IN THE EARLY HOURS of June 28, 1969, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, resisted arrest during a police raid and, in so doing, triggered five days of rioting and street protest. These riots are generally said to mark the birth of the gay liberation movement in the United States. Modeling itself on the Women’s Liberation and Black Power movements, Gay Liberation sought to link homosexual freedom to a larger vision of revolutionary change in which all hierarchies of social, economic, and sexual power would be leveled.
Although Stonewall had nothing to do with art per se, the riots had everything to do with visibility, with the refusal of gay (or, in today’s parlance, LGBTQ) people to remain within the bounds of secrecy, shame, oppression, and invisibility. To put it another way, the rioters at Stonewall—themselves men, women, and trans folks; faggots, bull dykes, and cross-dressers—refused to be harassed any longer by the police or, more broadly, by society at large. Allen Ginsberg, who witnessed the crowd outside the Stonewall Inn just after the riots, said, “You know, the guys there were so beautiful—they’ve lost that wounded look that fags all had 10 years ago.”1 Ginsberg recognized that something about the terms of homosexual visibility had changed.
Within a month of the uprising, the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), the first and most radical gay power group, was founded. Soon after came Gay Liberation newspapers and posters featuring illustrations and photographs by gay artists. Although few of these materials registered in the New York art world at the time (as is clear from even a glance at Art in America or Artforum circa 1970), the Gay Liberation movement did intersect, however covertly, with contemporary art.
A single example may suggest the kind of intersection I have in mind. In June 1970, the Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade celebrated the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots (the event inspired later Gay Pride parades). The GLF produced a poster inviting viewers to “come out” for the occasion. With their long hair and raised fists, the young militants depicted on the poster enact their defiant identification as “gay”—as sexually and socially free—rather than simply as homosexual. The poster presents the sisters and brothers of the GLF as an “army of lovers” whose insurgent force reverberates throughout the city’s streets. The photographer Peter Hujar, little-known at the time, shot the stirring image. Although not a member of the GLF, Hujar was the boyfriend of one of the group’s founders, Jim Fouratt (the front-row figure in sunglasses and striped pants, second from the right) who had participated in the Stonewall riots the year before. The poster, which testifies to the link between the early gay power movement and vanguard art and photography, exemplifies a nascent belief in the possibility of radical change brought about by the actions of a united community. The wounded look was certainly gone, and for the decade after Stonewall, the politics of gay liberation—and the culture founded on social freedom that Hujar and his peers depicted—began to flourish.
IN JUNE 1994, on the twenty-fifth anniversary of the riots, A.i.A. published “Art after Stonewall: 12 Artists Interviewed” by Holland Cotter, a collection of statements by gay and lesbian artists that take stock of the achievements of Gay Liberation while registering a new sense of urgency in the context of the AIDS pandemic and the culture wars over federal arts funding and homoeroticism.2 Cotter, now the co-chief art critic for the New York Times, asked his subjects to reflect on the relation between art and sexual identity and to consider “the role of the gay or lesbian artist in a predominantly heterosexual culture, one which includes the art world.” It is impossible to read these interviews without feeling the impact of the AIDS crisis on the art world and the nation. In 1994, AIDS was the leading killer of Americans between the ages of twenty-five and forty-four, and we were still a year away from the release of the protease inhibitors that would, in combination with other drugs, ultimately render AIDS a treatable disease for many. Of the twelve artists interviewed in “Art after Stonewall,” two were living with AIDS: Frank Moore and Hugh Steers. Steers talks plainly about the physical and emotional effects of his illness. At one point, he asks, “How do I live every day with despair?” The artist’s answer is not to submit to defeat or despondency but to respond to AIDS in paintings that refer to both the imminence of death and the sustenance of intimacy.
Steers’s Catheter Kiss (1994), for example, depicts two nude men in a hospital bed, one (presumably the patient) rests his head on a pillow and is partially covered by a blanket and sheet; the other lies on his side. A slender tube or catheter snakes down from above so as to enter the first man’s chest. The second man kisses his partner’s body at precisely this entry point. According to Steers, the painting displays the “Hickman Catheter” which is “inserted into the main artery of your heart . . . for medication to prevent AIDS-related blindness, which is of concern to me.”
By reimagining a painful medical procedure as a “catheter kiss,” Steers offers intimacy as a form of solace, even of healing. The kiss seems to be at least as curative as any catheter to the heart. Describing his art as a model of caregiving in the face of mortality, Steers says:
“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.”
I do not know whether someone was there to care about Steers at the time he said this. I do know that he died of AIDS at the age of thirty-two in March 1995, less than a year after Cotter’s article appeared.
