At times the fight for civil rights is a straight road pocked with speed bumps; at other times a maddening spiral of detours. It was a battlefield in the early hours of June 28, 1969, when a small group of gay, lesbian and transgender people, herded by police out of a Greenwich Village bar called the Stonewall Inn, just said no: shoved back; threw bricks, bottles, punches. As the police defensively barricaded themselves inside the bar, the fight — since variously termed a riot, an uprising, a rebellion — spread through the Village, then through the country, then through history.
It’s still spreading, expanding the way the term “gay” has expanded to include lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and other categories of identity. And for this summer’s half-century Stonewall anniversary, substantial displays of art produced in the long wake of the uprising are filling some New York City museums and public spaces.
The largest of them is the two-part “Art After Stonewall, 1969-1989” shared by Grey Art Gallery, New York University, and the Leslie-Lohman Museum in Soho. A trio of small archival shows at the New-York Historical Society adds background depth to the story. And at the Brooklyn Museum, “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall,” 28 young queer and transgender artists, most born after 1980, carry the buzz of resistance into the present.
Grey Art Gallery and Leslie-Lohman Museum
‘Art After Stonewall, 1969-1989’
This survey, organized by the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, where it will later appear, is split into two rough chunks defined by decades, with material from the ’70s mostly at Leslie-Lohman and from the ’80s at Grey. Unsurprisingly, the Leslie-Lohman half is livelier. A lot of what’s in it was hot off the political burner when made, responsive to crisis conditions. The modest scale of the gallery spaces makes the hanging feel tight and combustible. And as a time of many “firsts,” the early years had a built-in excitement.
There was, of course, the thrill of the uprising itself, captured by the Village Voice beat photographer Fred W. McDarrah in an on-the-spot nighttime shot of protesters grinning and vamping outside the Stonewall. (One of them, the mixed-media artist Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt has sparkling, tabletop-size sculptures in both sections of the show.) Activist groups quickly formed, and a way of life that had once been discreetly underground pushed out into the open.
The Gay Liberation Front, aligning itself with antiwar and international human rights struggles, coalesced within days after Stonewall, soon followed by the Gay Activists Alliance, which focused specifically on gay and lesbian issues. It was clear pretty fast that both were predominantly male, white and middle class — misogyny, racism and classism have plagued L.G.B.T. politics from the start — and further groups splintered off: Radicalesbians, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), and later, the Salsa Soul Sisters. All the energy produced, among other things, the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March (now the NYC Pride March).
Many of the Stonewall-era trailblazers, like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera — one black, the other Latinx, both self-identified drag queens — were longtime veterans of the West Village gay scene. But for many other people the event prompted a first full public coming out, which was no light matter.
In 1969, even mild affectional acts between same-sex couples were illegal in much of the United States, as was cross-dressing. An arrest — and there were many — could instantly end a career, destroy a family, shut down a future. Bullying gay men was considered normal; violence was acceptable.
As a gay person, you went through the world watching your movements, monitoring your speech, worrying about how much of yourself, just by being yourself, you were giving away. This could make for a lonely life. If, for some reason, you were heedless, or incapable, of acting straight, good luck to you.
So when safety arrived in the form of an army of out-and-proud lovers and protesters, the relief was tremendous. And you can feel the rush of at Leslie-Lohman, in photographs of the first marches in New York and Los Angeles taken by participants like Cathy Cade, Leonard Fink, Diana Davies, Kay Tobin Lahusen (who, in a wall label, is credited as being the first openly gay American woman photojournalist).
Particularly strong among these images is Bettye Lane’s shot of a raging Sylvia Rivera confronting a jeering gay crowd — they had just been applauding an anti-trans speech by the lesbian feminist leader Jean O’Leary — at the 1973 New York march. But no picture can compare in gut-level impact with the short glitchy surviving video of Rivera in action that day. (You can find it on YouTube. I urge you to watch it.)
