Living as a queer person in the United States in 2017 has been, more often than not, surreal. Despite what has for so long felt like a march forward, it was a time of continued threats of bodily harm and disenfranchisement, with moments of excellence and power still arising through this period of turmoil and fear.
This June marked a year since the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, which claimed 49 lives, mostly queer Latinx ones. That same month the New York Times Magazine published a harrowing article, “America’s Hidden H.I.V. Epidemic,” detailing heartbreaking statistics which showed that black gay and bisexual men in the South are still contracting HIV at alarming rates, at a higher frequency than in any other country in the world. This year also marks 30 years since the founding of ACT UP, the AIDS activist collective whose confrontational protests and much-needed educational work helped change the national conversation around HIV/AIDS. In 1996, their activism helped bring about anti-retroviral therapy—a treatment that, for those who have access to it, no longer makes an HIV-positive diagnosis a death sentence. It’s a sobering dichotomy.
In these dark times, I have often turned to art, when my mental health allows, seeking comfort as this country seems to fall to pieces, as those in power continue to erode hard-won civil liberties. Below, a list of some of the best things I saw around New York.
1. A Year of Curatorial Excellence at the Leslie-Lohman Museum
By far the year’s best programming, queer or otherwise, was at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art in SoHo. Often still considered an upstart of a museum, the LLM has been working tirelessly since it reopened in March, with an expanded gallery space, to cast aside the image that has dogged it for much of its history: a reputation as an institution that showed mainly second-rate erotic art by white cisgender gay men, at the exclusion of everyone else. To this end, excellent work was added to the permanent collection, the visionary Gonzalo Casals, formerly of the High Line and El Museo del Barrio, was named director, and, most important, there were several terrific shows.
The museum’s inaugural exhibition, “Expanded Visions: Fifty Years of Collecting,” helped show the ways in which its founders helped rescue mounds of queer art from being trashed during the height of the AIDS crisis. Following this eye-opening permanent-collection hang, the LLM put on “Found: Queerness as Archaeology,” curated by Gran Fury cofounder Avram Finkelstein, which put forth a brave, new, multivalent theory of queer abstraction.
A thorough retrospective for the groundbreaking lesbian filmmaker Barbara Hammer followed, and, concurrent with “Found,” the museum commissioned the remaining members of the Silence=Death collective, which included Finkelstein, to re-create their iconic text-based work—which has been variously misattributed to Gran Fury, ACT UP, and even Keith Haring—on the museum’s exterior windows. The commission connected Silence=Death’s moment to our own, as just inside the museum’s lobby read, in part: “Queer power is the power to change the world. Turn Anger, Fear, Grief into Action.” Needless to say, it resonated.
2. Juliana Huxtable at Reena Spaulings
In the months since this show, as white supremacists have marched through Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting “You will not replace us,” Huxtable’s work seems more and more to have presciently captured the mood surrounding post-Trump activism. At the center of this exhibition was a 21-minute video, A Split During Laughter at the Rally (2017), in which Huxtable films a fictional protest attended mainly by black and queer activists in Brooklyn. Two demonstrators decide they are “over it,” and a debate about millennial cynicism ensues. We want to protest the injustices of the world, Huxtable seems to say, as long as activism doesn’t make us too uncomfortable, and that is hindering progress. In other words, for a generation that has genuinely believed the revolution would be televised, half-heartedly chanting “No Trump, no KKK, no fascist USA” in the streets is not enough to bring about decided change. Maybe it’s best to quote Huxtable, who narrates much of the video: “Everything feels impossible right now.”
3. Lyle Ashton Harris in the Whitney Biennial
One painting and one VR work dominated much of the discussion surrounding this year’s Whitney Biennial, but almost 60 other artists also participated in the exhibition, and many were notable. Within that cohort was Lyle Ashton Harris’s contribution to the show, a stunning black-box installation, for which the underrated artist scoured his personal archive of photographs and videos from the 1980s through the 2000s, and presented dozens of intimate shots of his daily life on multiple screens while Grace Jones’s song “Walking in the Rain” played in the background. In the back corner of the installation, Harris displayed a video of himself talking on the phone, mostly about mundane things, including a new guy, Tommy, he has been seeing. Taken as a whole, the installation is not simply a surface-level celebration of black gay love, but also documentation that it exists, that it is normal, that it can be banal, and that, in our current moment, acknowledging that can be a form of triumph.
4. Reina Gossett
This past October, Netflix released The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, a film directed by David France, best known for his previous Oscar-nominated ACT UP documentary, How to Survive a Plague. Within hours, the activist and filmmaker Reina Gossett went public with a statement alleging that France had gotten the idea of making a documentary about Marsha P. Johnson—the black trans activist icon incontrovertibly credited with igniting the Stonewall Riots and, by extension, the queer liberation movement—from a grant application that she and her longtime collaborator Sasha Wortzel had submitted. An assistant for France, along with others including writer and activist Janet Mock, has voiced support for Gossett. (France has denied the allegations, while others have sought to discredit Gossett.) The controversy brought to the fore something that has happened time and again for the past half-century: a white cisgender man speaking for a community, while the voices of many—trans women of color, in particular—are effectively silenced. While there has been no clear resolution, the good news here is that Gossett’s art is being seen: her touching film, done with Wortzel, Lost in the Music is currently included in the New Museum’s exhibition “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon,” where Johnson, as portrayed by actress Mya Taylor, exuberantly and loudly exclaims, “I’m not saying that it’s easy to shine, to love, to twirl; I’m not saying it don’t hurt to be awake in this world.”
