Gay Gotham: Review

Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture in New York
by Donald Albrecht, with Stephen Vider
Skira Rizzoli

Reviewed by Hank Trout

gothamConfession: I dearly love exhibit-specific museum books. By their weight and heft, they promise hours of poring over exquisitely reproduced photographs and artwork, accompanied by insightful, contextualizing commentary. Thus, when Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture in New York arrived in my mailbox—with Cecil Beaton’s 1969 photo of Andy Warhol and Candy Darling on the cover—I immediately wanted to immerse myself in it.

The book does not disappoint. Produced by the Museum of the City of New York to accompany the exhibit of the same name, which runs through March 2017, Gay Gotham is a stimulating survey of LGBTQ artists who sought and found freedom, support, and inspiration in New York City during the twentieth century. Arranged chronologically, beginning with the laissez-faire bohemianism of Greenwich Village and Harlem in the 1910s and ’20s, through the more circumspect mid-century, to the post-Stonewall days of liberation and the sobering impact of the AIDS crisis on the arts, Gay Gotham explores the role of diverse LGBTQ theater, art, and literary communities in shaping twentieth-century art. The big-name heavy hitters are all represented, of course—Cadmus, Lynes, Beaton, Baldwin, Bernstein, Thompson, Stein, Warhol, Mapplethorpe, Haring—but the book is at its best when it introduces us to the less well-known, like Richard Bruce Nugent, a gay African-American artist, writer, and actor who figured prominently in the Harlem Renaissance, and transgender artist Greer Lankton.

The text, by Donald Albrecht (the MCNY curator) and Stephen Vider, provides chronological and cultural context for appreciating the more than 350 images in the book. The text can seem a bit superficial in places, particularly in the too-brief references to the devastating impact of AIDS on the New York City arts scene, but that may be the inescapable fault of any survey of this scope. Besides, the sheer number and quality of the images reproduced more than compensate for the text’s shortcomings. The 1986 Mapplethorpe portrait of Warhol reproduced here would by itself justify the price of the book.

Hank Trout writes the column For the Long Run for A&U.