Gay Gotham: New York as a Queer Metropolis

Gay Gotham: New York as a Queer Metropolis

Andy Warhol and Candy Darling, New York, photo by Cecil Beaton, 1969. ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

Andy Warhol and Candy Darling, New York, photo by Cecil Beaton, 1969. ©The Cecil Beaton Studio Archive at Sotheby’s

From left, Whitney Elite, Ira Ebony, Stewart and Chris LaBeija, Ian and Jamal Adonis, Ronald Revlon, House of Jourdan Ball, New Jersey, photo by Chantal Regnault, 1989. Photo © Chantal Regnault

From left, Whitney Elite, Ira Ebony, Stewart and Chris LaBeija, Ian and Jamal Adonis, Ronald Revlon, House of Jourdan Ball, New Jersey, photo by Chantal Regnault, 1989. Photo © Chantal Regnault

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.

New York Magazine,June 20, 19941994Courtesy New York Magazine

New York Magazine,June 20, 19941994Courtesy New York Magazine

Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Dobus poster, design by Gran Fury for Art Against AIDS/On The Road and Creative Time, Inc. 1989, Gran Fury, Courtesy The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division

Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Dobus poster, design by Gran Fury for Art Against AIDS/On The Road and Creative Time, Inc. 1989, Gran Fury, Courtesy The New York Public Library Manuscripts and Archives Division

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.

Gladys Bentley at the Ubangi Club in Harlem, photo by Sterling Paige, early 1930s. Courtesy of the Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY

Gladys Bentley at the Ubangi Club in Harlem, photo by Sterling Paige, early 1930s. Courtesy of the Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY

Alvin Ailey, photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1955, Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Carl Van Vechten, 63.4.9. Used with permission of The Van Vechten Trust

Alvin Ailey, photo by Carl Van Vechten, 1955, Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Carl Van Vechten, 63.4.9. Used with permission of The Van Vechten Trust

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.

Einsteins “Circus” window display by Greer Lankton and Paul Monroe, dolls and photo by Greer Lankton, 1986. Courtesy Paul Monroe for Greer Lankton Archives Museum

Einsteins “Circus” window display by Greer Lankton and Paul Monroe, dolls and photo by Greer Lankton, 1986. Courtesy Paul Monroe for Greer Lankton Archives Museum

DYKE, A Quarterlyflyer, design by Liza Cowanc. 1974Courtesy Liza Cowan and Penny House

DYKE, A Quarterlyflyer, design by Liza Cowanc. 1974Courtesy Liza Cowan and Penny House

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.

 

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