Touted as an exploration of New York’s role as a beacon for lesbian, gay, bisexual, and trans artists throughout the 20th century, Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture in New York, curated by Donald Albrecht and Stephen Vider at the Museum of the City of New York, is a highly conventional celebration of a specific slice of mostly white gay male celebrity culture and society.
I emerged from the elevator on the second floor of the museum to be greeted by an informative wall label on the left, followed first by a photograph of artist Richard Bruce Nugent and next Abram Poole’s portrait of his wife, Mercedes de Acosta, as well as photographs of Paris lesbians of the 1930s. On the opposite wall was a photograph montage, a display case with ephemera, and books that steered me around the corner to images of various celebrities and into the heart of the exhibit. I ended up in an alcove with a display case featuring a series of videos and film clips including clips of Mae West (no supporter of gays and lesbians) and found myself scratching my head at the selections.
The emphasis of Gay Gotham is on gay white males of social and economic privilege, including impresario Lincoln Kiersten, photographer George Platt Lynes, composer Leonard Bernstein, choreographer Jerome Robbins, set designer Oliver Smith, and photographer Carl Van Vechten. The inclusion of African-American artists Richard Bruce Nugent and Beauford Delaney hardly mitigates the curatorial bias of the exhibit. Questions of class, race, and sexuality are raised by the inclusion of one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s eroticized male nudes, sporting an enormous penis, but the question of gender is virtually ignored. Going upstairs I was greeted by selection of photographs of women identified in a group sticker followed by an entire wall of well-identified pieces by Andy Warhol.
Lesbian creativity, when it is shown, is primarily superficial, as in Poole’s portrait of de Acosta, which fetishizes his wife and her shoes. Gay Gotham focuses on de Acosta’s relationships with various stars of film and theater, rather than her body of work as a writer and playwright, which are the focus with the male writers in the exhibit. Flanner, Stein and the elite circles of Paris are briefly addressed, which led me to wonder, where are Georgia O’Keeffe and Romaine Brooks? Brooks spend three years in New York City painting Van Vechten and Muriel Draper, socializing with Lynes, and driving around Central Park with Charles Henri Ford and his lover, painter Pavel Tchelitchew, both of whom are also missing from this compilation.
As I walked through the two floors of the museum I kept asking myself, where am I in this celebration of upper-class gay white male creativity? Certainly, this was not my experience of Gay Gotham. Glaringly absent from the exhibit are lesbian culture, sexual politics, and feminism. Where was the Ridiculous Theater Company? Where were the many other lesbian collectives and feminist action groups that I, and countless lesbian feminists, have been a part of in New York? Where was the lesbian feminist group Lavender Menace and their 1970 manifesto, “The Woman-Identified Woman” or documentation of the 1982 Barnard Conference on Sexuality organized by the Barnard Center for Research on Women and resulting in fireworks over pornography and a showdown with the Women Against Pornography (WAP) group?
Strolling through the more contemporary areas I could not help but notice the only lesbian artist who has been given her due is Harmony Hammond. Hammond’s book, Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History (2000) is referenced but feminist painter and activist Louise Fishman, for example, is given only a mention as part of the Heresies Collective, while Deborah Kass, Patti Cronin and Carrie Moyer are not represented at all. Works such as painter Christina Schlesinger’s Tomboys series, Nancy Fried’s breast cancer sculptures, and bisexual artist Nan Goldin’s photographs (getting raves at MOMA) were nowhere in sight, nor were the works of many apparently invisible lesbian artists who have lived and worked in Gotham for decades. These artists are all worthy of inclusion as well as serious research by the curators.
As for gay culture, what happened to theater troupe Split Britches? Founded by Peggy Shaw, Lois Weaver, and Deb Margolin in 1980, Split Britches was particularly important for its lesbian identities and feminist consciousness in theater and performance art. It is represented by two lackluster documentary photographs taken by lesbian photographer Eva Weiss. Yet, significant work on gender and identity by Weiss, a brilliant New York photographer with a wicked sense of humor, is absent. The question of why Weiss’s contributions as well as those of Shaw, Weaver, and many others in the downtown gay and lesbian community are less worthy of examination and emphasis than those of Van Vechten or Nugent, for example, is never answered.
Nor does this exhibition examine the impact of Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, founded in 1967, including his hilarious parodies of high culture (Shakespeare, Wagner) and his outstanding The Mystery of Irma Vep (1984), which were vital to of the downtown scene and the cross-dressing that enlivened New York during this time — Der Ring Gott Farblonget, for example, is one of his funniest take-offs on high culture and opera queens. Also absent is the work of pioneering filmmaker (and influence on Warhol), Jack Smith. The impact of figures like Ludlam and Smith is far-reaching. Gay Gotham could have been an ideal forum in which to recognize their contributions. The exhibit’s failure to do so is one among many lost opportunities.
The exhibit’s bias is not limited to art and theater. Why is there no representation or mention of women’s bars such as the Duchess or Sea Colony to stand alongside the gay male bars listed? Did not the co-owners of the Sahara lesbian bar pose for a George Segal statue installed in the park at Christopher and Sheridan? What happened to Susan Sontag, seen in a photograph but missing her circle, including her lover, photographer Annie Leibowitz, and playwright Irene Fornes. Also missing in action were writers Adrienne Rich and Michelle Cliff.
Anyone who regularly works with GLBTQ subject matter (as I have for the last forty years) is aware of the problems of exhibiting art that focuses on the gay experience in America and elsewhere. The problem with Gay Gotham is that it universalizes man’s creativity, implying that women’s creativity, when it can be found, is just a flash in the pan. Consequently, the exhibition’s two white gay male curators seem unaware or unembarrassed that they are putting the experiences of lesbian women and others who are not white men into parenthesis that subordinate them to an elite white gay male culture.
Numbers do tell the story. Keeping tabs on the percentages of male and female artists included in the exhibit, and the number of works by both, alerts us to both conscious and unconscious prejudices. Novelist and unapologetic straight feminist Siri Hustveld has written in her new book, A Woman Looking at Men Looking At Women (2016), that there is a tendency to overrate the achievements of men and underrate those of women. “Study after study has demonstrated,” what she calls the “masculine enhancement affect” and spoken of the “male advantage.” Nothing could prove her point as effectively as Gay Gotham.
I wish I could praise this exhibition. I cannot because its limited scope in no way addresses the art world’s need to redouble its efforts to resist the threat that President Donald Trump and his cabinet of bigots pose to the gains gays have made over the last decades. In these times, representing race, class, gender, sexual orientation, equality and justice for all in the arts requires us to resist going backwards and strengthen our dedication to developing and bringing to fruition art shows that deal directly with these issues, regardless of who is in power. Otherwise we fail our mandate as creatives and human beings. We cannot afford the luxury of art for celebrity’s sake. New York was and is so much more than is represented here.
Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture in New York continues at the Museum of the City of New York (1220 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan) through February 26.