Gay Gotham: New York as a Queer Metropolis
In ‘Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture in New York’, a new exhibit at The Museum of the City of New York, charts the early beginnings of queer culture in New York City during modern times (1910-1995), mostly concentrated uptown in Harlem and downtown in Greenwich Village. Chronicling the influencers and artists who culturally shaped the city, ‘Gay Gotham’ presents over 200 works of art, a myriad of media including video, photography, paintings, books, magazines, journals, and other vital ephemera. The show intentionally ends at 1995, cueing the peak of LGBTQ visibility going mainstream, focusing on the eight decades prior during it’s more ‘underground’ status.
Displayed on two levels, the top floor highlights art from 1960 to 1995, and where we see the most recognizable culture makers such as Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, and Tseng Kwong Chi. A blown up still by photographer Chantal Regnault, features a glam Octavia St. Laurent ( a protagonist from ‘Paris is Burning’, the seminal '80s doc about black and Latinx voguers in NYC ) greets viewers as they enter the gallery. Warhol’s ‘Screentests’ shot during The Factory years include celebrities and muses such as Edie Sedgwick, Donyale Luna, and influential museum curator Henry Geldzahler. There is a touching photograph of a youthful Robert Mapplethorpe captured at Max’s Kansas City in 1972 by Anton Perich. Tseng Kwong Chi's photographs show Keith Haring collaborating in a painting performance with the legendary choreographer Bill T. Jones. One of the lead works of the exhibit is an enchanting black and white portrait taken by Cecil Beaton, of Warhol and his beloved muse Candy Darling.
The second floor introduces early LGBTQ pioneers in the arts (from 1910-1960), a William Auerbach-Levy drawing of the magnetic composer Leonard Bernstein, and a black and white portrait of the ballsy movie star Mae West ( a heterosexual ally). Bernstein, known for ‘West Side Story’ and ‘On the Town’, carried male relationships while married, and recruited his mostly gay network of writers, producers, and choreographers to help bring these classic productions to life. Lesser-known culture shifters like the poet and novelist Mercedes de Acosta (featured in a gorgeous oil painting by Abram Poole), who famously had affairs with Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, was a first-wave feminist and suffragette, and very active in political causes. The writer and painter Richard Bruce Nugent, a key artist who was ‘out’ during the Harlem Renaissance published several works on loving both sexes and interracial male desire. Celebrated bisexual photographer Carl Van Vechten, became a self-appointed ambassador of the Harlem Renaissance and would invite well-heeled whites to socialize at happening Harlem speakeasies. There are a few sensual portraits of Alvin Ailey and Anna May Wong shot by Van Vechten in the exhibit. The exalted writer James Baldwin is depicted beautifully in a vibrant painting by Beauford Delaney.
Gay Gotham reveals how LGBTQ artists flourished artistically in this city despite the most harrowing circumstances – HIV/AIDS, marriage inequality, sexual orientation discrimination – and how art will continue to prevail even in today's dark cultural times.
Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture in New York will be on view only through February 26th at The Museum of the City of New York.
A version of this article appeared in Duggal.