Four of the other artists included in “Art after Stonewall”—Zoe Leonard, John Lindell, Donald Moffett, and Ellen B. Neipris—were members of the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), the radical grassroots activist group. AIDS activism was arguably the most galvanizing political movement of the late 1980s and early ’90s, and its impact on art was felt in the power of graphics on the street—graphics often designed by the ACT UP spinoff group Gran Fury, of which both Moffett and Lindell were part. Importantly, the group critiqued the idea that art alone could change the reality of AIDS. As one Gran Fury poster put it in 1988: with 42,000 dead art is not enough take collective direct action to end the aids crisis.
If art wasn’t enough to make real change, the artists with whom Cotter spoke nonetheless affirmed what their work could do. AIDS activism may have informed their practices, but none of the ACT UP members featured in Cotter’s article confine themselves to one source of artistic inspiration. Art offered a space to explore subjectivity, find pleasure, express rage, and establish community in the face of a social, medical, and political crisis.
Cotter’s interviews outline what might be called a queer artistic lineage that defies the logic of simple influence or art-historical progression. In a memorable, if improbable, formulation, Cary S. Leibowitz/Candyass says of his early “total gay-boy” paintings of idealized American landscapes that “it’s almost as if they’re by Grandma Moses, or her faggy great-grandson.” To imagine oneself as the “faggy great-grandson” of the folksiest “grandma” in self-taught American art is to locate a place for artistic identity that is not defined by canons of good taste. So, too, is Leibowitz’s embrace of camp and his flouting of traditional forms of affirmation. The artist recalls, for example, that “a few years ago I made ‘Go Fags’ and ‘Homo State’ pennants.” In Leibowitz’s creative world, fans no longer cheer for manly, straight-acting athletes but rather for the “fags” and “homos” traditionally ridiculed by or excluded from team sports. The artist goes on to mention that “For [the twenty-fifth anniversary of] Stonewall I’m thinking of doing pink, white and blue yarmulkes.” When Leibowitz subsequently made this piece, he titled it Stonewall Yarmulke (Shalom Independence: July 4, 1776-June 27, 1969). The artist refashioned the traditional skullcap of observant Jewish men into a satin confection of color that celebrates two declarations of independence—that of the American nation in 1776 and of gay liberation in 1969. Leibowitz unites seemingly irreconcilable historical moments and cultural forms to produce a flamboyant embrace of the faggy past.
Frank Moore, whose painting Wizard (1994) appeared on the cover of the A.i.A. issue, discusses the ways in which the art that mattered to him (Peter Blume, Paul Cadmus, and Magic Realist painting) was never acknowledged in art school and how he eventually learned from an informal, cross-generational network of artists:
“When I came back to New York in 1980, I started meeting a lot of people, among whom were some older gay artists. I learned so much from them. It was like a tunnel back in the past that I would only otherwise have known from books—and those books just weren’t being written. I know a lot of gay artists who come to New York and connect with older artists (the relationships don’t have to be consummated sexually; they weren’t in my case) who themselves had connected with artists before them.”
Moore does not name the gay artists he met in the 1980s. His mention of the possibility (not realized in his case) that such intergenerational relationships may have included a sexual dimension suggests some of the complexity of “the ancestral lineage network” of the gay art world and of the sometimes blurred line between sexual and professional mentorship. Moore’s statement that “those books were just not being written” recalls the fact that gay and lesbian art history and criticism was still emerging in the early 1990s. Two months before “Art after Stonewall,” A.i.A. published a review of Jonathan Weinberg’s book Speaking for Vice (1993)—a breakthrough in terms of the direct examination of homosexuality in twentieth-century American modernist art. “Art after Stonewall, 1969–1989,” a current exhibition on the legacy of the Gay Liberation movement that Weinberg organized (with Tyler Cann and Drew Sawyer) for New York University’s Grey Art Gallery and the nearby Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, shares the title of Cotter’s piece, and also something of its spirit.
For Zoe Leonard, seemingly unnamable but powerful forces of desire were clarified by encounters with particular writings and films:
“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.”
In Leonard’s case, the ability to “live my life the way I want to” has enabled a widely recognized art practice (she was recently the subject of a midcareer survey at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York) that addresses gender, queer desire, mourning, and mobility in unexpected, often lyrical ways. Leonard sometimes reworks familiar objects so that they become startlingly unfamiliar (decaying peels of fruit laced with thread, buttons, sinew, fabric, and wax; thousands of vintage postcards of Niagara Falls organized by the location and perspective of the photographer and extending, almost as though in perpetuity, across a long gallery wall). It has been a pleasure to witness Leonard’s creative success in the years since her interview, alongside that of another of Cotter’s interview subjects, the painter and MacArthur fellowship recipient Nicole Eisenman. The international visibility of a limited number of lesbian artists hardly means that the art world is free of the “deeply lesbophobic” tendencies described by the painter Deborah Kass in her response to Cotter’s questions. Kass’s blunt critique of the “power structures” at issue remains relevant today:
“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.”
