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.”
To celebrate Pride, we are publishing responses to Cotter’s questions from four artists—Deborah Kass, Cary S. Leibowitz, Hugh Steers and Donald Moffett. Texts by Ross Bleckner, Zoe Leonard, Lyle Ashton Harris and Nicole Eisenman were published last year and can be found here.
—Eds. June 24, 2016
My first big art experience was the Gertrude Stein portrait by Picasso at the Metropolitan when I was about eight. It was also my first big sex experience. There was instant identification (as there was later when I saw Barbra Streisand and read about her and went nuts). There was something about this portrait and this person that mesmerized me. And I figured it out later, going to the Met and MoMA, that Picasso never painted another woman like that, who looked like that, with that kind of presence, who wasn’t a thing! He painted a person, and this personness overwhelmed me. I don’t know whether it was because Gertrude Stein was an artist or because she was a Jewish woman or because she was a dyke, but I’m convinced that at eight I got a lot of this information subliminally.
I later studied art at Carnegie-Mellon. When I came back to New York in 1975 it seemed that being a woman and a painter wasn’t much of an issue. Between 1975 and ’77 Susan Rothenberg, Elizabeth Murray, Pat Steir, Joan Semmel, Louise Fishman and numerous other women had their first shows. And it was the height of second-wave feminism. For me, age 23 and right out of school, it was extremely encouraging.
I had been completely male-identified as an art student. When I started coming out as a lesbian in New York the work of these women was revelatory. There was something about being sexually identified with women that made me want to see my own reflection in art in ways I never had considered before. Seeing the work of Elizabeth Murray was exactly the same experience to me as reading Adrienne Rich’s poetry. It was about seeing somebody with a real formal base who reinvented formalism by adding personal content. I never could have said it that way at the time, but when I looked at Murray’s painting I knew she was talking about me. It was very exciting.
The other artist I loved right from the start was Andy Warhol, and it’s Andy who inspired the series of silk screens of Gertrude Stein and of Barbra Streisand from the film Yentl, an image I titled My Elvis. I find Andy so fascinating because he was the first queer artist—I mean queer in the political sense we mean queer. While some of his homosexual contemporaries were into coding and veiling and obscuring, Andy really made pictures about what it was like being a queer guy in the ’50s. He was the first big queer-boy artist and he really made these pictures of the inside of his queer brain, from the women’s shoes on.
And for me to look at that work as a lesbian is fascinating. I think: what would it look like if Andy was a lesbian? Because for me his work is defined by his gayness. It’s all about queerness, so I ask what would it be like if he was a woman, not to mention a Jewish woman. Not to mention my age and a Jewish woman? Who would he be obsessed with? That Before-and-After nose job painting he did in the ’60s was such an experience for me as a Jewish girl on Long Island. It had such a different resonance in my community than it did to Andy in his community. And it’s that difference that I’m really interested in. I spent a lot of time thinking why Andy didn’t do Barbra, even though Barbra was such a star when he was doing those paintings.
He didn’t do Barbra because she was just like Andy, an outsider because of her ethnicity, as he was because of his queerness. They were in the same position, culturally, and he wasn’t looking for his own reflection; he was looking for his glorified reflection, the reflection of a perfect American butchness, a perfect American glamour, as defined basically by Hollywood, a glamour that he was incapable of attaining because of his gayness, his immigrant family and his looks. For me there’s the ethnic aspect of how, when Barbra hit the scene, people like my parents disliked her because she was “too Jewish.” Why doesn’t she fix her nose, why doesn’t she change her name? But to be an adolescent coming across Barbra Streisand was the most exhilarating moment of identification. I’m sure it’s how a lot of gay boys felt about her at my age, 13 or 14. It was an identification with powerfulness, talent, with being yourself and being different at the same time. She was my version of Andy’s ideal image of Elvis. Gertrude was an extension of this project. There’s a case to be made about standing outside a culture—the way Gertrude said she had to live in France to write English and how Andy probably had to be a gay white man to reflect the culture so accurately. Standing outside and trying on the culture in various ways—not unlike drag—is a particularly gay strategy.
