Art after Stonewall
A First-of-Its-Kind Exhibit Opens in Miami and Will Headline Art Basel
by Hank Trout
In celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the Stonewall uprising in June 1969, the national exhibit “Art after Stonewall, 1969–1989” will open on September 14, 2019, at the Frost Art Museum FIU in Miami, Florida, one of only three cities in the U.S. to host the exhibit. Although the exhibit is currently being shown in two different venues in New York City (NYU’s Grey Art Gallery and the Leslie-Lohman Museum), the Miami exhibition of more than 200 works—photographs, paintings, sculpture, film clips, video, music, and performance pieces, plus historical documents and images taken from magazines, newspapers and television—will cover the entire second floor of the museum, including the Grand Galleries.
The exhibition was organized by the Columbus Museum of Art and consists of seven sections: Coming Out, Sexual Outlaws, The Uses of the Erotic, Gender and Body, Things are Queer, AIDS and Activism, and We’re Here. The show, curated by the artist and art historian Jonathan Weinberg, with Daniel Marcis and Drew Sawyer, features artwork by LGBTQ artists alongside others who also engaged with the emerging queer subcultures between 1969 and 1989, including Vito Acconci, Diane Arbus, Don Bachardy, Lynda Benglis, Louise Bourgeois, Judy Chicago, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Greg Day, Louise Fishman, Lola Flash, Nan Goldin, Barbara Hammer, Harmony Hammond, Keith Haring, David Hockney, Peter Hujar, Tseng Kwong Chi, Annie Leibovitz, Christopher Makos, Robert Mapplethorpe, Marlon T. Riggs, Andy Warhol, and David Wojnarowicz, among others. This twenty-year period spawned new levels of creativity from these artists as they experimented with varied media and chronicled the avant-garde art worlds, radical political movements, and profound social changes.
The Frost Art Museum is part of Florida International University, home to one of the country’s most diverse student populations. The museum is partnering during the run of the exhibition with Unity Coalition/Coalición Unida, one of the nation’s leading organizations offering cutting-edge programs for Latinx, Hispanic and people of color who are LGBTQ, has provided cultural initiatives for the transgender, gender non-conforming, queer, millennial and centennial communities. Unity Coalition/Coalición Unida will integrate its programming with the museum’s exhibition, during its 9th annual Celebrate ORGULLO Festival, Miami’s premier Hispanic LGBTQ Pride Festival offered every October. As part of this festival, the museum will host one of Miami’s most highly anticipated LGBTQ events of the year, the October 12th annual Gala benefiting Unity Coalition/Coalición Unida.
The exhibition’s being slated to headline Miami’s Art Basel in December is quite significant. Art Basel shines a global spotlight on the city of Miami and is considered one of the world’s leading art fairs, attracting some 70,000 collectors, cultural leaders, artists, and media influencers from around the world. Art Basel will remain on view through January 5. Also, the exhibit has special connections to Miami as some of the artists represented in the show, including Felix Gonzalez-Torres and Martin Kreloff, are from there.
Miami was also home to one of the first nationally-noticed and -reported clashes of the LGBTQ community with their neighbors. In 1977, orange juice peddler and former beauty queen Anita Bryant and her “Save Our Children” group led a campaign to overturn a Miami-Dade County ordinance that prohibited discrimination against LGBTQ folks. The story about the brouhaha with Bryant was covered nationally in print and on television—the first time LGBTQ discrimination had ever been covered at such length and in such detail. So it seems appropriate that Miami would host this exhibit.
The Stonewall riots were a flash point in the LGBTQ rights movement. This exhibition is the first to examine the impact on visual culture of the first two decades of queer art-making that followed the uprisings, a far-ranging visual history of the highs and lows of twenty years in American queer life. Much has been written about the Stonewall uprising, particularly during this year of celebrating its profound impact on the American LGBTQ rights movement. But scant little has been done to bring attention specifically to queer art produced during the twenty years that succeeded the uprising. This exhibition aims to correct that situation, featuring the well-known (Arbus, Bachardy, Bourgeois, Goldin, Leibowitz, Mapplethorpe, Riggs, Warhol, Wojnarowicz) and elevating the relatively unknown.