5. Felix Gonzalez-Torres at David Zwirner
Gonzalez-Torres’s installations and videos took up two floors of the West 20th Street location of Zwirner, which now co-represents the artist’s estate with his longtime dealer, Andrea Rosen. The space’s soaring ceiling and natural light gave the entire exhibition a chapel-like aura, commanding reverence. Gonzalez-Torres’s most famous works, many of which respond directly to the AIDS crisis, were there—candy pieces, blue curtains, a string of lights, stacks of paper. But the standout work in this perfect show was the artist’s somewhat lesser-known 1991/1995 video piece “Untitled” (A Portrait), in which two chairs sit in front of an old-school video monitor that displays white text against a black background. At first it starts off seemingly humdrum—“a shopping spree,” “silver ocean,” “a found black cat”—but every so often the text becomes hauntingly poetic and painful to read: “a new lesion,” “a view to remember,” “a hateful political,” “a simple death,” “a public opinion.” The viewer is left to put together the simplicity of Gonzalez-Torres’s elegiac words, and find meaning in the everyday.
Two thematic exhibitions this year looked at the continuing influence of the AIDS crisis on the current era. “AIDS at Home” at the Museum of the City of New York explored the ways in which the concept of home was a central, though rarely discussed, concern for those living with HIV/AIDS, from hospice care to eviction notices. Standout works by Lori Grinker and Ira Sachs in the Museum of the City show found their counterparts in “Voice=Survival,” an exhibition at the 8th Floor gallery that included Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s text-based works “How to Suffer Politely (And Other Etiquette),” which instruct viewers to LOWER THE PITCH OF YOUR SUFFERING and to TELL YOUR STRUGGLE WITH HUMOR, as well as excerpts of Audre Lorde’s 1977 speech “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.” Also included in “Voice=Survival” were messages friends left for David Wojnarowicz after the death of Peter Hujar; I still can’t bring myself to listen to them. The exhibition reached a climax of sorts with video documentation, by James Wentzey, of Bob Rafsky in 1992 delivering a eulogy: “When the living can no longer speak, the dead can speak for them.”
Meanwhile, at the third Last Address Walk, a tribute program co-organized with Visual AIDS and based on Sachs’s video, a group of us remembered artists who died of AIDS-related causes. The walk this year took me to the final home in the West Village of the gender-bending performer Hibiscus. Outside his former building, Hibiscus’s two sisters spoke beautifully about him, ending by singing the Hair version of the “What a Piece of Work Is Man” speech from Hamlet. These exhibitions were a reminder of how people like Hibiscus, who was almost completely lost to history, are kept alive by the memory of those who knew them. Later, the walk took us to the city’s original AIDS memorial, which reads, “I can sail without wind, I can row without oars, but I cannot part from my friend without tears.” In times like these, may we not forget those who have been lost in our many struggles, and whose memory pushes us forward.
7. Hélio Oiticica at the Whitney Museum
Oiticica’s traveling retrospective, “To Organize Delirium,” made a stop this summer at the Whitney Museum. I thoroughly enjoyed filing my nails as I stared up at a video projection, walking through a maze of water and sand, sitting on a hammock listening to Jimi Hendrix’s version of “All Along the Watchtower,” and tucking myself away in a small cubby as I read my book. The exhibition shed light on the artist’s identity as a gay man from Brazil who spent a formative period of his career living and working in the 1970s among a cohort of fellow gay artists in a post-Stonewall New York, before the onset of the AIDS crisis. (He died in Brazil in 1980 from a stroke.) Oiticica’s work, by turns serious and playful, has a queer sensibility, most likely as a result of his stay in New York, where he was able to be a freer version of himself than in Brazil. He believed that art should be accessible and should draw in as many people as possible by providing a form of escape—a process that mirrors the ways in which queer people have for so long sought to envision realities separate from their own, when a motto like “It Gets Better” was nothing more than a pipe dream.
8. Teresa Margolles at the Armory Show
Art fairs are not exactly known for nuanced, politically engaged displays, so I was shocked to find truly moving queer art at this year’s edition of the Armory Show. The Zurich gallery Peter Kilchmann devoted its modestly sized booth in the Focus section to the work of Teresa Margolles, the Mexican artist who was recently shortlisted for the Guggenheim Museum’s Hugo Boss Prize. She presented an installation that served as a memorial for her friend and collaborator Karla, a trans sex worker who was murdered in December 2015, months before she was to join Margolles in Zurich for a project at Manifesta 11. For the Armory Show piece, Margolles installed an almost-8-foot-tall photograph of Karla in which she looks past the concrete block taken from the site of her murder and past the viewer, standing proud and tall yet slightly awkward. Throughout the booth, a sound recording featured the voice of another sex worker, Ivon, who spoke about the senselessness of Karla’s murder. The installation was a rare moment of visibility, and at a time in which more and more women are rightfully being empowered to come forward and discuss the painful details of their sexual assaults and harassment at the hands of those in power, it is a work that begs us not to forget the voiceless.