The Radical LGBT Art That Sparked a Revolution And Shifted Cultural Perceptions

Stonewall. This iconic name should mean something to all of us as an icon in civil rights and American history. On June 28, 1969, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals rioted after a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. The following year, the first Pride Parades were held in Chicago, New York, and San Francisco to commemorate the event. Since then, they take place at the same time each year around the world, their participants and performances reflecting the diversity and development of the LGBT movement and community. Some of the greatest impact in the movement has been sparker by radical LGBT art.

Visualizing a Revolution

Pride parades were and are about visibility. This connects them to 20th-century Queer Art, which, as Tara Burk wrote, 

"has been shaped by, on the one hand—the need to conceal references to queer identity and experiences and, on the other—a desire for visibility: the cultural imperative to create representations of queer identity because none exist.”

The Stonewall Riot was a point of rupture, prompting a shift towards more visibility, encouraging a marginalized group to “come out.” But the name Stonewall should still resonate with all of us today, as rights of gender and sexual identity continue to be in question.

A Need for Art

Back in the late 1960s and early 70s, bolstered by the civil rights and women’s liberation movements, Stonewall led to a renewed fight for lesbian and gay equality. Concurrently, much of the art produced at that moment shaped the movement or stemmed from activism. Of course, throughout time, artists have challenged mainstream notions of gender and sexuality. Think of Frida Kahlo’s work on the feminine experience, or the German Dada artist Hannah Höch, whose androgynous representations aimed to rethink the “New Woman” ideal.

However, the 1970s saw an upsurge in art that celebrated the many depictions of queer identity. This artwork reflected the complexity of the growing LGBT movement, whose diversity was symbolized by Gilbert Baker’s Rainbow Flag, designed in 1978 with Jomar Teng.

  Rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker at a Pride march in San Francisco in 2015. (credit:    CNN.com   )

Rainbow flag creator Gilbert Baker at a Pride march in San Francisco in 2015. (credit: CNN.com)

Compare, for example, Alvin Baltrop’s (1948-2004) photographs of the gay community of New York’s West Side piers to Robert Mapplethorpe’s (1946-1989) images of the BDSM subculture of the city in the 1970s. In photos taken between the mid-1970s and 80s, Baltrop captured the Hudson River piers, social spaces of refuge for mainly gay African-Americans. Like Mapplethorpe, he photographed people he knew, and he participated in the communities he depicted. The two revolutionaries in LGBT art thus shaped a space of non-objective documentary photography that bridged the boundary between art and erotica.      

Who was Robert Mapplethorpe?

This was especially the case with Mapplethorpe, who worked almost exclusively in the studio and the black-and-white photographic medium. Born in Queens, Mapplethorpe learned his craft while anchored amid Lower Manhattan art and subcultural scenes. Portraits of his contemporaries and friends, from Grace Jones and Patti Smith to Louise Bourgeois and Andy Warhol, figured alongside his representations of homoerotic figures and sexual activities. This brought up debates on objectification and pornography in art throughout his career, culminating in the controversy and government intervention surrounding his 1989 exhibition “The Perfect Moment.”

Mapplethorpe’s work was a powerful mechanism that shaped ideas on bodies and sexuality. Sculptural, stylized and phallocentric, his still-lifes of flowers resonated with his nude studies of black bodies, female bodybuilders, and fashion models. These figure studies emulated and re-appropriated the platonic ideal, with their Classical and religious undertones and rigorous aesthetic. This celebration of the—often—gay body coincided with a period where these bodies were largely vilified and censured, due to the HIV/AIDS crisis.

LGBT Art and the AIDS Epidemic

The 1980s witnessed a reaction against this crisis with renewed homophobia, as gay individuals were disproportionately affected with the disease. In relation, the term “queer”—with all its associations of rebelliousness and deviance—began to be re-appropriated in relation to LGBT art and culture. The world of activism also responded, notably with the 1987 creation of ACT-UP, an organization that promoted action surrounding AIDS education and research, as well as exposing the government’s disregard for these matters. It made sense that the notion of visibility underscored the graphics and artwork that accompanied the movement. Supporters wore recognizable graphics on pins, T-shirts and on the signs they carried in marches. Like the usage of the once pejorative term “queer,” they reclaimed the pink triangle symbol (a label for homosexuals during the Nazi regime) to express their presence and pride.