Women and transgender people are the heart of the Leslie-Lohman half of the show, not only in its documentary components but in the art chosen by the curator Jonathan Weinberg, working with Tyler Cann of the Columbus Museum of Art and Drew Sawyer of the Brooklyn Museum.
Standouts include a Tee A. Corinne-designed coloring book consisting of exquisite line drawings of vulvae; Harmony Hammond’s sculpture of two clothbound ladderlike forms leaning protectively together; and Louise Fishman’s 1973 “Angry Paintings,” acts of controlled gestural chaos that name heroic lesbian names (the critic Jill Johnston, the anthropologist Esther Newton, Ms. Fishman’s partner at the time) and speak of emotions once suppressed, now released.
The Grey Gallery half of the show, which brings us into the 1980s, makes a quieter impression. Partly this is because of a more spacious installation spread over two floors, and to the more polished-and-framed look of much of the work. Political content is, with vivid exceptions, subtle, indirect, which is not in itself a bad thing, though an earlier charge of communal energy is diminished. We’re basically now in a different, more market-conscious, canon-shaping art world, one closer to the museum than to the street.
And though we’re in the era of AIDS, the sense of urgency that absolutely defined that time is missing. This is not to say there’s a shortage of good work. The show would be valuable if it did nothing more than showcase artists like Laura Aguilar, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Jerome Caja, Lenore Chinn, Maxine Fine, Luis Frangella and Marc Lida, all seldom, if ever, seen in New York now.
Here again photography opens a window on cultural histories that would otherwise be lost to memory. Dona Ann McAdams’ shots of performances at the lesbian-feminist W.O.W. (Women’s One World) Café, and other East Village clubs, are reminders of the radical talents — John Bernd, Karen Finley, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Holly Hughes, Tim Miller — that this brief time and vanished environment nurtured.
In the end, though, it was two text-pieces, familiar but reverberant, that stayed in my mind. One, a 1989 print by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, was originally enlarged to billboard size and installed on Christopher Street, near where the Stonewall Inn still stands. It’s plain black field is empty except for two unpunctuated lines of small white type read, as if floating up from delirium: “People With AIDS Coalition 1985 Police Harassment 1969 Oscar Wilde 1895 Supreme Court 1986 Harvey Milk 1977 March on Washington 1987 Stonewall Rebellion 1969.”
The other piece is a 1988 poster designed by the AIDS activist collective Gran Fury. In large letters it commands us to “Take Collective Direct Action to End the AIDS crisis.” In smaller type it acknowledges that, “With 42,000 dead, art is not enough.”
In an ethically pressurized political present, it’s a message I find myself carrying away from a lot of recent contemporary shows.
New York University Bobst Library
‘Violet Holdings: LGBTQ+ Highlights From the N.Y.U. Special Collections’
With the Stonewall Inn — now a national monument (and a bar again; it was a bagel shop in the 1980s) — in its neighborhood, New York University has scheduled several additional events around the anniversary, among them a homegrown archival exhibition called “Violet Holdings: LGBTQ+ Highlights from the N.Y.U. Special Collections,” on view at Bobst Library, across the park from Grey Art Gallery.
Organized by Hugh Ryan, it tracks the history of queer identity back to the 19th century with documents related to Elizabeth Robins (1862-1952), an American actor, suffragist and friend of Virginia Woolf, forward with material on pathbreaking organizations like the Mattachine Society and the Daughters of Bilitis, and close to the present in the form of ephemera associated with the musician and drag king Johnny Science (1955-2007), and the D.J. Larry Levan (1954-1992), who, in the 1980s, presided godlike at the gay disco called the Paradise Garage, then a short walk from the N.Y.U. campus.
New-York Historical Society
The Paradise Garage, or “Gay-rage,” has high visibility in “Letting Loose and Fighting Back: LGBTQ Nightlife Before and After Stonewall,” one of a cluster of dense micro-show at New-York Historical Society. The club’s metal street sign is here, along with some theme-dance fliers, and a mash-note drawing of Levan by Keith Haring. A matchbook from working-class lesbian bar called the Sea Colony, is a souvenir of 50s butch-femme culture in New York. A key fob and a flip-top lighter are relics of gay male sex clubs, like the Anvil and the Ramrod, that sizzled in the ’70s. So plentiful were such pleasure emporia that some activists feared they were sapping the strength of goal-oriented gay politics.
