Goodbye Lesbian /Gay History Hello Queer Sensibility Meditating on Curatorial Practice Robert Atkins

Goodbye Lesbian /Gay History Hello Queer Sensibility Meditating on Curatorial Practice

Robert Atkins

This piece is dedicated to Felix Gonzalez-Torres, an inspir­ ing artist and activist, who died of HIV-related complications in January 1996 during its editing.

L ooking back at the Stonewall 25 art season (loosely

defined), two emblematic events stand out: Art in

America’s “After Stonewall” cover story in its June 1994 issue, and the In a Different Light exhibition at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, which opened seven months later. Both disturbed me deeply. Instead of the var­ ied surveys they implied—the former of a quarter-century of gay and lesbian art, the latter of so-called queer sensi­ bility in twentieth-century art—both virtually erased les­ bian and gay art history of the seventies and early eighties. But the organizers of In a Different Light did far more than that. They not only passed up the opportunity to compile a much-needed historical record of lesbian and gay artists, but consciously rejected the notion of identity politics in favor of an amorphous notion of queer sensibility.

Art in America’s “After Stonewall” package of twelve interviews was conceived and realized by Holland Colter, a talented (gay) art reviewer at the New York Times. To his credit, Cotter selected worthy artists (Ross Bleckner, Nicole Eisenman, Louise Fishman, Lyle Ashton Harris, Deborah Kass, Cary S. Leibowitz [Candyass], Zoe Leonard, John Lindell, Donald Moffett, Frank Moore, Ellen Neipris, and Hugh Steers). They were allowed to speak in their own voices in extended, oral-history-style gulps unbroken even by questions, and they often spoke compellingly. But as a package, the feature remained lighter than air both for the narrowness of the artists selected—virtually all commer­ cially successful and New York-based—and for the limita­ tions of the method itself. At its most problematic, the contemporary-oral-history formal obviates any give and take. This reader yearned, for instance, for Colter’s response to Hugh Steers’s observation that “gay art is a marketing label . . . it’s important to discuss it and expose the fallacy of lumping us all together.”1

As Cotter noted in a very brief introduction to the piece about modern gay liberation and the Stonewall riots that helped trigger it, “the majority [of the interviewed artists] were too young to have known the nascent gay and lesbian movement at first hand.”2 This is an understate­ ment: half were bom in the 1960s and only Ross Bleckner and Louise Fishman were born prior to 1950. Nonexpert readers—almost everybody—would have no idea from these interviews that gay and lesbian imagery even existed prior to 1985.

Where was even a mention of the artists who made the art world safe for the majority of those featured in the magazine? Artists such as Scott Burton, Tee Corrine, Nancy Fried, General Idea, Nancy Grossman, Harmony Hammond, Geoff Hendricks, Peter Hujar, Nicolas Moufar- rege, Jody Pinto, Joan Semmel, Michael Tracy, David Woj- narowicz or Martin Wong? Not to mention Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, who actually participated in the Stonewall riots. As Frank Moore noted in his fascinating comments about older gay artists: “I learned so much from them. It was like a tunnel back into a past… I know a lot of gay artists who come to New York and connect with older artists…. Many people get this sort of thing through fami­ ly, but for a lot of gay people the art world becomes that ancestral lineage network, where wisdom and history are passed along.”3

Cotter’s ahistorical approach surprised me; after all, he and I are part of the baby boom generation that largely came out and pursued our art historical studies after Stonewall. I did both simultaneously. Coming out in gradu­ ate school in the mid-seventies, the accomplishments of gay and lesbian artists fortified me (I wrote my master’s thesis on Francis Bacon), as did the prospects of unearthing the hidden (art) history of queerdom. (This was identity politics, long before the term was invented.) It’s unthinkable to me that any historian could uncouple iden­ tity politics from the establishment of a historical record. Such an approach is misguided. The gains of progressive




Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Strange Bird), 1993, billboard, as installed for Traveling, Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, 1994. Courtesy Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York.

moments—such as the post-AIDS dismantling of the art world closet in the late eighties—must be institutionalized, as the interwar history of gay men and lesbians in Ger­ many, or the more recent (and complex) demonization of feminism, remind us.

Still, the placement of a lesbian-and-gay-art feature on the cover of a mainstream American art magazine was a milestone, even if the cover image (a detail of eco-disaster from u Frank Moore painting) doesn’t read as gay. The problem with such firsts is that they’re rarely followed by seconds and thirds. So it’s a pity that this one signified os a well-intentioned but incomplete effort.