We need powerful figures like these as role models, because things are tough for gays and lesbians, women, blacks—anyone without power. If you’re a lesbian, by definition you’ve figured out something about your private life, but then you’re stuck smack up against a culture that doesn’t want to see you, doesn’t want to hear you—not the “you” you’ve had to come to terms with. Unfortunately that is true within the art community, too, which is deeply lesbophobic. I think that’s clear just looking at the power structures. Male dealers, collectors and artists, gay or straight—and I say this at the risk of alienating every gay man I love come first. Things won’t change until dykes make as much money as fags, until women make as much as men, and blacks make as much as whites. It’s simple demographics.
And I don’t think things have changed all that much when a show like “Bad Girls” is the only attempt by any institution to address 30 years of work coming out of an evolving ideology—feminism—and then doesn’t deal with it in a historicized way. But, of course, this exhibition had the burden of having to fulfill all representation for this crucial movement which has otherwise had no support by any male-defined institutions.
Refusing to do a major historical survey of the impact of feminism is one obvious, major way of silencing women artists, but there are subtler ones. One of them is by shaping a market. Look at the ’80s. Curators seemed to be all of one mind: Let’s put some straight, white male artists in a show, then make up a name like “Neo-Expressionism” or “Neo-Geo” (just as examples), then we’ll just keep changing the name of the show and do it 10 times a season for three seasons. That’s how you create a market and how you write everyone else off. Or you do a midcareer retrospective of a straight white male, and you commission numerous essays for the catalogue. In a number of the essays the phrase “feminist artists of the ’70s” is used; none of the essays name the women who influenced the now-anointed male artists. That’s how you silence women, that’s how you erase careers, that’s how you dehistoricize. In the future there may be references to “gay and lesbian artists,” who won’t get named. Those “multicultural artists of the ’90s,” “that Whitney Biennial.” That’s how it might very well be rewritten. When you’ve seen it happen for 20 years you understand the mechanics of erasing.
So what do we do? I don’t think art is effective within the culture as a catalyst for social change, since it hasn’t even changed the art world. Art just happens to be this sick passion of mine. But then there are those moments when that proves to be not true and you keep on going because you once had the experience of looking at someone else’s piece of work and thinking, “it’s possible.” And for me, the bottom line is my responsibility to my overlapping communities. Doing this interview is hardly a great marketing strategy. I’m doing this because young lesbian artists might read it and know there are other dykes out here. Which leads to the question of whether there is gay or lesbian art. This is another question they’ve been asking women for 25 years, about “women’s art.” Of course there is, just like there’s “male art.” And is ghettoization a problem? It’s a big problem. So I think it’s really good that white straight men have decided to finally get out of the protection of their ghetto, because they’ve been ghettoized far too long. We have been the outside viewers of this ghetto for thousands of years, and it is the most expensive real estate in the world. They need to come out in the world and compete with the rest of us. They shouldn’t be scared. Vacate, baby!
Cary S. Leibowitz / Candyass
I tried cleaning up for you but I get very distracted. Well, here’s something. It’s the catalogue for my show in Japan last fall. There was a lot less English spoken there than I expected. It was great because they treated me like I didn’t know anything, which I like. I wasn’t left alone for a minute. In 1987 when a friend gave me a little rubber stamp of the word “Candyass,” I started using it as an esthetic thing on drawings. Then I added it to my name because I thought it sounded like a Jewish accountant and a rap singer working together. The Japanese don’t have a word for “ass” so the catalogue says “Candybottom.”
Here’s something else. This is total gay-boy art, done when I was 13 years old. At the time, my dreams of grandeur took the form of drawing complete fictional suburban neighborhoods. All-American. It’s almost as if they’re by Grandma Moses, or her faggy great-grandson. See, each of the houses is different. It’s pathetic, I know.
Even when I was in first grade I wrote essays about how I wanted to grow up to be a famous architect like Frank Lloyd Wright; my Aunt Sheryl had given me a book on him. The closest I’ve come to him is these two end-tables. I found them at a cheap furniture auction and they were so ugly I bought them. Afterwards I found his name stamped underneath. Actually, my three big heroes are Peter Saul, Andy Warhol and Robert Venturi. And I love Emilio Pucci, but he’s not a hero. My wallet’s a Pucci. Even if people don’t think I look stylish, I know I am.