Yet activism is the essence of a second show, “By the Force of Our Presence: Highlights from the Lesbian Herstory Archives,” which documents the founding in 1974 — by Joan Nestle, Deborah Edel, Sahli Cavallaro, Pamela Olin, and Julia Stanley — of a compendious and still-growing register of lesbian history. The items on view represent a small part of the whole but still suggest the arc of a larger story driven by charismatic personalities.
And personality-plus is what you get in a set of separate solo homages to such out-and-proud imperishables as Stormé DeLarverie (1920-2014); Mother Flawless Sabrina/Jack Doroshow (1939-2017); and Rollerena Fairy Godmother (born 1948). All three, for decades and in different ways, served the L.G.B.T.Q.+ community, as guardian angels (Ms. DeLarverie, a biracial male impersonator, worked as a bouncer at lesbian bars); style models (Ms. Flawless was impresaria of countless drag pageants); and cheerleaders (who could forget the delight, in the ’70s, of seeing Rollerena, purse in hand, whizz by?).
‘Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall’
As it happens, Ms. DeLarverie is stage center in this notably youthful and history-conscious — and history-correcting — survey at the Brooklyn Museum. The museum commissioned the artist L.J. Roberts, self-identified as genderqueer, to create a Stonewall monument for the occasion. Ms. DeLarverie is the subject the artist chose to honor, both as a power of example and as a figure whose role at Stonewall — some accounts have her landing the first punch on intruding police — has been obscured. In the sculpture, a construction of light boxes on bricks, her image appears repeatedly, along with those of Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera. (A monument commemorating both will be placed in the vicinity of the Stonewall Inn.)
Rivera, who died of cancer at 50 in 2002, and Johnson, who was found dead in the Hudson River in 1992 (her death, ruled suicide at the time, is still under investigation), are further saluted in a video docudrama by Sasha Wortzel and the artist Tourmaline, and in a bannerlike sequined hanging by Tuesday Smillie.
Friends in life, the two historical figures are tutelary spirits of an exhibition in which a trans presence, long marginalized by mainstream gay politics, is pronounced.
It’s here in the work of the queer graffiti artist Hugo Gyrl, in the diarylike photographs of Elle Perez (a participant in the current Whitney Biennial), in the vivid memorial portraits of murdered trans women by the painter David Antonio Cruz, in the songs of Linda LaBeija, in the internet-based work of Mark Aguhar, a femme-identified transgender artist who died in 2012; and in the hand-sewn textile protest signs of Elektra KB.
For many reasons, protest is a logical direction for art right now. There is still no federal law prohibiting discrimination against L.G.B.T.Q.+ people on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity (although some states and cities have enacted laws prohibiting it). Trans women continue to be victims of violence. The rate of new H.I.V./AIDS transmission among gay black men remains high. And the impulse within the gay mainstream to accommodate and assimilate is by now deeply ingrained. The time has come to hear Sylvia Rivera calling us out again.
Art After Stonewall, 1969-1989
Through July 21 at the Leslie-Lohman Museum, 26 Wooster Street; 212-431-2609, leslielohman.org, and through July 20, at Grey Art Gallery, New York University, 100 Washington Square East; 212-998-6780, greyartgallery.nyu.edu.
Violet Holdings: LGBTQ+ Highlights from the N.Y.U. Special Collections
Through Dec. 31, New York University Bobst Library, 70 Washington Square South; 212-998-2500, library.nyu.edu.
Stonewall 50 at New-York Historical Society
Through Sept. 22 at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West; 212-873-3400, www.nyhistory.org .
Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: 50 Years After Stonewall
Through Dec. 8 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway; 718-638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org,.
Holland Cotter is the co-chief art critic. He writes on a wide range of art, old and new, and he has made extended trips to Africa and China. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2009.
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