Some of the artwork in this exhibit may be widely known throughout our communities. I daresay most of us have seen Diana Davies’ and Ann Patricia Meredith’s photographs of LGBTQ marches and protests, particularly Davies’ photos of Marsha P. Johnson, one of the heroic transgender women who played a significant role in the Stonewall riots. I suspect just as many of us have seen Martin Kreloff’s Journey to Romance: A White Party at Vizcaya, his 1985 poster for the first White Party held in Miami as a benefit for the Healthy Crisis Network. Equally memorable is Peter Hujar’s 1970 Gay Liberation Front, Come Out, a photo of women and men from GLF joyfully locking arms and walking down Christopher Street, which they used in their advertising and recruiting posters.
Of course, because the AIDS pandemic began a short twelve years after Stonewall, a large portion of the artwork featured in this exhibit is art made in response to unimaginable grief and chaos and loss the pandemic unleashed in the LGBTQ community. Of the many AIDS-related artworks in the exhibit, three stand out for me, for various haunting, heart-rending reasons.
The first, and one of the most powerful images I’ve seen anywhere, is a dark-room print photograph entitled AIDS Quilt (from the series “AIDS Art”), 1989, taken by Lola Flash [A&U, May 2019]. The photo captures a handful of people walking among the panels of the NAMES Project/AIDS Memorial Quilt in 1987 as it covered the Mall in Washington DC. Because of the process Flash uses, “cross-color” (“colors [are] so vibrant, and all hues [are] reversed… blues became reds and white black,” she mentioned in the A&U interview by Lester Strong), the image has a haunting, ghostly quality to everything in its frame.
Two posters created during this time were meant to shock a near-sleeping nation to exactly the consequences of the government’s and the public’s inaction on AIDS. The first, the unforgettable Silence = Death poster created by a group of six men [including Avram Finkelstein (A&U, June 2019)], is one of the most indelible images of the late twentieth century. Appropriating the pink triangle from uniforms that the Nazis forced LGBTQ folks to wear in the concentration camps, inverting it “to turn anger fear, [and] grief into action,” and placing it prominently centered on a solid black field, Avram and the collective created a mesmerizing image whose impact and meaning resound even more today.
Another poster produced by the Finkelstein collective, Gran Fury, is also just as relevant today if not more so than when it was made in 1988. The Government Has Blood On Its Hands is graphically startling—a bloody bright red imprint of a hand has been smacked onto the white background, framed by bold black text—and its message another slap in the face. It grabs, demands your attention and forces us to think about: “One AIDS Death Every Half Hour.” With the recent rash of killings of African-American transgender women and the unexplained deaths of transgender women of color and other asylum seekers who have died in the custody of ICE, this poster truly resonates now, sadly, as much as ever. It reminds us that we may have won a battle or two along the way, but there is still a lot of fighting to do.
Taking an entirely different, more light-hearted, decidedly more playful approach to battling AIDS, the brilliant Keith Haring also painted something to be used as a poster for the very first White Party fundraiser in 1985. Safe Sex is a 116-inch-by-116-inch canvas tarp on which Haring has painted, outlined in white against a solid black background, two of Haring’s signature single-line men, each purple with red polka dots and a green X over his face, masturbating each other and, from the joy radiating out of them and the shaking of their arms and legs, apparently enjoying it quite a lot. Above them is a yellow banner with dark red letters “SAFE SEX.” Haring’s clear message here is that safer sex can still be hot, joyful, shake-rattle-and-roll sex! In a decade and a half, when the prevalent message was that AIDS automatically meant a death sentence, it was reassuring to be told that we could still live healthy, natural, yes even sexual lives despite the virus. We needed a bright spot here and there. Then and now.
Ultimately, this exhibit should be a welcome reminder of the sense of liberation and joy we shared right after Stonewall, of the horrors we survived, and of the strength and heroism of our response—and a thank-you to all the artists involved.
“Art after Stonewall, 1969–1989” will be exhibited in Miami for Art Basel, at the Frost Art Museum FIU (September 14, 2019–January 5, 2020), and then travels to the Columbus Museum of Art (March 6–May 31, 2020).
Hank Trout, Senior Editor, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a forty-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.