Cotter’s identity-based modus operandi (only the art of elder statesperson Louise Fishman doesn’t telegraph that it’s gay or lesbian made) is precisely what (gay) cura­ tors Larry Rinder and Nayland Blake were reacting against in their ambitious exhibition. In a Different Light. Cata­ logue readers hardly needed to read between the lines to determine the curators’ hostility to identity politics: “Much of what queer artists are doing these days is questioning the value of identity politics,” Blake wrote admiringly?

Whereas Cotter’s artists were selected because they were out lesbians and gay men, Rinder and Blake selected art­ works on the basis of their so-called queer sensibility. Skirting—or at least muddying—the question of sexual orientation, the show included work by important nongay artists, many of them feminists such as Carolee Schnee- mann or Ree Morton. (Despite such relatively fine distinc­ tions, many gay and nongay viewers I spoke with assumed all the show’s artists were same-sexers.)

In a Different Light was, in many important ways, an intriguing and imaginative enterprise. It was also an extremely complicated one, so I’m going to describe it in detail. Comprising more than two hundred contemporary and historical objects, it was the biggest overtly queer show ever mounted by a major American museum. A cura­ torial project-cum-artwork in the over-the-top style of Group Material, it coupled pop cultural artifacts and art­ works—some historical, the majority contemporary. Arranged in nine sections that “move toward ever greater degrees of sociability” (Void, Self, Drag, Other, Couple, Family, Orgy, World, and Utopia), the show intended to



explore “the resonance of gay and lesbian experience in twentieth-century American art, focusing primarily on works made during the past thirty years.”5

The thematic sections proved a mixed blessing. On one hand, there often seemed little conceptual logic for including a work in a particular section; many of them fit into multiple categories. Couple, for instance, included everything from Geoff Hendrick’s Flux Divorce Box and Diane Arbus’s Two Friends at Home (mother and son? denizens of a group home?), to Cary S. Leibowitz’s Tea Set (pot, cup, and saucer) and Richard Prince’s untitled dip­ tych of a woman in a tie smoking. On the other hand, this curatorial free association rarely got in the way of viewers because the works themselves were often riveting.

The best sections were the two that spoke directly to gay and lesbian experience—Drag and Other. The former addressed, in part, the juicy issue of appropriation as mask. One of the show’s best passages consisted of Robert Morris’s famous biker-in-chains poster, Sherrie Levine’s appropria­ tion of a Walker Evans portrait in glamorously abstracting negative, Amy Adler’s photo of her own drawing after Levine’s appropriation of Evans’s portrait of his nude son, and Judie Bamber’s photorealistic graphite drawing of a pony bit that brings to mind a gynecological instrument from a David Cronenberg flick. The latter section, Other, offered some of the most historically rich works in the show. On a single wall, Robert Indiana’s gargantuan homage to Marsden Hartley’s German officer inamorato hung alongside Hartley’s image of a phallic landscape in Mexico. Next to it, Millie Wilson’s five-foot-high (all right, phallic) wig wittily flanked Donald Moffett’s photo light box of a reclining male nude, emblazoned with the words “you, you, you.”

Moffett’s male odalisque jacking off provided one of the few literal erections or vaginas on view. In In a Differ­ ent Light, homosex was out of favor; indirectness and irony, metaphor and perverse gesture, the dandyish and the coquettish, were in. (Blake dubbed overtly gay or lesbian imagery “essentialist” and “retrograde.”) Mike Kelley was represented, but not Patricia Cronin, Felix Gonzalez- Torres, Robert Greene, Leone and McDonald, Frank Moore, or Julia Scher.

Of course, too much effective queer art has recently been produced to fit into a single exhibition. But when it comes to the past, the historical slate is not so clean.

Staged in an era of image glut, the exhibition oddly short­ changed photography. F. Holland Day, Minor White, George Platt Lynes, Duane Michals, and Arthur Tress were completely ignored. Even Robert Mapplethorpe, the embodiment of queer art for most Americans, was only rep­ resented by his album-cover portrait of Patti Smith.

The catalogue embodied a lack of art historical inter­ est currently shared by many museums. (Contextualiza- tion—as this curatorial approach is known—has been carried furthest, perhaps, by the Whitney’s catalogue for its recent Hopper exhibition, which offers only reflections by novelists and others writers about the painter’s influence on their work.) More than half of this one is devoted to a so- called primer of contemporary theory and fiction by widely published writers such as Kathy Acker and Dennis Cooper. (This portion of the catalogue was edited by Amy Scholder, who was not one of the exhibition’s curators.) Although it does include mini-essays by the curators of pioneering les­ bian and gay shows at alternative spaces since 1978, the catalogue contains no historical information about lesbian and gay artists, no real debate about the pros and cons of identity politics, and even surprisingly little discussion of queer sensibility.

