Mae West is there. So are Leonard Bernstein, Harmony Hammond and Andy Warhol.
From among more than 200 works — photographs, paintings, postcards, letters and other materials — the city’s present, past and even distant gay culture surfaces from its sometimes secretive, often subversive and certainly marginalized scene to claim a space. A space called “Gay Gotham.”
The Museum of the City of New York’s exhibit focuses on 10 prominent 20th century New York LGBTQ artists. The roughly 200 works within “Gay Gotham” are an attempt by curators Donald Albrecht’s and Steven Vider’s effort seeking to add freshness and another dimension to their chosen artists’ work.
“When I was curating another show, I came to realize that the LGBTQ community was hidden and underground, which separated and fostered the need for community and networks and collaborations amongst these people,” Albrecht said. “I noticed that they start sort of in the 20s and continue to the present day, but this show focused on the teens through the 90s.”
While the sexuality of many of the artists represented in “Gay Gotham” was known within their communities, it was otherwise kept largely hidden from the general public.
“The personal and professional repercussions back then were very real,” artist Harmony Hammond said during a panel about art and underground culture in New York that launched Gay Gotham. “When I coedited the lesbian art issue of Heresies Magazine in 1977, we found it extremely difficult to find historical material or to even convince contemporary lesbian artists to submit their work.”
The following year, when Hammond helped organize “A Lesbian Show” exhibition in SoHo, an alt-white lesbian artist was threatened to be dropped by her dealer if she participated, Hammond said. She said the treatment of LGBTQ artists of color was even worse.
Feminist artist Liza Cowan’s experiences during that time period echoed Hammond’s. But Cowan said that an important difference between gay and lesbian art was that lesbian art deviated from eroticism and largely concentrated on empowering other women. She suggested that was one of “Gay Gotham’s” shortcomings.
“It was very beautifully designed and laid out and comprehensive,” Cowan said of the exhibit. “It did however focus mostly on gay men, but there is so much of lesbian culture that was left out — so much about women, really, that was left out.”
Cowan created and edited DYKE Magazine, which focused on and celebrated lesbian feminist activism, and she said that the lesbian art and politics of the 1990s was very creative and intricate, though it was largely invisible to anybody unfamiliar with lesbian art.
But 22-year-old Marcelo Gutierrez said that the sheer symbolism of so many iconic, queer artists in one space and the resulting recognition not just as creators but also as queer, gay, lesbian and transgender was remarkable. Still, Gutierrez said that homoerotic art today is not as valuable as before.
“Because of the internet, there’s porn everywhere,” Gutierrez said. “Now homoeroticism is like finding that moment or seducing someone, so I don’t know if there’s really such a thing as homoerotic art anymore. I don’t know if it’s erotic anymore.”
Even amid the ubiquity of previously underground art, he said, it is important to recognize these artists, since they endured such an unaccepting environment to express their art and identities. Gutierrez also said that it was simply to be able to take in an entire exhibition of LGBTQ art, rather than just a single artist’s work in a gallery.
Basil Rodriguez, and actor and photographer, similarly appreciated the museum showcasing LGBTQ art, and he said that as a gay person, he had sought out homoerotic art since puberty, either clandestinely or overtly. But this occasion allowed him to view and appreciate it explicitly.
“I came to New York in the late 80’s, so much of this is a great memory trigger so for me,” Rodriguez said. “But in terms of homoerotic art, the more that things change, the more they stay the same.”
Rodriguez said that much of the art that shocks and intrigues people today works with the same homoerotic themes that were explored years ago — the exact concepts and art in which the exhibition displayed.
Cowan felt that this selection of art clearly demonstrated how both the LGBTQ community and society have changed over time. But she thought the male-dominant collection highlighted the historically less progressive, open and inclusive treatment towards women.
“What the exhibit doesn’t really discuss is how flourishing — how it was like a Renaissance of — women’s culture, which if you were part of it, it was everywhere,” Cowan said. “That just means there’s time for a new exhibition that is about women.”