I actually studied architecture at Pratt but I hated the department. I switched into painting, then into interior design, which I also hated. I always fought with the teachers because I wanted to do what I wanted to do. So I went to FIT in 1983. I thought, “Oh, they’ll be more decorator oriented.” Pratt was into, like, restaurant design. At FIT the teachers were more welcoming. Some famous designers came for crits. I’d seen their work in magazines for years (I’d had a subscription to Architectural Digest since I was 10) and I got asked to be an intern for some of the designers. But they were such awful, awful people. I thought, this isn’t what I want my life to be.
I had a romantic notion about going to the Midwest. I looked at schools in Iowa, Indiana and Kansas. I liked Kansas the least so I picked it. It was just the way I was doing things at the time. I went and had a good time. I liked the art-history department and got a job in the art library. It worked out well, though the art department wouldn’t let me be in the final graduation show. They didn’t like my work. “We can’t let younger students think they can get away with this,” they said. So I gave myself a show in a classroom. We had Partridge Family music in the background. I included porno collages and poem-paintings on cardboard that said things like “Wish, fish, dish, Lillian Gish.” All the librarians came. Some people bought stuff. Everything was 10 or 20 dollars. One of my favorite pieces said, “I love you more than Michael Jackson.” I had no idea how profound it was.
At the time I liked the Starn Twins’ work a lot so I moved to Boston. I thought there was this new genre happening there. There wasn’t and I don’t think the Starns actually lived there when I got there. I stayed for a few years. I thought, “I’m never going to show,” but someone said the ICA has a local roundup every year called “Boston Now.” I was determined to let everyone see what a loser I was, so I sent the ICA a totally psychotic letter and I got into the show. Then everything snowballed and here I am.
I have no problems at all with being called a “gay artist.” My work is about me and I’m gay. A few years ago I made “Go Fags” and “Homo State” pennants. When I was in a group show at the Hirshhorn I put the words “Gay Art” in my piece rather than do an outrageous image that would just give the opposition more air time. For Stonewall I’m thinking of doing pink, white and blue yarmulkes. When I was in school all the artists I heard about seemed to be intellectual heavyweights. I thought, well, I have no theories, so I’m stuck with myself. That’s when I started doing autobiographical stuff. I get annoyed when some people are against labeling. It’s the way the world is. Everything gets a label and if it hasn’t got one it’s just because no one’s talked about it yet. What’s the problem with people on the street wearing red ribbons for AIDS? It may not be enough for a member of ACT UP but for a lot of people it’s taking a big step. To make my work in the privacy of my own house is easy but it takes a lot more effort for someone to hang it up in their house and deal with the utility man or whatever.
I do think some of my art embodies a certain kind of gay sensibility, even if it is the sensibility of an eight-year-old and hard to define. Maybe it’s camp. Take my historic lesbian series of painted porcelain couples I bought on 14th Street. I used to love things like this when I was a kid—little porcelain birds and flowers—and I just can’t get away from it. I also really love multiples. I like it when I meet someone at one of my shows and they say, “Oh, I have a whole wall of your stuff, a Candyass shrine,” because they could afford to buy lots of little things rather than just one big expensive thing that they have to treat like a relic. I give a lot of stuff away or sell it cheap. I’d like to say it’s being democratic but I think it comes from being an obsessive shopper myself. I’m always making too many of any edition because I think, “Oh, this one’s going to be really popular” and I’m afraid I’ll run out. I hate the thought of telling someone, no, I don’t have any more of those left.
Also feminism is just a natural way of thinking for me. I grew up with a soft-core version of it. My mother’s sort of young, just 21 years older than me, and when I was a kid I was always on her side. I think I was in third grade when Billie Jean King was playing Bobby Riggs and, of course, I thought Billie Jean King should win. The only problem I’ve ever encountered with feminism was in Lawrence, Kansas, where a group of separatist lesbians treated me like an awful person because I was a man, which made me feel both guilty and angry. I mean, I walk around every minute of my life feeling like a total fag who’s going to be beaten up and I always wish that I could be a woman who could break down on the side of the road and someone would come and help me instead of saying, “Why can’t that faggot fix it himself?”
