Why Is It So Hard To Get An Institutional Show On Queer History Right?: A Look At ‘Gay Gotham’

Installation view of Gay Gotham at the Museum of the City of New York (all photos by author)

Installation view of Gay Gotham at the Museum of the City of New York (all photos by author)

Are all major institutional exhibitions on queer culture doomed to fail? That’s what it unfortunately seems like, especially in the wake of self-asserted “groundbreaking” exhibitions like Art AIDS America (though not identity-based per se, obviously touched on queer culture and activism) and more recently, the Museum of the City of New York’s Gay Gotham.

Curated by Stephen Vider and Donald Albrecht, Gay Gotham suffers from a flawed organizational strategy that overpowers the strength of some of the individual pieces in the show. In many ways, the exhibition is reminiscent of Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward’s Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture and it’s not just the inclusion of Larry River’s gigantic portrait of poet Frank O’Hara. The show similarly strives to represent gay culture in the 20th century as a vibrant community of illuminated artists and thinkers. Though even Hide/Seek suffered some representational holes, it, at least, will always be the first and still the most successful institutional show tackling queer history and art. Gay Gotham isn’t quite so lucky.

I won’t lie–I had a feeling there might be a problem when immediately walking up the museum’s grand staircase, I came face to face with a black-and-white nude behind. While not completely visible, this erotic main exhibition image was such a cliché of a certain gay, typically white male aesthetic–one is unendingly and frustratingly prevalent in the art world. If you’ve been paying attention, dearest readers, you probably know what I mean.

Installation view of Gay Gotham

Installation view of Gay Gotham

Inside the two galleries on the second and third floors, the exhibition centers around ten figures in New York’s 20th century. These figures line the periphery with large photographs of each individual demarcating their section in the show. In the center of each gallery, Vider and Albrecht placed random printed materials such as magazines, pulp fiction and other books, as well as photography and large maps centering on Greenwich Village gay life, the Harlem Renaissance and activism.

Yes, you heard that right. Activism is largely restricted to one map, which includes the Stonewall riot and ACT-UP protests. That’s a lot of territory to cover for one map. And with a title like Gay Gotham, which seems to indicate a focus on gay history and the city, that’s more than a little disheartening, especially at a time, when a quick refresher about LGBTQ rights and activism seems crucial.

Installation view of Greer Lankton's section in Gay Gotham

Installation view of Greer Lankton’s section in Gay Gotham

As for the ten figures, it should be no shock that the white gay men largely outnumber cisgender women (two: Harmony Hammond and Mercades de Acosta who, sadly, is mainly represented as a woman who bedded famous ladies like Greta Garbo), transgender individuals (one: Greer Lankton) and people of color (two: Richard Bruce Nugent and Bill T. Jones). This doesn’t mean, however, that I wasn’t excited by some of the inclusions, primarily Greer Lankton who has posthumously become a more household name after Participant Inc.’s game-changing retrospective.

Other inclusions presented figures that I had never heard of before like Richard Bruce Nugent, an openly gay black writer and artist central to the Harlem Renaissance. His drawings of Oscar Wilde’s Salome resembled fashion illustrator Antonio Lopez’s 1970s and 1980s disco shocks of color and jagged lines. Not only were these watercolors electric, they also, along with the rest of his section, directly countered the view that gay culture only “came out” after Stonewall.

Watercolors by Richard Bruce Nugent

Watercolors by Richard Bruce Nugent

And to give the curators some credit, Gay Gotham, at least, achieves a counterargument to that progressive revisionist history. This intent to document and celebrate the enduring creativity of 20th century gay life in New York mirrors George Chauncey’s seminal and captivating book Gay New York. Like Gay New York, Gay Gotham, as Chauncey writes, “challenges the three widespread myths about the history of gay life before the rise of the gay movement, which I call the myths of isolation, invisibility and internalization” (1-2).

And beyond just undermining this assumed queer history, I understand that the curators’ focus on these ten figures was an attempt, no matter how misguided, at representing the importance of queer community and kinship. On paper, at least, this is a compelling notion, particularly if the curators succeeded at showcasing how these various circles became de facto families for those alienated from their given ones.

Installation view of Chantal Regnault's ballroom photos

Installation view of Chantal Regnault’s ballroom photos

In her article “Queer Kinship and Ambivalence: Video Autoethnographies by Jean Carlomusto and Richard Fung,” Julianne Pidduck reflects on the trouble relationship many queer individuals have to kinship. She describes, “Nonetheless, the relationship between kinship and lesbian, gay and queer experience, politics, thought and cultural production is an anguished and contested one. For subjects frequently marginalized or excluded from its fold, “family” carries a tremendous allure of love and belonging–even as heteronormative political, legal and theoretical discourses circumscribe kinship to normative, exclusive and universalizing structures and composition” (441). Instead, queers find kinship elsewhere, as Pidduck explains, in the “transformative discourse of families of choice” (442).

The show’s organizational structure surely should have given the museum an opportunity to showcase these queer kinship circles. Unfortunately, though, the curator’s attempt to cram ten creatives into two small exhibition spaces meant there was little room left to explore the other members of their communities. Take, for example, Warhol’s section. His wall only included a handful of photographs of members of the Factory. Here, the curators missed a great opportunity to highlight the individual power and influence of some of Warhol’s drag and trans superstars like Holly Woodlawn, Candy Darling or Jackie Curtis, examining their accomplishments on stage, film and performance in their own right. But in Gay Gotham, they were only a footnote to Warhol’s genius.

Installation view of Eva Weiss' Wow cafe photos

Installation view of Eva Weiss’ Wow Cafe photos

However, some of the best examples of queer kinship came from outside this ten figure strategy. For instance, one wall on the third floor displayed four groupings of photographs. This included a series of monumental prints by Tseng Kwong Chi with fellow East Village luminaries Keith Haring and Haoui Montaug, a series of Clit Club photographs by Alice O’Malley, a gathering of ballroom photos by Chantal Regnault and campy photos by Eva Weiss from Wow Cafe with performers like Carmelita Tropicana. With these four groupings, the curators effectively revealed the tender attachments formed between these queer individuals, as well as the importance of these communities centered around nightlife and performance.

Similarly, another one of my favorite parts of the show was an illustrated copy of Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s deliciously depraved The Young and Evil. With a haunting and surreal image of a man’s face with glowing white-hot eyes, the copy on view included illustrations by Pavel Tchelitchew, Ford’s longtime lover. This connection also shows the fluidity of queer kinship, as well as collaboration. I also just wanted to smash the vitrine open and steal it.

Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler's The Young and Evil

Charles Henri Ford and Parker Tyler’s The Young and Evil

All this said, I wanted to like Gay Gotham. Like most of my visits to major institutional queer shows, it was bittersweet. On one hand, I’m excited that these artists and history are granted the possibility of a greater viewership and respect (though I wondered what viewers who were less knowledgeable about this history might have gathered from the show. A wall label corresponding to Peter Hujar photographs only described Ethyl Eichelberger as an “East Village artist,” Mario Montez as a Warhol superstar” and Susan Sontag as “who wrote the introduction to Portraits in Life and Death).

On the other hand, I always find myself later reflecting on these major museum shows with disappointment. It begs the question: is queer history impossible to fit into one sweeping overview? Possibly and maybe in some ways, that’s a good thing. Queer history remains elusive and enigmatic, ever ready for the next probable failure.

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