Curator Blake does offer a few oddly subjective pages about the supposed antecedents of queer sensibility in Fluxus, feminism, punk, and above all, Duchamp. Blake asserts that Duchamp’s practice “more than that of any other artist opened a space for queers to formulate points of resistance to the monolithic structure of ‘culture.’”6 Despite the fact that the exhibition opened exactly a centu­ ry after Oscar Wilde was officially branded a pervert in a British courtroom, he was barely mentioned. Of course, Duchamp’s gender play and twisted language operate squarely within the deconstructive, antiessentialist tradi­ tion of the flaneur and dandy that Wilde and fellow Deca­ dents like Aubrey Beardsley paraded on an international stage. Being antiacademic and being antischolarly are not the same thing.

Curator Rinder’s comment in print that “this exhibi­ tion has been developed through poetics rather than polemics” is telling.7 I take it to mean that the exhibition’s organizers rejected identity as too politicized or politically correct an organizational scheme in favor of an m.o. that privileged art over artists. Such an interpretation gives



added meaning to Rinder and Blake’s observation that much of the exhibited art “has less to do with representing gay and lesbian lives than with conveying gay and lesbian views of the world.”8 Their view is, I believe, both apoliti­ cal and over-aestheticized. (Stonewall itself barely regis­ tered in the exhibition. There was nary a mention of the event itself nor, once again, of its formative influence on the sensibility of exhibited artist Thomas Lanigan- Schmidt.) The difficulty the University Art Museum had raising the relatively modest $150,000 necessary to mount the exhibition attests to the politicization of public art institutions. (No major exhibition since Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party has relied so completely on funding from nonpublic and nonfoundation sources.) Is it still possible not to lake sides in such matters?

The Berkeley exhibition also raises the issue of how to curate a lesbian and gay exhibition. (Carefully, to cite an old saw.) In one sense—and you, dear reader, probably aren’t expecting this—the Berkeley curators are right: identity-related shows are not the answer at this moment. (The NEA controversies have provided unprecedented vis­ ibility for gay and lesbian artists, at least as a group. Peo­ ple do know that queer artists exist.) Nor is the right- wing-driven backlash against identity politics without a soupcon of validity. No artist I know wants to be ghettoized; to be considered first an African American artist, a female artist, a queer artist, or an African American/lesbian artist. Such adjectives always demean. (Let me point out, however, that the lack of a historical record of lesbian and gay artists of the past century—unlike female or African American artists—is a galling problem, a view that main­ stream museums and publishers have yet to embrace.)

One of the few recent instances of an exhibition in which identification based on sexual orientation is relevant was Division of Labor: “Womens Work” in Contemporary Art, which traveled from the Bronx Museum to the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles last year. It included work by men, the majority of whom are openly gay. Curator Lydia Yee’s attention to multicultural issues inexplicably didn’t translate into an interest in sexual orientation when discussing specific artworks. My concern is less a matter of bean-counting than of carrying intellectual inquiry to its logical conclusion: if sewing is gendered art practice, it is also, based on the evidence in this exhibition, a sexed prac­

tice as well. But few identity-oriented exhibitions (e.g., a hypothetical Queer Printmakers from New York) hinge on such matters. (In the case of the AIDS exhibition I co-curat- ed with Thomas Sokolowski—From Media to Metaphor: Art about AIDS, which was the first major touring exhibition of its kind—it seemed vitally important to include non­ queer artists so that gay and AIDS identities not appear to coincide.)9

Having rejected the identity-related model, what’s a curator (like Rinder or Blake) to do? Reading the catalogue comments of curators of previous gay exhibitions is instruc­ tive. One senses how little has changed in curatorial think­ ing, while everything has changed in the (art) world. AIDS has decimated the art-world closet, but too few gay/lesbian art professionals seem to realize the significance of this. Group (i.e., lesbian and gay) visibility need no longer be the highest priority in queer curating, especially if it comes at the expense of the most effective presentation of work by lesbian and gay artists. (I’m reminded of Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, Against Interpretation, in which she presciently warned against the now-ubiquitous style of art criticism— and curating—that “by reducing art to its content and then interpreting that . . . tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable.”)10

Of course, art-world gay visibility is relatively new. Prior to the mid-1980s, out gay artists were as scarce as progressive Republicans are today. Dan Cameron’s Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contempo­ rary Art at New York’s New Museum in 1982, the only other major contemporary queer exhibition at an American museum, was compromised by the reluctance of so many artists to participate—i.e., come out. Interestingly, Cameron employed virtually the same curatorial approach to which Blake and Rinder would turn more than a decade later. He titled his introductory essay “Sensibility as Con­ tent” and similarly attempted to broaden the scope of his exhibition beyond what he defined (and exhibited) as “homosexual subject matter” or “ghetto content,” which consisted of figurative, sometimes blatant, representations of gay life and sexuality.11 Unlike Rinder and Blake, Cameron had a very small pool of known artists from which to draw his exhibition.