I wasn’t really around the art world before politically gay art was there. I think I’ve had it easy. I’ve been shown because the art world is receptive to what I do. I know it’s not always going to be this way no matter how much people say it will be. I’ve looked at enough old art magazines to notice that if you look at back issues you discover you’ve never heard of anybody. I don’t mind. I mean it’s a little upsetting but I don’t take it too personally. I probably will be really out of fashion soon but I don’t know what else to do. On the other hand, things come back into fashion. That’s what I’m hoping. I haven’t sold that much stuff, so in 20 years or so a good 1,200 of my pieces from the late ’80s-early ’90s will be ready to be rediscovered. When I moved some of this stuff down from this room to the basement my roommates helped me. It just took us forever and when one of them said, “Why don’t you burn it?” I said, “Please, that’s my retirement fund!”
It’s too good to hope for that art with a gay content will change homophobic attitudes, and I definitely don’t want to start thinking my art is important for any reason. I hate self-important art. It may be why I keep a comedic tone, or maybe that’s just the only way I know how to deal with things. It’s something I can do well. I can edit a funny sentence. I like being at my shows if I can because it brings the work down out of the art level. If the artist is there, especially if it’s someone who looks like me, I think a lot of people think, “Oh, it’s easy” or “It’s stupid” or “I like it,” but they don’t bring this worshipful thing to it.
I see my paintings as allegories or symbolic representations of a personal consciousness. And, of course, they include a lot of art history. Man & IV—it’s part of a series called “Hospital Man”—is modeled on a tradition of power figures in European painting. The hand-on-hip pose is like figures by van Dyck or Velázquez. Instead of a sceptre he’s got his intravenous stand; the bed is very Empire. They’re style elements that suggest a certain kind of subject matter and then confound it. I think there’s actually something faintly angelic about the image, with the white hospital clothes looking like a baby-doll dress or a christening gown.
In another painting I finished recently I show two nude men lying in a hospital bed. One of them has a catheter entering his chest and the other man kisses the point of entry. The Hickman catheter is a rubber tube inserted into the main artery to your heart; it’s for medication to prevent AIDS-related blindness, which is of concern to me. The device is such a weird invasion of the body. Once it’s implanted you have to keep it in, and a lot of people die of infection from it. The image itself, though, is about eroticizing illness. The whole AIDS thing is so peculiar and complicated and vast. It’s tied in with sex and one’s perception of oneself and desire. I’m trying to touch on all of this in my paintings.
I’ve always done figurative work. I don’t know why. It probably has to do with my social background and the fact that I always had a certain facility with drawing. I was also fortunate in having a good teacher in high school who nurtured that. When I showed at Midtown Payson Gallery in 1989 they saw me in a realist line that included Paul Cadmus. But I didn’t see it that way. I saw what I was doing as making sense in a contemporary context. It was right in there with photography and conceptual art, which I’d studied in art-history courses and also saw a lot of at Yale. Anyway, my work got a little difficult for them in 1991, especially when it started to incorporate more transvestism. At first it was acceptable because the paintings were somewhat retiring, almost apologetic. Then the work started to be about I’m-going-to-wear-heels-and-fuck-you. It was a tougher, more in-your-face approach. It was after that that I started showing with Richard Anderson.
There was “gay” content all along in my work but this whole notion is problematic and needs some discussion. I go out into “gay culture” and I feel like a total alien. At the same time what I paint comes from my experience and my reaction to things going on around me. It’s always been true. All the way back in high school I was in the closet but I was doing drawings of nude males and one inspired by the Eisenstadt photograph of Marlene Dietrich in a top hat holding a cigarette. Then I did a little painting inspired by Racine’s Phèdre, which we were reading in French class. What could be more “forbidden love” than that?
These days, finally, the voices of people who are attracted to the same sex are being heard and allowed to develop and play off each other. And the important thing we’re finding in the process is that there are just as many individual consciousnesses within the context of being gay as there are within the context of being straight. It’s not possible to say that there is any one “gay content.” “Gay art” is a marketing label. It will be tricky to see if that can be avoided, but it’s important to discuss it and expose the fallacy of lumping us all together.
It’s important to be aware of the problems of critical reception toward minority efforts in the arts. You see things praised to the heavens, then you go and see them and they’re terrible. Its patronizing. Why shouldn’t everyone be held to similar standards? The quality issue is important. I don’t want anyone to be doing me any favors in that way either. It’s my job to just keep cracking away at the art and give it some sense of authority. I can’t just slip by because I happen to be gay.
