Museum  May 16, 2019  John McIntyre

How Stonewall Shaped Contemporary Art

Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Amaryllis Moleski, Instructions for a Freedom, 2015

Start counting forward from the Stonewall uprising, and you’re likely to find yourself feeling free, maybe obligated even, to indulge fanciful ideas. Contemporaneous accounts present it as a surreal scene. There’s a counterweight, of course, and that’s the impulse to honor the real risks and sacrifices those pioneering spirits made to move the culture forward. Haltingly forward, sure but not for lack of effort. All of that and more was on display those June nights in 1969. The writer Edmund White’s letter to Alfred Corn described that, “Someone shouted ‘Gay Power,’ others took up the cry–and then it dissolved into giggles. A few more gay prisoners--bartenders, hatcheck boys–a few more cheers, someone starts singing "We Shall Overcome"--and then they started camping on it.” The clash grew serious, though; it turned violent, and the Stonewall’s clientele held their own. It was an unwitting turning point, a cathartic moment that, it became clear in time, had reoriented the longstanding model of police repression and exploitation toward the gay community.   

The years afterward were so stocked with highs and lows, they could only give birth to a new art too restless and varied to be called by a single name. A pair of exhibitions–Art after Stonewall at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall at the Brooklyn Museum–mark the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Separately they manage just that balancing act. Together, they connect the past and present in striking ways, while pointing to a future in which the spirit established that night on Christopher Street will continue to move with the times.

Courtesy of Carpenter Center for Visual Arts / Harvard Art Museum

Gran Fury, Riot, 1989. Sticker, 5 x 3 1/2 in.

The show at Grey ranges widely across the twenty-year span. There are major photographers–Robert Mapplethorpe, Peter Hujar, Nan Goldin and Annie Leibovitz–as expected, and early work from Lyle Ashton Harris and Dona Ann McAdams. Gran Fury’s RIOT stickers, which situate the word “riot” between “Stonewall ‘69” and “AIDS ‘89” serve as a neat summary of the show’s bookends. There’s naturally a “Silence + Death” poster, and one for “VisualAIDs,” as well, a group without which a great deal of art, perhaps even some featured in the show, would no longer exist. 

It’s hard not to be impressed by how fresh and engaging much of this work feels. So much of it was made not with concern for the art world’s establishment but with open antipathy for it. Pieces of the cultural story help ground the Grey show, and they exert real, accumulative power at Leslie-Lohman. There, modest offerings like Nancy Fried’s small, homely sculptures of flour, salt and acrylic, or Roberta Gregory’s Dynamite Damsels comic book, circa 1976, line up alongside an impressive list of contemporaneous publications like issues of On Our Backs and Azalea: A Magazine for Third-World Lesbians.  The exhibition also recasts Gordon Matta-Clark’s Day’s End: Pier 52 photos in their full context, acknowledging the space was a hotbed for cruising at the time, a fact the photographer found uncomfortable, at best. Add a delightful array of video installations, including Tricia’s Wedding by Sebastian and the Cockettes, and Barbara Hammer’s Dyketactics, running at their full lengths, and there’s enough on hand to reward repeat visits.

Installation view, Art After Stonewall, Grey Art Gallery
Nicholas Papananias, courtesy Grey Art Gallery, NYU

Installation view, Art After Stonewall, Grey Art Gallery

Installation view, Art After Stonewall, Grey Art Gallery
Nicholas Papananias, courtesy Grey Art Gallery, NYU

Installation view, Art After Stonewall, Grey Art Gallery

Installation view, Art After Stonewall, Grey Art Gallery
Nicholas Papananias, courtesy Grey Art Gallery, NYU

Installation view, Art After Stonewall, Grey Art Gallery

Installation view, Art after Stonewall, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art
Courtesy Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

Installation view, Art after Stonewall, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

Installation view, Art after Stonewall, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art
Courtesy Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

Installation view, Art after Stonewall, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

Installation view, Art after Stonewall, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art
Courtesy Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

Installation view, Art after Stonewall, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art

Across the river at the Brooklyn Museum, all of the 22 artists featured in Nobody Promised You Tomorrow were born after Stonewall, and all live and work in New York. It’s unsurprising to find such a diverse cohort, in terms of background, style and substance. Yet these artists aren’t blind to the past, or the contemporary challenges that echo those front and center in the shows at Grey and Leslie-Lohman. For instance, Elektra KB’s Protest Sign II builds on the classic Silence = Death posters from the AIDS crisis, adding “Anger = Action,” and “Action = Life” and casts it in the form of a medieval battle flag.

Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Elektra KB, Protest Sign II, 2017

The curatorial choices make a profound statement about the inclusive, intersectional community of artists whose work is a meaningful perpetuation of the Stonewall uprising’s legacy.  The result is an impressive roster of living, working artists, from video art offerings by Rindon Johnson and Sasha Wortzel, to Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski, who uses tea as one of the pigments in her Instructions for a Freedom, to Juliana Huxtable, whose The Feminist Scam takes an inkjet print, lays it on a metal sheet and accents it with vinyl and magnets. These and others in Nobody Promised You Tomorrow are works by artists we should expect to see more of, in prominent settings, in the future. 

Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Juliana Huxtable, The Feminist Scam, 2017. Photography. Inkjet print, vinyl, magnets on metal sheet.

It’s logical on some level for artists hailing from a group that’s historically been silenced should make a statement through oversized works. At Grey, Keith Haring’s Safe Sex is an immediately recognizable anchor, a 116” x 116” acrylic on canvas tarp painting. A masterful, brilliantly colored, 60” x 60” David Hockney portrait of the inimitable Divine is a centerpiece of the Leslie-Lohman exhibition. And Nobody Promised You Tomorrow gives us a number of statement pieces, works which reach for texture in the form of mixed media, and use it in the service of producing unreservedly bold color. For The Hudson River Jordan, LJ Roberts, like Haring, employs tarp, but goes a different route, adding textile, beads, fake flowers, spray paint, sequins, grommets, plastic, safety pins in a work that’s nowhere near so busy visually as that list sounds. Felipe Baeza’s my vision is small fixed to what can be heard between the ears the spot between the eyes a well-spring opening to el mundo grande, a similar, deceptively simple composition emerges from media including glitter and twine. Another large-scale Roberts offering, The Queer Houses of Brooklyn in the Three Towns of Breukelen, Boswyck, and Midwout during the 41st Year of the Stonewall Era, goes full maximalist in both materials used and visual complexity.

Courtesy Brooklyn Museum

Felipe Baeza, my vision is small fixed to what can be heard between the ears the spot between the eyes a well-spring opening to el mundo grande, 2018

A tribute can be a brittle thing, too cautious and reserved to truly honor the lives that inspired it. Or it can work as these shows do, and channel the spirit of Stonewall by presenting work that mirrors 50 years of strength, boldness, humor, resilience, and frequently a shared burden. Work that points to a brilliant future.

About the Author

John McIntyre

John McIntyre is a writer living in New Jersey. He writes about literature and art at Good Reading Copy.

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