Cameron also had to deal with issues of closetedness that now seem more appropriate to the examination of his-



Drag and Self sections of In a Different Light, 1995. University Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, University of California at Berkeley.

torical, rather than contemporary art. “To assume that gay content cannot be present without a strong and clear indi­ cation that somone involved has sex with members of the same gender,” Cameron wrote, “is to underestimate both the flexibility of the idea of content and the gay imagina­ tion.”12 Cameron’s need to grapple with closeted or repressed contemporary artists suggests just how much has actually changed in fourteen years. To crack the codes of historical artists, however, is to attempt to regain access to their sensibilities and historical circumstances, just as queer historians have discovered that red ties marked on- the-prowl gay men of thirties New York or lorgnettes signi­ fied lesbian Parisians of the late nineteenth century. (Curator Patricia McDonnell’s exhibition, Dictated by Life: Marsden Hartley’s German Paintings and Robert Indiana’s Hartley Elegies, is exemplary in this regard.)13

Sensibility is nothing more, or less, than taste. Susan Sontag popularized the concept in her still-fascinating “Notes on Comp” (1964), which has been largely ignored by nongay art historians.14 In it, she aptly observed that “nothing is more decisive than taste … taste governs every free—as opposed to rote—human response.” How might the concept of sensibility govern an exhibition? We’re used to exhibitions of, or about, a collecting or curatorial sensi­ bility. Recall the blockbuster about Dresden’s historical

collections, the frequent exhibitions celebrating the dona­ tion of a treasure-trove of works to a museum, or those, such as the recent Whitney Biennials, in which the subtext is the sensibility of an individual curator. But how can this notion operate in relation to a show (In a Different Light) that is billed as a survey of both the historical and contemporary work of “gay, lesbian, and ‘queer’ artists”? Might there be some middle ground between an exhibition formulated by a committee that includes art historians and one selected by two gay males of a similar age and similar enough taste? Surely there is more than one gay or even queer sensibility operating in our late twentieth-century Republic,

In urban areas like New York and San Francisco, the concept of gay sensibility now seems to evoke a more romantic, closeted era before everybody was gay. That Blake could refer to overtly gay figurative work as essen- tialist also suggests that identity and sensibility now com­ prise a curatorial dichotomy that for some corresponds to (he problematic dichotomy of essentialism versus social construction.

Generational politics are, of course, at the heart of this dichotomy. Queer is the gender-common alternative to the Stonewall-derived activism embodied in the terms gay and lesbian. Although many of us have no trouble being variously queer or gay, some lesbians and gay men do.



Somehow the stridency of gay libbers (absolutely neces­ sary in a homophobic world far-too-unimaginable to twen­ ty-somethings) has been replaced by a perversely dandyish apoliticism. (But certainly not among the members of say, Gran Fury.) This attitude was embodied in a trio of (wel­ come) exhibitions at alternative spaces, including Richard Hawkins’s and Dennis Cooper’s Against Nature (at L.A.C.E. in Los Angeles in 1988), Blake’s and Pam Gregg’s Situation (at New Langton Arts in San Francisco in 1991), and Simon Watson’s Erotophobia (at his Project Space in New York in 1989.) A response to the censorship crisis, this last exhibition was the most politically pointed of the three. That the artistic accomplishments of Stonewall-era artists have been excised from so many surveys suggests an amnesiac sensibility all too American. Generational con­ flict is the raison d’etre of the alternative space; it is out of place in a museum unless it is confronted head-on.

What sort of exhibitions ought gay, lesbian, queer (and nongay) curators organize? Although Stonewall 25 generated a few satisfying, identity-oriented, contemporary group exhibitions, most of the rest possessed no discernible reason for being, apart from the festive circumstances of the moment. (In the New York area, the collectively organized Outrageous Desire show at Rutgers University stood out for its inclusion of the seventies generation; as did Bill Am- ing’s Stonewall 25: Imaginings of the Gay Past—Imagining the Gay Future at White Columns for its opinionated, up-to- the-minute read of queer, predominantly installation-based work; and Joe Wollen’s Absence, Activism and the Body Politic at Fishbach Gallery for its poetic perspective on queer-AlDS art.) In any case, funding for such shows is clearly waning, as many corporate and institutional funders take (heir safety-first cues from the sabotage of the NEA.