The Radical LGBT Art That Sparked a Revolution And Shifted Cultural Perceptions

ACT-UP signs marked with the phrase “Silence = Death” anticipated the future logo of The Human Rights Campaign (an organization that has worked for gay and lesbian rights legislation from its inception in 1980). In 1995 the design firm Stone Yamashita created its new logo, a blue square with yellow “equal” lines, to underscore the simple message of equality. And let’s not forget the vital art collective Gran Fury, the offshoot and graphics design arm of ACT-UP, who merged art, activism, and education. One of their potent messages was: “Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do.”

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Who was Keith Harring?

Keith Haring (1958-1990), a now iconic pop artist from Pennsylvania who was renowned for his cartoon-like style images also helped bring AIDS awareness to the public. Although he produced work for just a short time before his premature death a few months shy of his 32nd birthday, Haring’s influence is all around us today. His colorful images have become a symbol for the LGBT movement. Perhaps your morning commute passes by his Crack is Wack mural (1986) on New York’s FDR Drive, or you’ve seen any other of his public artworks that still survive? If not, you’ve surely seen his work without knowing it, as it’s channeled every day by young street artists and other creative thinkers worldwide. 

It was in New York that he found his artistic vision and purpose. In the early 1980s, he saw blank advertising panels covered in black paper in a subway station, on which he applied his dynamic drawings of abstract line figures in white chalk. Soon his LGBT art could be found all over the New York subway system. The subway became, as Haring said, a ‘laboratory’ for working out his ideas and experimenting with his simple lines. As he worked he also met and interacted with commuters. The subway epitomized the central message of his work, with its focus on people, life, and openness. 

Bodily Art

Although they couldn’t be more different in terms of style, his and Mapplethorpe’s shared interest in the body is perceptible. How many of you have seen Haring’s mural “Once Upon a Time”? Installed in the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual & Transgender Community Center on New York’s West 13th Street, John Sherman described it as “an intricate, interwoven array of anthropomorphized penises and monstrous spermatozoa, which climb the walls and swim look-the-loops around the room’s corners.” He painted it in 1989, the same year he created the Keith Haring Foundation, to provide funding and imagery to AIDS organizations and children’s programs. And today his work stands as a timeless symbol of a period in New York when the disease took the lives of many in the art world, including Mapplethorpe’s and his own in 1990.

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Artwork that spoke to death, loss and memory was thus incredibly powerful in the context of the AIDS crisis. Certain representations of bodies highlighted their absence, seen for example in Shelburne Thurber’s (b. 1949) images of empty hotel rooms (1989) and Félix González-Torres’ (1957-1996) photographs of his own empty double bed, presented as billboards throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens following the loss of his partner in 1991. Opposing representations of Classical, idealized bodies by artists like Mapplethorpe were those that underscored fragility. Kiki Smith’s (b. 1954) All our Sisters (1989), a muslin banner printed with 80 female figures alongside a hanging naked body in papier mâché, spoke specifically to the defencelessness of female bodies, the unspoken culprit for many women AIDS victims. Works such as this owe much to Judy Chicago’s (b. 1939) The Dinner Party (1979), on permanent display at the Brooklyn Museum’s Elizabeth A. Sackler Center for Feminist Art: a ceremonial banquet with thirty-nine place settings, each alluding to the presence of an important woman who has been written out of history.

Feminist Art

1970s feminists inspired later artists to make more visible the narratives and identities that are hidden or forgotten, from the radical 1990s output of the lesbian art collective fierce pussy to Laurie Toby Edison’s (b. 1942) photographs of fat, female bodies. Zanele Muholi’s (b. 1972) work on the black—often queer and transgender—female body is of particular note. Take her recent exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum’s Sackler Center “Isibonelo/Evidence.” There you would have seen her Faces and Phases portrait series, beautiful representations of South African queer identity that express the people (Faces) and their transition from one stage of sexuality or gender expression to another (Phases). She especially wants viewers to ask questions about their own contribution to the politics of representation: “what does an African lesbian look like? Is there a lesbian aesthetic or do we express our gendered, racialized and classed selves in rich and diverse ways? Is this lesbian more ‘authentic’ than that lesbian because she wears a tie and the others not? Is this a man or a woman? Is this a transman? Can you identify a rape survivor by the clothes she wears?”

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Resistance and self-empowerment are at the heart of Muholi’s artistic inquiries, which helped make strides in recent activism, including transgender rights and the 2010 repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell. But the work of her and many artists are still enormously important today in the fight to resist dominant understandings of gender, race, class, and sexuality—in light of new conservative persecution from the Trump White House. All the more reason to keep the name “Stonewall” on the tip of your tongue.