This June marks fifty years since the Stonewall Riots, a pivotal moment of LGBTQ activism. Institutions throughout the city are commemorating the anniversary, including the Leslie-Lohman Museum, which was established the same year as the riots. It is currently presenting Art After Stonewall, 1969 – 1989 at their Wooster Street location and at the Grey Art Gallery at New York University. The survey, organized by the Columbus Museum of Art and curated by Jonathan Weinberg, Tyler Cann, and Drew Sawyer, presents 200 objects across media arranged around five themes: Coming Out, Gender Play, Uses of the Erotic, Things Are Queer, AIDS and Activism, and We’re Here. While impressive in its scope and engagement with the era’s tensions and limitations, the exhibition has left unfulfilled its potential to honor and reflect upon this layered legacy more boldly and inclusively.
Each section bursts with art both iconic and lesser-known: from Keith Haring’s “National Coming Out Day” poster (1988); to photographs by Catherine Opie, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Peter Hujar; to prints by Andy Warhol; and video by Barbara Hammer. Certain kinds of diversity are clearly represented: diversity of media, of aesthetic and political strategy, and of tone. (The show even makes room for straight artists.) However, other kinds of diversity are weaker. People of color are represented, although sometimes sparingly. Highlights in this genre include the photographs of Sunil Gupta, Laura Aguilar’s Latina Lesbians series, and Judy Baca’s “The Origins of the Gay Rights Movement” (1983), which connects the political legacies of lesbian, labor, and West Coast activism. More lacking is work by trans and disabled artists. “Uses of the Erotic,” for one, is sorely missing non-cis bodies and artists, although it does include Tee A. Corinne’s “A Woman’s Touch #7” (1979), which depicts two kissing figures in wheelchairs.
Marsha P. Johnson — co-founder of S.T.A.R. (Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries) with Sylvia Rivera (shown in a photograph by Bettye Lane) — is seen throughout the show. Depictions of the activist range from Warhol’s problematic Ladies and Gentlemen series (1975) to photographs by Diana Davis, who captures Johnson in a rally in Albany, and, particularly fitting, at NYU distributing flyers next to another activist holding a sign reading “COME OUT OF YOUR IVORY TOWERS & INTO THE STREET.” Although her presence is needed, the show does not mention her disability and almost implies a shortage of art by and about other trans people (a notable exception being Greer Lankton’s tender autobiographical watercolor “Coming Out of Surgery” from 1979).
A standout work in the show is Marlon Rigss’s “Affirmations” (1990). The video, comprised in part of outtakes from the iconic Tongues Untied (1989), centers black queer voices and the homophobia, racism, joy, and loss that surrounds them. Considering the whitewashing that often occurs around the ongoing history of AIDS/HIV, Rigg’s documentation of groups like Minority Task Force on AIDS and Gay Men of African Decent remain vital.
Indeed, Art After Stonewall details the way many artists doubled as activists. In the face of exclusion, alternative spaces and platforms were created, including groups like the Lavender Menace, a response to the rejection of lesbians in some feminist spaces, or publications like Harmony Hammond’s catalog Statements by Lesbian Artists (1978) and HERESIES: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics (1977–1992), which published issues centering Lesbian Artists and “Third World Women.”
Many of these efforts point to tensions in the Gay Rights movement. Misogyny and limitations of representation are detailed in relation to objects like Mario Dubsky and John Button’s collage mural, “Agit-Prop” (1971) which was originally installed at the headquarters of the Gay Activist Alliance. The banner, while in may ways narrow in its inclusion, depicts Black Panther Huey Newton, one of only a few works connecting gay rights organizing with the concurrent Black Power movement. Less present is how the gender essentialist view of some feminists (sometimes known as TERFs, Trans Exclusive Radical Feminists) violently rejects trans women.
Fifty years later, issues of police brutality, everyday harassment, and economic instability remain urgent ones to queer and trans people, especially queer and trans people of color. The victories of the mainstream LGBTQ movement have often left out the most vulnerable, for whom the stakes remain high. It is within this context that the exhibition falls short. It is no longer enough for museums to include a handful of people of color, of trans folks, of folks with disabilities in their exhibitions. At this point, there is no excuse not to center them in both the art on display and in the curatorial process. For an example of how this is done brilliantly, see Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years after Stonewall on view at the Brooklyn Museum: It is an exhibition which centers trans artists and artists of color born after 1969 and is curated by a collective from across museum departments.
