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Art & Queer Culture (All images courtesy Phaidon)

Holding a sign that reads “I am your worst fear, I am your best fantasy,” a photograph of a proud and defiant woman at a gay liberation march in the 1970s opens Phaidon’s newly published Art & Queer Culture, illustrating the dual visions of queer identity by the field of art history. Following in the footsteps of archival exhibitions such as the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek, Art & Queer Culture represents both the worst anxiety and the biggest desire of art history, which has been undeniably slow in publicly recognizing the undeniable contributions and significance of queer culture to art.

Edited by Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer, Art & Queer Culture traces a genealogy of queer sexuality in art from Thomas Eakins and the decadents at the turn of the 20th century to the radical assertion of a gay and lesbian identity in the post-Stonewall 1970s to the life-or-death consequence of art in the time of the AIDS crisis to the more familiar contemporary art of Mickalene Thomas and Wu Tsang.

Despite the sticker stuck to the front of the book, which declares Art & Queer Culture as “first book to focus on the criticism and theory regarding queer visual art,” Art & Queer Culture is certainly not the first publication to investigate the intersection of queer culture and visual art. While not the definitive first, Art & Queer Culture undoubtedly remains an enormous step in the recognition of the role of queer sexuality to the development of visual art in the 20th and 21st centuries.

Crawford Barton, “A Castro Street Scene” (1977), black and white photograph

Through the diverse combination of Catherine Lord, a lesbian artist and critic, and Richard Meyer, a gay art historian, the editors deftly approached the difficulties of centering a book around the ever-shifting queer identity.  Rather than deciding to only represent artists who identify as lesbian or gay, the editors investigate the role of a more generalized queer visual culture throughout art history, allowing for a wide range of identities, histories and practices.

As the editors explain in their introduction:

“We trace the push and pull of different historical moments and social contexts, the vehemence of proclamation and suppression and the shifting possibilities and constraints of sexual identity.”

Selecting only one work per artist, the publication is still over 400 pages long, a testament to the legacy of queer visual art.  With this restriction of one work of art, refreshingly no artist, period or style emerges from Art & Queer Culture as more important or integral to its history.

Along with icons of art history such as Jasper Johns and Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Art & Queer Culture also combines fine art with other visual images such as 1950s men’s physique magazines and lesbian pulp fiction novels such as Art Colony Perverts (“They Lived Their Art in Depraved Orgies”).  Revealing the similarities and influences between fine art and sleazy pop culture, Lord and Meyer play with the distinction between public and private and high and low culture.

Charles ‘ Teenie’ Harris, Group portrait of four cross-dressers posing in a club or a bar in front of a piano, including Michael ‘Bronze Adonis’ Fields, on left, and possibly ‘Beulah’ on right, 1955, black and white photograph (Collection: Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh)

One of the strengths of Art & Queer Culture lies in its disruption of the progressive idea of the march from the closet to liberation after Stonewall in 1969.  While oppression and repression were certainly prevalent, Art & Queer Culture presents art of and by queer individuals who, by all appearances, lived proudly out of the closet like Carl Van Vechten’s photograph of “Gladys Bentley, February 27, 1932” (1932) who was “Harlem’s celebrated cross-dressing bulldagger crooner, legendary for wreaking salacious havoc on contemporary lyrics and putting the moves on women in her audiences.”  While I am familiar with most queer visual art after Stonewall, the representation of pre-liberation queer culture inspired me such as in Charles ‘Teenie” Harris’s 1955 photographs of beautiful Pittsburgh drag queens.

In addition to the large quantity of artwork, Art & Queer Culture should also be commended for the inclusion of over 100 pages of text and theory at the end of the book.  From Oscar Wilde’s unquestionably witty testimony in his infamous obscenity trial to David Wojnarowicz’s gut-wrenching, impassioned and controversial essay “Postcards from America: X-Rays From Hell” to Judith Butler’s transgender theory, the placement of these texts at the back of the text asserts not only the importance of literature and theory to the understanding of visual art, but also to the understanding of queer culture, identity and history.

Félix González-Torres, “Untitled (Billboard)” (1992), photograph on billboard

Paving the way for future publications and exhibitions on queer visual art, Art & Queer Culture provides a solid, engaging and educational basis for future writers, critics, art historians and art enthusiasts.  Even though Art & Queer Culture stands as an important moment in the recognition of queer sexuality in art history, it could undeniably be expanded on.  Even though Lord and Meyer acknowledge it in the text itself, Art & Queer Culture presents a limited Western vision of queer art history.  However, this flaw only opens the possibilities for future writers and publishers to investigate a non-Western queer art history.

In a performance entitled Revolutionary Love 1 (I am your Worst Fear) and Revolutionary Love 2 (I am your Best Fantasy) in 2008, Sharon Hayes advertised for participants, asking for:

“We are looking for lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, transmen, transwomen, queers, fags, dykes, muff divers, bull daggers, queens, drama queens, flaming queens, trannies, fairies, gym boys, boxing boys, boxing girls, pitchers, catchers, butches, bois, FtoMs, MtoFs, old maids, Miss Kittens, Dear Johns, inverts, perverts, girlfriends, drag kings, prom queens, happy people, alien sexualities and anything else you want to be or are and wish to bring out for the event.”

After reading Art & Queer Culture, I can only hope that future writers, publishers and editors pursue the investigation into the artistic representation of all of the queer identities listed by Sharon Hayes.

Art & Queer Culture is available from Phaidon. 

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Emily Colucci

Emily Colucci is a recently graduated NYU interdisciplinary Master's student with a focus on art history and gender/sexuality studies. Her interests lie in graffiti, street art and New York-based art from...