Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture in New York
Museum of the City of New York
Through February 26
Suggested admission: $14
Gay Gotham, the new retrospective at the Museum of the City of New York, provides a good overview of queer art in the last century, but is far from comprehensive. Let’s not assign complete blame to the museum, however. Obviously, there isn’t enough room for everyone, or everyone who matters. But certain omissions are galling. Keith Haring and Nan Goldin, so much a part of the queer 1980s New York art scene, are barely included. Robert Raushenberg and Jasper Johns, legendary artists who were also romantic partners, do not get their own spaces. Meanwhile, Harmony Hammond, an artist whose work is far less important and far less interesting (lesbians represented by ovals, anyone?), gets a wall.
I could go on. A queer theater compilation without the two Charleses (Ludlam and Busch)? Without The Normal Heart, A Chorus Line, The Boys in the Band? A clip from the PBS reality show An American Family is delightful to look at — Lance Loud being a joy to behold forever and ever — but is essentially one big tease, cutting off before we get to see Vain Victory, featuring Warhol superstars Jackie Curtis and Candy Darling.
And then there is the exhibition’s title. Whoever came up with it has forgotten that there are a couple of other letters in GLBTQ besides G.
Not to say the exhibit isn’t worth seeing. It’s entertaining, highlights criminally underrated artists and showcases amazing power couples, like Bill T. Jones and Arnie Zane, Greer Lankton and Paul Monroe, Larry Rivers and Frank O’Hara, and Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff.
There was no LinkedIn, OkCupid or Patreon back then — artists created their own communities and romantic pairings without the internet, in a time when their very existence was frowned upon by the majority. Many likely don’t understand how much of mainstream culture was made by these outsiders. West Side Story is but one example. That tribute to heterosexual love was created by four queer men, Leonard Bernstein, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents and Stephen Sondheim. Yes, it was based on Romeo and Juliet, but there are other interpretations that can be made.
The exhibit also examines theater, with clips from Tony Kushner’s Angels in America and Voyage to Lesbos by The Five Lesbian Brothers, featuring a pre-Fun Home Lisa Kron. The Lesbos clip, about a gay woman marrying a guy to be “cured” of homosexuality, is a loving kiss-off to the 1960s, while Angels is one of the best examples of AIDS art ever, though the clip chosen could be confusing to those unfamiliar with the work.
The museum features helpful guides to places and neighborhoods. Something that might surprise the viewer is that Greenwich Village’s Julius bar was not always a gay bar, and in 1966 there was actually a “sip-in” to gain the right for queer people to be served. Another revelation, because so much of queer history is whitewashed, is the role Harlem played: The Gumby Book Studio was a vital destination; lesbian Gladys Bentley a well-known star.
You would not expect to find queerness in a 1932 movie, but Call Her Savage slipped some shout-outs in there, with talk of Greenwich Village and a scene with two pansies, characters that epitomized effeminacy. Vito Russo called the scene “possibly the first representation of a gay bar in a commercial American film.” There’s also Harry Rose singing about frankfurter sandwiches, so interpret that as you will.
George Platt Lynes’ work, especially John Leaphart and R.X. McCarthy #375, his 1952 photo of a nude black man posing erotically with a nude white man, is the very definition of groundbreaking. Greer Lankton is probably better known, though also a cult figure. The trans artist succumbed to an overdose, but not before creating dolls of Andy Warhol and Vogue editor Diana Vreeland. Lankton’s recreation of Warhol can be read as either a tribute or a joke, seeing as how he is sitting on top of a pile of money.
As you enter the exhibition, you are greeted with Max Ewing’s Gallery of Extraordinary Portraits. A 1928 precursor to Instagram, the installation features pictures of his friends and celebrities in a facsimile of a walk-in closet. I am shocked that such an important relic has never before gotten the attention it deserves. It would have been nice to know the subjects of these pictures, but maybe that is lost to history.
Gay Gotham is showing at an interesting — some would say terrible — time for queer culture. In the last couple of years, there has been a loss of important, purely queer spaces and publications — lesbian bars Cattyshack in Brooklyn and Meow Mix in the East Village; the websites AfterEllen (which I wrote for), TechnoDyke and PrideParenting (which I was an editor for); bookstores A Different Light and Oscar Wilde Books; and print mags Girlfriends, On Our Backs, HX, HX for Her and The New York Blade.
One might conclude that if queer spaces and publications are not succeeding it might simply mean they are not needed, but I believe we will always want to communicate with each other, to see ourselves reflected, to have spaces that are only ours, to take part in connections that will inform our art. “Gay Gotham” shows not only how important these kinds of spaces once were, but why they must be preserved for future generations at any cost.