As museums increasingly turn to their permanent collections for exhibition resources, historical exhibitions are likely to increase in number. Progressive curators must demand equality, ensuring that the feminist m.o. virtually institutionalized at some museums be applied to queer artists in order to clarify and contextualize their lives and art. (One of my fondest memories as a Village Voice colum­ nist was persuading a straight, feminist-identified Brook­ lyn Museum curator to rewrite a wall label about an image of eight male bathers in a 1992 Frederic Bazille retrospec­ tive to conform to the catalogue’s queer speculations—or to face my comments in print.)15

Contemporary curators face both similar and differ­ ent problems. The most fruitful curatorial approach of the moment may be the presentation of queer artists among nonqueer artists in nonformalist, thematic group exhibi­ tions. A few recent examples are noteworthy. Questions of multiple identity were addressed in the catalogue of Thel­ ma Golden’s Black Male exhibition for the Whitney Muse­ um of American Art and have been far more directly engaged in (gay curator) Norman Kleeblatt’s Too Jewish? at

the Jewish Museum in New York. Where gender issues come into play, queer matters ought to follow (although Division of Labor suggests that this is not always the case). The Masculine Masquerade (at M.I.T.’s List Center for the Visual Arts) and Team Spirit (Independent Curators Inc.’s look at artist duos and collectives) brought canny intelli­ gence to bear on the place of gay and lesbian artists and issues in the shows’ varied constellations of concerns.16

Are prescriptions really possible? Probably not. Flexibility and constant criticism—self and peer-provid­ ed—are essential. Some of that feedback may soon be coming in the form of a recently discussed, transatlantic expansion of the European IKT, the International Associa­ tion of Contemporary Art Curators. Suffice it to say for now that it’s difficult to imagine any thoughtful group show of modern or contemporary art that doesn’t include more than a token number of lesbian and gay artists. After all, to quote the distinctly campy comments of Fran Lebowitz in her 1987 New York Times piece called “The Impact of AIDS on the Artistic Community,” “if you removed all of the homosexuals and homosexual influence from what is gen­ erally regarded as American culture you would be pretty much left with Let’s Make a Deal.”17

Notes 1. Holland Cotter. “Art after Stonewall: 12 Artists Interviewed,” Art in America

82. no. 6 (June 1994): 62. 2. Ibid., 56. 3. Ibid.. 58. 4. Nayland Blake, Lawrence Rinder, and Amy Scholder, In a Different Light,

exh. cat. (San Francisco: City Lights Book, I995), 10. 5. Ibid., 1. 6. Ibid., 14. 7. Ibid., 1. 8. Ibid., 2. 9. See Lydia Yee, Division of Labor: “Women’s Work” in Contemporary Art, exh.

cat. (New York: Bronx Museum of the Arts, 1995); and Robert Atkins and Thomas W. Sokolowski, From Media to Metaphor: Art about AIDS, exh. cat. (New York: Inde­ pendent Curators Inc., 1992).

10. Susan Sontag, Against Interpretation (New York: Dell, 1969), 17. 11. See Daniel J. Cameron, Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Pretence in

Contemporary Art, exh. cal. (New York: New Museum, 1982). 12. Ibid.9. 13. See Patricia McDonnell, Dictated by Life: Marsden Hartley’s German

Paintings and Robert Indiana’s Hartley Elegies, exh. cal. (Minneapolis: Frederick R. Weisman Art Museum, 1995). During 1995 the exhibition also traveled to the Terra Museum in Chicago and the Art Museum at Florida International University in Miami.

14. Reprinted in Susan Sontag, A Susan Sontag Reader (New York: Vintage, 1983), 105-19.

15. The catalogue of this exhibition is published as Aleth Jourdan (et al.J, Frederic Basille: Prophet of Impressionism (New York: Brooklyn Museum of Art, 1995).

16. See Thelma Golden, Black Male: Representations of Masculinity in Con­ temporary American Art, exh. cat. (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994); Norman L Kleeblatt, Too Jewish? Challenging Traditional Identities, exh. cal. (New York* Jewish Museum. 1996): and Susan Sollins and Nina Costelli Sun- dell, Team Spirit, exh. cat. (New York: Independent Curators Inc., 1990).

17. Fran Lebowitz, “The Impact of aids on the Artistic Community,” New York Times, September 13, 1987, H22.

ROBERT ATKINS, editor of TalkBack! (http:talkback.lehman. and author of ArtSpeak, is working on The Gay and Lesbian Looker: How Queer Artists Revolutionized Art at the End of the 20th Century.


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