I also try to stay clear of any notions that art is uncovering some sort of truth or that it’s revealing your consciousness. I think instead that a truth and a consciousness are being created with each painting. Basically, as an artist, if you’re doing your job you can get out ahead of yourself. I really feel like these hospital paintings are affecting my life as I make them by helping me accept my own sexuality and my illness. I don’t work well with anger, but a while back I did a large painting of a black man in super-high platform heels and it occurred to me that these heels are a symbol: the more outrageous they get, the higher, the more assertive, the greater vessels of rage they become, the more they project a kind of defiance, an aggressive sexuality. At the same time they’re hobbling, binding, unnatural. I’m trying to embrace all of that, all those aspects of me. Vulnerability can be a source of power as opposed to the usual power associated with maleness. Why not talk about being vulnerable as a powerful voice and as a way of effecting change?
I was in the hospital in January 1991 and that’s when the hospital content kicked in. I’ve expanded more and more on that, including the bathroom motif which has appeared in the work in my last two shows. It ties in with the illness. The bathrooms represent culture and instinct in collision. We shit and piss and get sick and throw up and then we wash ourselves and we’re naked there before we throw on all the signifiers. And there’s the incredible fact that in the bathroom we’ve created all this sculpture for depositing our waste. Illness is such a crucial subject. Everyone, especially in America, has a horror of it and an obsession with cleanliness and mortality, when only a hundred years ago people caught a cold and died. It is all part of my having to deal with having AIDS. How do I embrace this thing and make it OK or make myself able to live with it and produce and go on from there? How do I live every day with despair?
One other thing: a lot of my art has to do with that primal idea of drawing a painting of the hunt on the side of the cave to make the hunt successful. It’s like a conjuring. I would like to be able to act or have someone care about me the way some of the people in my paintings act or care about each other. It’s as if painting it will make it become real. That painting of a man holding another man is conjuring that tenderness, that hope that someone will still care about you and will be there. It’s like wishful thinking, a kind of touchstone for those who are traumatized by the same situations. They can see it and say: someone else has been there. The Isenheim altarpiece shows a tortured man with skin lesions and it was painted for a monastery where people were treated for horrible skin diseases. Some people who see my paintings find them too much. But others say: “Right on. It’s so great to see this part of our lives out there in a painting.”
Dear Holland Cotter: The answer to all your questions is yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes—like the final passage in Joyce’s Ulysses—it’s all yes and sex. But just because I know the right answer doesn’t mean I’ve slept any better since I received your letter. Let’s face it, this is unnerving—this special section. I guess it’s better than inclusion in a pullout section on scatter art or something. This notwithstanding: “To what degree has feminism shaped your art?” As a way of explanation I submit the names of my three harshest and most revered professors in this territory: Barbara Jordan, Barbara Kruger, Medea. “Do you believe art can change society?” European history would demand an easy “yes.” But now? I’m not so sure. Art seems more and more like an anxious little peep next to the roar and glamour of film and TV (and their obvious ability to change society). It’s kind of like asking if opera can change society. Not really, not anymore. The difference is that opera for the most part has abdicated interest in this role. But a lot of art hasn’t. So the real question for me is whether or not art can simply participate (or be allowed to participate) in the process of social change. Will art and the industries that clamor about it reinvent what you describe as its “integrative link to a larger community,” i.e., the world? Let’s hope, huh? It’s kind of stuffy in here. In terms of your question of “risks and rewards,” the most serious risk is confronted by all artists all the time but amplified a bit by lawless content. That is, will I ever get anywhere in this shriveled and overgrazed art-world economy? However, as a fractional reward, I would like to note the sheer pleasure of diddling and taunting the giant klutz called heterosexual prevalence, this smug lummox with dangerous insecurities and assumptions, this ooze that smothers practically everything save a hardy few of us with our angry mops and disinfectants. “To what degree has the AIDS epidemic shaped your art?” The AIDS catastrophe continues to chill, clarify and menace my ambition as an artist. The brutal circular continuum of love, sex, violence and death plays out in front of my face (daily), and this supplies the meat for the hole that becomes my work. As for the Stonewall Riots? Here. Here. Cordially yours, Donald Moffett