his hegemonic representation of black males through offering new vision and new possibilities. I see myself involved in a project of resuscitation—giving life back to the black male body. I’m teasing at the multiplicities of black male experiences, exploring different subject positions, rather than just recycling the fantasy/projection of the available black stud. Part of the way I complicate this project is by including different representations of myself in most of my work.
Often what makes my work difficult for people is its splitting of the subject. You can’t fix it as being about gay politics or black politics. It’s on the border of both. Often we like to hold on to dichotomies of black-white, straight-gay, male-female. What I’m trying to do is document the different identities pulling on me from within and from without. It’s not about fitting into any camp but about the space that exists in between.
Is there a viable political thing called “gay art”? That’s a good question. Art is art. I’m not interested in the work revealing that I’m gay, as much as I am interested in gay desire as a point of departure. Foucault said that gay identity is not an end in itself, that what’s important is the kind of relationships you can create from it. Given that, I do experience current mainstream gay culture and politics as provincial in its racism, exclusivity and classism.
I have ties to different communities, to people with different social, economic, ethnic and sexual experiences. Being queer in the context of my family and having a queer brother have been expansive experiences. They’re expansive in the sense that they challenge the notion of what the family can be. The Polaroid of my brother, filmmaker Thomas Allen Harris, and me is titled Brotherhood, Crossroads and Etcetera #2. This image speaks to the ambivalence around desire, envy, compassion and death that we are dealing with as two brothers who love each other critically. In my work it is important to explore this notion of expansiveness. A lot of gay people are traumatized by the rejection of their families. In my art I am trying to present a model of how challenging the family can be a redemptive experience. It’s about living through differences, theirs and mine. While I was shooting in the Polaroid 20 x 24 Studio, I caught my grandfather perusing my portfolio, looking at documentation of a sexually explicit installation titled Last Night I Had a Dream. . . . I began to worry about what he would think. But before I could let my fantasies overwhelm me, he was on to the next page. This experience made me wonder to what extent I displace my own anxieties and fear onto him and others.
Whereas my installation Secret Life of a Snow Queen was more aggressive in its mirroring and interrogation of the viewer, “Queen, Alias, and Id” is about my arrival. A few weeks before I began collaborating on these photographs, I had a fiercely disturbing nightmare about being fag-bashed. I don’t often have those kinds of dreams. After much reflection, and conversations with close friends, I came to regard the dream as prophetic and liberating. Throughout my life I have struggled with a lot of fear around my body and violence. After this dream my attitude has been: “If you’re going to kill me, all right. If not, get the fuck out of my face. I got work to do.” The nightmare pushed me beyond fear and propelled me to the next level of my work: the return of the prodigal son. It was like the final frontier. It is about accepting myself and what my role is in the creation of culture.
A few years back I got a job doing commercial murals: Thomas Hart Bentonish factory scenes—nice, but pretty straight stuff. For a while there I was doing a mural a month and I just painted myself sick. That’s how I got back to drawing and then to painting on canvas.
At first I tried to keep the mural format in some way. I did ink paintings on pieces of sheetrock, then leaned them against the wall, but they looked contrived. Then I painted on canvas but kept the ground empty like a wall. Now, with a couple years of rabid, avid drawing under my belt, the paintings are a lot looser, almost like drawings. I don’t understand the big distinction made between drawing and painting. If it’s ink on the wall it’s called a wall drawing, but if it’s ink on gessoed canvas it’s a painting. It doesn’t make sense when I compare a little dinky painting with some of the 60-foot drawings I worked so hard on! Maybe the delicacy is the difference. Maybe the history of the two mediums explains it.
I was born in France and raised in Scarsdale, New York. I have a lot of artists in my family—my great grandmother is an excellent painter—so I got a lot of support. I went to Rhode Island School of Design where I did very tight, cartoony figurative work. Caravaggio meets Harvey comics is the way I described it. I was just discovering the joys of painting then, all the tricks of the trade, like how realistic you could make a comic figure. The WPA look of my recent work really happened because of the nature of ink on latex wall paint. It has this gorgeous look, like oil paint with glazing. But I never actually thought much about the WPA painters themselves.
My wall drawings are sometimes political in subject. A three-part piece I did at the Drawing Center in 1992 around the time of the election dealt with economics, family values and the military—three subjects that were being talked about at the time. My paintings also have a lot of violence in them, with people hacking each [pq]”I am a feminist, but in a way that I don’t even think about. It seems like second nature. I think we’re all feminists by now. We know it’s right.”–Nicole Eisenmann [/pq]other up. Bees sting flowers and men drag women across the floor and women cut up men. It’s weird making jokes about serious subjects. You don’t want to bore people and you don’t want to offend them. You can be offensive by being too funny and you can be offensive by taking yourself too seriously. The advantage of humor is that it shifts the focus onto what you’re laughing at. When you laugh at something that’s tragic you have to ask yourself why you’re laughing. Then you can learn something, about the issue and about yourself.
I think if you look at my whole body of work, which is the way I think it makes sense, and start treating the little doodles the same as the big paintings, it becomes clear that my art isn’t primarily about politics. It’s not issue art; l don’t feel angry. I think it mainly has to do with the nature of humor and of taking everything—the whole world—as your subject matter, and trying to understand how it works. Everything’s fair game.
I have a problem with having my work seen primarily as feminist. I am a feminist, but in a way that I don’t even think about. It seems like second nature. I think we’re all feminists by now. We know it’s right. But I’m not making “feminist art” any more than I’m doing “lesbian art.” I mean those things are there in the work because they’re part of my life. But l spend more time watching TV every day than sleeping with my girlfriend.
It’s amazing how things get misread. I did a show in London last fall. Part of it was a mural about Paloma Picasso and her father, very interesting material to work with. My subject was about her taking his art and transforming it into something totally different, something of her own. The subject occurred to me when I saw ads of Paloma promoting a perfume called “Minotaur.” In my painting she and her henchwomen have a Minotaur hanging upside down; they’re spearing him and they’re catching the blood in perfume bottles. The London press said it was a painting by an angry lesbian feminist getting back at a misogynist artist. But Picasso’s one of my art heroes! And Paloma’s so great because she keeps taking these themes of his, like the Minotaur, and crystallizing them in another form. I could relate to her. She probably had problems with her father a little like I do with mine. She’s dealing with a Big Father and she had to overcome his influence. In the mural she’s doing that in the most obvious and amusing way. But none of the reviews even mentioned Paloma and her father. It was all about angry amazons.
What I value in other people’s art and my own is imagination and personal things. Politics just seems to me to be mean-spirited and trendy. I like to think my work, seen as a whole, isn’t like that. I don’t see myself as being in a combative stance.