As Cotter notes, there is only one artist included in the article who was actually at the Stonewall riots: Louise Fishman. Fishman’s road to becoming a “lesbian artist” is beautifully surprising: “I felt that Abstract Expressionist work was appropriate for me as a queer. It was a hidden language, on the radical fringe, appropriate to being separate.” Given the macho rhetoric often associated with the New York School, it is instructive to hear how Fishman found in Abstract Expressionism a visual means to express herself as “a queer.” As she reminds us, a sense of queerness may be produced by looking at art in unexpected ways and against the grain of dominant logic and intentions. Queers defy the rules of history to create a place for themselves, which is to say, ourselves. We invent ourselves out of a past that, in most instances, did not invite or anticipate us.
The words “gay” and “lesbian” appear multiple times in Cotter’s introduction to “Art after Stonewall.” “Queer,” however, appears not at all. The word surfaces in several of the artists’ responses as a provocation against norms of gender and sexuality and against the assimilation of gays and lesbians into the mainstream. “Queer” bubbles up when Kass describes her identification, seemingly against the odds, with Andy Warhol. For her, Warhol’s work is “all about queerness so I ask what would it be like if he was a woman, not to mention a Jewish woman?” Kass questions, in effect, what it would be like if she were Warhol or rather, if Warhol were she. From that cross-gender, cross-religion proposition, Kass has painted a vibrant series of Warholian paintings of figures ranging from Gertrude Stein to Barbara Streisand (or the “Jewish Jackie”) to the artist herself. As both Kass’s statement to Cotter and her paintings make clear, queerness moves across, as well as against, fixed categories of identity.
In refusing the expectations of mainstream society, several of the artists in “Art after Stonewall” offer a critique of what is sometimes called “heteronormativity.” Donald Moffett gives a full-throated, wonderfully flamboyant endorsement of “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.” Moffett suggests how queerness opposes itself to social and sexual norms, driving the “giant klutz” to distraction.
COTTER’S INTRODUCTORY essay ends with an expression of confidence in the future. “As the gay and lesbian movement identifies itself with and becomes part of the global political picture and as openly gay and lesbian artists . . . become part of the fabric of international art, there is every reason for optimism as we approach a new century.” Despite the joy expressed by Moffett and others, I find this faith in future progress somewhat misplaced in retrospect. Although the representation of LGBTQ people within both popular and high culture has never been more visible than it is today, twenty-five years after Cotter’s piece, we cannot claim equality on legal and political terms. The proposed purge of transgender troops from the military and the battle for gender-neutral public bathrooms speak to the ongoing bias against sexual minorities and gender nonbinary people. This is to say nothing of the openly homophobic views of vice president Mike Pence and many of the Christian right supporters of the current administration.
Queer artists of color have also questioned the dynamics of race and class within the gay community as well as the art world. Speaking with Cotter in 1994, Lyle Ashton Harris offered a prescient critique: “I do experience current mainstream gay culture and politics as provincial in its racism, exclusivity and classism.” Harris described his experience as a gay black man whose work is inherently about “splitting 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.”
Harris’s invocation of “the space that exists in between” speaks to the most conspicuous absence in “Art after Stonewall.” Issues of transgender artists, and transgender people, are entirely absent. On the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall, it seems appropriate to conclude this essay with a quite different return to the riots. Although many more people than could possibly have been in the Stonewall bar at the time of the police raid in 1969 now claim to have been there, Marsha P. (“Pay it No Mind”) Johnson, a black drag queen and activist, certainly was present. In the aftermath of Stonewall, Johnson became a founding member of the GLF. A year later, Johnson and Sylvia Rivera cofounded Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), a grassroots collective that housed homeless trans youth and sex workers. In the ten years between the Stonewall Riots and STAR’s founding, Johnson and Rivera were excluded from a gay movement focused on the concerns of white, middle-class men. Outspoken street queens of color were not welcome.
Johnson’s body was found floating in the Hudson River in 1993 (likely the result of a murder). Of late, Johnson’s life and legacy have become increasingly visible in part because of the work of documentary filmmakers and contemporary artists. For example, the installation Transgender Hirstory in 99 objects (2015), part of the ongoing Museum of Transgender Hirstory and Art (MOTHA) project, directed by Chris E. Vargas, revisits the transgender past through the virtual and material display of selected artifacts. Among those objects is a replica of the shot glass Johnson threw at a mirror during the Stonewall riots while screaming the words “I got my civil rights.” As we celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Stonewall, we would do well to remember both Johnson’s shot glass in flight and her defiant message to the police. For LGBTQ people, safeguarding our civil rights may still require extravagant forms of incivility.
1. Allen Ginsberg quoted in Lucian Truscott IV, “Gay Power Comes to Sheridan Square,” the Village Voice, July 3, 1969.
2. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes from Holland Cotter, “Art after Stonewall: 12 Artists Interviewed,” Art in America, June 1994, pp. 56–65, 115.