Art After Stonewall highlights invaluable cultural collections and does concede to some structural restraints by discussing the political and representational limitations of historically organizing the art of this era. However, many of these moments rely on wall text and can sometimes get lost in the fullness of the exhibition. Still, the rich research that supports the exhibition and the catalog produced with it will remain critical resources for the study of LGBTQ art, and the show’s tour will provide meaningful encounters for audiences outside of New York.
Of course, no single exhibition can be expected to completely capture a legacy as complex as this one. This anniversary is, in part, a celebration of sustained resilience, but should also be a moment of reflection and radical imagining for the future. How can we build and expand upon the work of LGBTQ activists and artists (globally, and at many intersections) in a way that continues to value community building, accountability, and care? What is the role of museums in preserving and uplifting historical objects and figures while considering the current needs and livelihoods of the communities they serve? How can we create new models of curation, research, and display? This work has never been easy and, in the spirit of queerness, won’t be linear or binary — but it will be worth doing and doing boldly.
Art After Stonewall, 1969–1989 is on view through July 21st at the Leslie-Lohman Museum (26 Wooster Street, Soho, Manhattan), and through July 20th at the New York University Grey Art Gallery (100 Washington Square East, Greenwich Village, Manhattan). It is curated by Jonathan Weinberg, Tyler Cann, and Drew Sawyer.
Danilo, You missed the boat on your analysis. Radical Feminism has nothing to do with gender essentialism, in fact it is the opposite of what you describe, transgenderism is an adherence to classical gender stereotypes, not the other way around. Calling Radical Feminist, TERFS promotes violence against women. Women are not attacking transgender people, trans-activism is divisive and in many instances proves itself to be homophobic and misogynist with its’ activists continuously attacking women scholars, feminist, and lesbians. Civil rights are for all people but no other group has claimed their rights at the expense of another groups hard won rights. This is a very complicated situation and perhaps you should analyse where the money for the Trans-activist movement is coming from…biomedicine. Trans-male to females are being killed because over 87,000 WOMEN are being murder globally each year according to a recent United Nations report simply because they are female. Where are all the men and boys on this issue???? You guys should be doing something about it because you GUYS are the ones killing all us women and that includes transgendered women. Stop blaming it on women we are not killing ourselves and we are not attacking and killing transgendered people either it is the there way around!
Sometimes you really do need to follow the money. How is it that a culture that wants organic, natural food also wants heavy-handed and costly medical intervention for many of these trans procedures? I think there’s much we can learn from Native Americans and First Nations’ approach to gender identification?
At the time of Stonewall the gay movement was largely a white male movement, which, I would argue, is why “gay liberation” got so much traction in the first place. Women are still lagging behind in terms of gaining full equality. There is a generational divide, to be sure, but Stonewall was not an inclusive movement, and an exhibit on Stonewall reflective of current climate and concerns of LGBTQ constituents would not be true to that particular moment in history. It seems that you would like this to be a completely different exhibition.
Whew! For a minute there I thought you were going to say it wasn’t gay enough? BTW, look at the photos from Stonewall and tell me who you see.
I really enjoy this conversation. As a curator, I must say that a key factor in the curators of the Stonewall show actually speak to some of the issues raised, in terms of their selections and point of view. The survey is from 1969-89. During that time, the issues raised in the article were mute. We did not hear about much more than LGB…the TQ came much later. And then came the +…..As an ally, I have been enthralled by the many contributions and artistry of my L++++++to infinity colleagues. (I came on board as an intern to Heresies when the collective distributed “Issue 3”, a monumental breakthrough for lesbians and other queer people at that time, primarily women. What is most important is that the curators for the exhibition have preserved a moment, albeit imperfect, for future curators to depart from (as referenced for the Brooklyn Museum, seemingly more comprehensive exhibition). Super important that both exhibitions are part of the art history of a highly significant movement in art and culture. BWB
Seems as if too many people complain about the group or sex they belong to. Bake a cake or don’t. Take a deep breath and move on. Stop worrying about what other people are thinking of you, the fact is, they seldom are. I feel bad for women in sports who fought for title IX and are now losing to a transgender team. Why don’t they start their own team. Would love to know the percentage of transgenders, they probably don’t have enough for any team and yet we in the majority must all tiptoe around them. I have had many gay friends and relatives and even one who thought she was a boy in a girls body. We were friends first because we shared other things in common. Peace.
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