Gay and Lesbian Art: From the Perishable to the Permanent
Museum director Hunter O’Hanian is a bearded, slender-framed man, who welcomes me into the clean and airy exhibition space as if it’s his home. There’s nothing slight about his passion for overseeing the first and only dedicated gay and lesbian art museum in the world, boasting a collection of over 22,000 objects. Though the museum holds six to eight major special exhibitions annually — as well as talks, film screenings, readings and a research library — the recent Permanency show featured over 70 selected works that have been accessioned into its permanent collection. If, as the wall notes announce, “It is through their permanent collection that museums are defined,” the overall quality of the work on display speaks volumes for this institution’s success.
Of particular prominence are the powerful black and white photographs of Peter Hujar (1934-1987). His celebrity subjects defined the high and low, the rarified to the louche underworld of the ’70s. Louise Nevelson, Susan Sontag and Candy Darling made the list, as did a few favored farm animals. His most famous image for some is Candy Darling on Her Deathbed (not part of this collection). According to longtime photojournalist Nan Goldin (whose work is also on display), Hujar knew how to “seduce people” through the camera in order to reveal a greater truth. His 1974 shot of social critic Fran Lebowitz, photographed elbows up in bed at her home in Morristown, NJ, reveals a much younger woman confronting the camera in the same unapologetic deadpan way we have come to expect from this dry-witted iconoclast.
Obviously, a talent to seduce one’s subject is impossible without a mutual trust. This is nowhere more evident than in the vulnerable lassitude exhibited by ’70s multimedia artist David Wojnarowicz in Hujar’s portrait from 1981. Hujar played lover, mentor and friend to Wojnarowicz, whose own talents were short-lived. He succumbed to the AIDS virus when he was only 37. (Hujar himself would die of AIDS complications at 53.) Though the human subject was more the norm for Hujar, Ruined Bed, Newark, 1985, from a study he did of abandoned buildings, delivers the poignancy and lingering sadness of an empty bed, the centerpiece in the burnt-out squalor of a vacated room. It speaks volumes.
Hujar wasn’t the only artist on an intimate footing with the virulent epidemic. Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, one of the most glamorous and iconic gay figures of the downtown scene, was placed in a bathtub for his portrait shoot by Don Herron. The curly-haired Mapplethorpe stares guilelessly upward at the viewer, his then very young and healthy torso and genitals exposed. By 1989, he too would succumb to complications from AIDS, but not before setting up a foundation for his works as well as the furtherance of AIDS research with the help of his wealthy patron and lover, Sam Wagstaff.
For artists on exhibit like Michael Kelly, expressing a gay perspective came at a tragic price, even if AIDS was not the ultimate culprit. Featured in one of Leslie-Lohman’s first shows in an early Broome Street gallery in the ’60s, the artist was missing from the gallery’s evening reception. Later it was discovered that he had killed himself the same night. When one of the owners subsequently sent a check to purchase the artist’s works, it was never cashed as Kelly’s mother wanted nothing to do with such “unspeakable acts” portrayed in her son’s art.
A refreshingly elegant change is the portraiture from 1923 of Margaret Anderson and Jane Heap, two lesbians from Berenice Abbott’s artistic circle in Paris. Anderson exudes an aristocratic hauteur, while Heap’s stolid pose shows the woman in decidedly formal drag. Though Abbott showed great insight with these two, as well as in her portraits of artists such as Edna St. Vincent Millay and Marcel Duchamp, she is better known for the visionary imagery of her Manhattan buildings — assuring her lasting role in the urban art world. Nevertheless, the two portraits in question are a perfect purchase for the Leslie-Lohman Museum.
Two other contemporary women photographers whose work deserves mention are Americans Leah Michaelson and Deborah Bright. Michaelson’s 2005 delicate black and white rendering of a female body at rest with the head obscured (Near the Window) lets in the faintest of light, demonstrating a classic sensibility for available light photography. Bright’s Wild Secret Girl from 1996 is a monumental surrealistic animal portrait that purports to express the early female stirrings of sexuality by presenting a gleaming and muscled steed, partially wrapped in fabric. The artist has created it for “those of us who have never settled comfortably into a two-gender world.” Make of it what you will, it is a hypnotic work.
Photography plays a major role in the museum’s collection, according to director O’Hanian, and we discussed the reasons for this. With an early mortality bearing down on so many gay artists in the post-Stonewall world, it is little wonder that documenting their lovers and comrades through the medium of photography helped to ground these individuals in their own existential world, as if to say “here’s proof that I was here for a time, however brief.”
Conventional photography is not the only medium where these recent acquisitions shine. The purchase of the 1990 color screenprint by Robert Indiana serves as a bold and colorful tribute to Marsden Hartley. Hartley, an early 20th century artist, expressed in several of his geometric iconographic works the swastika — symbolic of his unabashed love for a German soldier. Indiana has utilized familiar symbols with the artist’s name prominently displayed in the lower part of the work.
Arguably, one of the most original works on display is James Bidgood’s Willow Tree (Bruce Kirkman) from the mid-1960s. It’s a gorgeously rendered digital C-print, which may well suggest a still from a Jean Cocteau cinematic fantasy. A young male nude lies under a weeping willow on a bed of purple blossoms. It’s an artificial construct that allows the viewer to simply revel in the sentimental eroticism of the creation. Bidgood was heavily influenced by fairy tales and film, and is best known for his cult film from 1971, The Pink Narcissus.
Perhaps the most charming work, and only minimally erotic by today’s standards, is David Hockney’s Two Boys 23 or 24 from Fourteen Poems from C.P. Cavafy, an etching and aquatint from 1966. It’s a lovely and tender depiction of two young men in bed together, almost innocently rendered with a bedspread partially covering their nude forms. O’Hanian emphasized that it was deliberately created by the artist as a print rather than as a single painting, so that its exposure to the straight and gay world would be more widespread. As surprising as it may seem to a younger generation “in the know,” only one major gallery would show the work on request by taking the visitor into another room where it could be seen away from the prying eyes of the general public.
A much anticipated exhibit — which runs through January 4th, 2015 — is Classical Nudes and the Making of Queer History, curated by scholar Jonathan David Katz. The show concentrates on the centrality of the nude over centuries and acts as a touchstone in the historical development of same-sex representation. It will provide the museum with an important opportunity to showcase many of the works in its repertoire, from Antiquity and the Renaissance, to the 18th and 19th centuries, to the modern period.
Certainly the preservation work begun by Charles W. Leslie and Fritz Lohman over more than a 30-year period continues to inspire and invigorate visitors of all cultural and sexual persuasions. We can only hope that artists as well will continue to share their output so that such a fine repository will continue to exist not just for the few, but for the many. Let’s face it, as the old ballad reminds us, it’s not just “our love that’s here to stay,” but its art as well.
All images courtesy of the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. || The Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art is located at 26 Wooster St, New York, NY 10013. For more information, including visiting hours, please visit their Web site or call (212) 431-2609.