By Judy McGuire, April 2019 Issue.
With recent major museum retrospectives from Andy Warhol, Frida Kahlo, Robert Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz and Hockney, LGBTQI art seems to be having more than a moment. But while museums have traditionally honored single artists, large survey shows of queer art are rarer than you might think. The Columbus Museum of Art’s new traveling exhibition, “Art After Stonewall, 1969 – 1989,” is a welcome remedy to that.
The show’s lead curator (there are a few) and editor of the gorgeous catalog that accompanies it, painter/art historian Jonathan Weinberg, says the only other big survey show was Hide/Seek: Difference in American Portraiture, curated by Jonathan David Katz at the National Portrait Gallery. “You can’t talk about major museums that have done historical shows about gay art,” Weinberg says, “because there just aren’t many. Sad to say, most museums in the U.S. have been very conservative in terms of queer shows and exhibitions.”
Nor are there many books on the history of gay art. “I think people are under the misconception that it’s a bigger topic because there are papers or articles about it. But there are very few books.”
Timed to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the seven-day riot that became a turning point in the fight for gay rights, “Art After Stonewall” is anything but conservative. For one thing — it includes a lot more than just the “popular crowd” (translation: white men). Gathering works from both the famous (Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol, Diane Arbus) alongside more underground figures like Greer Lankton, Vaginal Davis, and photographer Honey Lee Cottrell, the book and exhibition is exhaustively researched and incredibly diverse.
“I’m about to go see a Harmony Hammond retrospective,” Weinberg says of one of the many women included in the show. “Though most people know her as an artist, she’s a key figure in writing about and curating on lesbian art and worked with other women artists to do lesbian art shows in the late 70s.”
Weinberg adds that “most of the biggest works in the show are by women; women who need more focus on them, like Michela Griffo, Maxine Fine, Lula Mae Blocton, and Tee Corinne. They’ve had some success in the art world, but they’re not super well known outside of that world.”
“A piece that I love is by Nancy Fried,” Weinberg says. “She got a lot of attention in the 90s because she did these sculptures having to do with breast cancer. But in the 70s, she was doing these sculptures made of cookie dough. I thought they didn’t exist anymore, but they do, and they’re very funny and beautiful.”
Inclusion was very important when planning the show. “Right in the beginning, we decided that we must include trans artists. We have Greer Lankton, Vaginal Davis, Del Lagrace Volcano, Marsha P. Johnson, and Leon Mostovoy.”
“We couldn’t make up representation now that didn’t exist then,” Weinberg says. “As I’m always telling my students, the importance is that the past is different so that the future can be different.”
Covering the time frame between the baby steps of the gay rights movement and the devastation that came with the emergence of AIDS, Art After Stonewall is both a reminder of how far we’ve come and how far we have left to go. Peter Hujar’s joyful portraits of Charles Ludlum Cockette, Daniel Ware, along with his Gay Liberation Front flyer stand in stark contrast to Gran Fury’s bloody graphics. And as LGBTQI rights are being chipped away at again, this show is a reminder that there’s no time to rest.
In fact, Weinberg believes this exhibition might not have ever happened if the Orange Menace hadn’t moved into the White House. “I was feeling like the idea was a dinosaur because people were saying we were beyond queer theory and queer art,” Weinberg sighs. But then HE happened, and people realized there was no time to rest. “A lot of the support that this show has gotten is quite possibly because of Donald Trump. It may not have happened without him, because even queer people were saying it was essentialist before that.”
Fifty years after that first brick was thrown, Stonewall remains an important turning point. “As you probably know, there were many incidences and different riots and moments when people got very angry,” Weinberg recalls. “But the reason Stonewall become so important … the act of memorializing has made it important. The civil rights movements, feminism — all these things were coming to a head. People were really canny and decided to turn it into a march — and don’t call it a parade, it was a march. We didn’t have permission.”
“It was all about taking it to the streets, going into the open,” he continues. “It resonated with the anti-war, civil rights, and feminist activists and that’s really important. The Gay Liberation Front decided that they were going to turn this into something.”
Opening in New York, simultaneously at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art on April 24, the show will then travel to Patricia & Phillip Frost Art Museum in Miami, Florida (September 14), and wind up back at its home at the Columbus Museum of Art for Valentine’s Day, 2020.
I wondered why none of the major museums in New York had sponsored the show — after all, Stonewall is in New York City. “I think it’s fantastic that a Midwest museum is leading this,” Weinberg, an ex-New Yorker/turned Connecticut resident, laughs. “It’s one of the misconceptions that the big cities on the coast are so much better, but we’re not.”
Jonathan Weinberg, Ph.D., is also an accomplished painter, the author of the upcoming Pier Groups: Art and Sex Along the New York Waterfront (Penn State University Press), Male Desire: the Homoerotic in American Art (Harry N. Abrams); and other books. Currently, Weinberg is curator of the Maurice Sendak Foundation, a critic at the Yale School of Art, and a lecturer at the Rhode Island School of Design.