Queer Art: 1960s to the Present

First Things First...

From ancient Greece to contemporary art, queer art can be taught through many art historical trajectories. This lesson takes a contemporary approach and can be utilized within surveys of modern/contemporary art or in seminars pertaining to “art and identity” topics. This lecture has two key concepts: censorship and visibility. Until very recently it was not socially acceptable to be out as an LGBT or Q person. As such, queer art over the twentieth century has been shaped by, on the one hand—the need to conceal references to queer identity and experiences and, on the other—a desire for visibility: the cultural imperative to create representations of queer identity because none exist.

Scholars, namely Richard Meyer and Jonathan D. Katz, have explored how mid-twentieth century artists (including Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Agnes Martin) developed visual codes to signify queerness in clandestine ways. After this period, the Stonewell Riots of 1969 marked a shift towards more visibility. This is an event that is largely defined as the “before/after” moment in LGBTQ history, when patrons (many of them queer and trans people of color) of a mafia-owned gay bar in New York’s West Village fought back against a routine police raid. The confrontation was part of a groundswell of activism tied to the protest spirit of the period, including civil rights and women’s liberation, and it led to a new social movement for lesbian and gay rights.

Unlike previous forms of gay activism, gay liberation promoted visibility by encouraging people to “come out” as LGBTQ, rather than remain closeted and/or assimilate to dominant social norms. This ethos was manifested in art as well as art history: artists became emboldened to make art about their sexual identity, and LGBTQ art historians began to recuperate the work of LGBTQ art that went unnoticed, had been censored, or written out of history books. The desire to document and celebrate depictions of queer identity, life, and history is an example of the politicization of sexuality that emerged during this period.

In the 1980s, militant gay activists reclaimed the term “queer” to confront the homophobia unleashed by the HIV/AIDS crisis that emerged in that decade, which disproportionally affected gay men. “Queer” became the preferred label for many people on the LGBT spectrum because of its lack of a fixed meaning and the spirit of social deviance it connotes. Many queer artists embrace marginality as a position from which to create self-empowered narratives that resist dominant understandings of gender, race, class, and sexuality. For others, queer identity has little to do with their art. Queer is a reclaimed pejorative for people who desire someone of the same sex, is pansexual, bisexual, or any other sexuality that is not lesbian or gay, while transgender refers to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender. While queer and trans are often related and overlapping identities, they are distinct and not interchangeable.

This lecture is an overview of different strategies used by queer artists. Many of them are in dialogue with art history. In summary, here are the themes that will be addressed in this lecture:

  1. visibility/documentation
  2. absence/abstraction
  3. critique/intervention
  4. intersectionality/intergenerationality
  5. (other possiblethemes not engaged here: camp/performance/embodiment)

Background Readings

Kehinde Wiley, Alexander the Great, oil and enamel on canvas, 6 x 5 feet, 2007.

In recent decades, art historians have contextualized images of homosexuality and homoeroticism that appear throughout the history of art and visual culture, revising and expanding our understanding of representations of same sex desire, romance, and companionship. A global survey of queer art would include art from Greece, Rome, China Peru, India, Mexico, as well as the medieval, Renaissance, and early modern periods.

  • Whitney Davis, “Homoerotic Art Collection from 1750 to 1920,” Art History 24:2 (April 2001): 247-277.
  • David Getsy, ed. Queer (Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2016).
  • David Halperin, “Is There a History of Sexuality?”, The Lesbian and Gay Studies Reader, eds. Henry Abelove, Michele Aina Barale, David M. Halperin, pp. 416-431 (New York: Routledge, 1993).
  • Harmony Hammond, Lesbian Art in America (New York: Rizzoli, 2000).
  • Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward, eds. Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (Washington DC: Smithsonian Books, 2010).
  • Catherine Lord and Richard Meyer, Queer Art and Culture. (London: Phaidon, 2014).
  • Richard Meyer, Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth Century Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002).
  • Christopher Reed, Art and Homosexuality: A History of Ideas (New York, Oxford University Press, 2011).
  • James M. Saslow, Pictures and Passions: A History of Homosexuality in the Visual Arts (New York: Penguin Putnam, Inc. 1999).
  • Claude J. Summers, The Queer Encyclopedia of the Visual Arts (San Francisco: Cleis Press, 2004).

Online resources:

Content Suggestions

List of Works:

  • Joan E. Biren (JEB), Priscilla and Regina, Brooklyn, NY, 1979, photograph, 1979
  • Catherine Opie, Papa Bear, Chief, Jake, and Chicken from “Being and Having” series, 1991
  • Catherine Opie, Self-Portrait/Pervert, chromogenic print, 1994.
  • Catherine Opie, Self-Portrait/Nursing, chromogenic print, 31 inches, 2004
  • Gran Fury, Kissing Doesn’t Kill: Greed and Indifference Do, printed on postcards and displayed as billboards and bus posters, 1989
  • Fierce Pussy, Political Greeting Card Campaign, mailing, 1992
  • GANG, Read My Lips, xerox poster, 1992.
  • Zoe Leonard, Untitled (detail), installation at Documenta IX, Kassel, 1992
  • Mary Ellen Strom, Nude No. 5, Eleanor Dubinsky and Melanie Maar, video installation, 2004
  • Robert Mapplethorpe, Man in Polyester Suit, gelatin silver print,  1981
  • Glenn Ligon, Notes on the Margin of the Black Book, offset prints (91) and text (78), 1991-1993
  • Harmony Hammond, Hunkertime, wood, cloth, gesso, acrylic, rubber, rhoplex, 1979-1980
  • Sheila Pepe, Mr. Slit, industrial rubber bands, crocheted yarn with hardware, 2007
  • Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled, 1991, billboard, dimensions vary. Installation view at Van Dam Street near Queens Boulevard, Queens (February 20 – March 18, 2012) as part of Print/Out exhibition, The Museum of Modern Art, NY
  • Tammy Rae Carland, Untitled (Lesbian Bed #7) C-print, 2002.
  • Sharon Hayes, Revolutionary Love 2: I am Your Best Fantasy, documentation of performance, Republican National Convention, St. Paul, MN, 2008
  • Juliana Huxtable, Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Catalclysm) from “Universal Crop Tops for All the Self Canonized Saints of Becoming” series, digital photograph, 2015
  • Amaryllis DeJesus Moleski, Instructions for a Home Team, gouache, watercolor, tea, marker, and acrylic on paper, 2014


  • Heternormative (via dictionary.com) – denoting or relating to a worldview that promotes heterosexuality as the normal or preferred sexual orientation.
  • Queer (via urbandictionary.com) – originally pejorative for gay, now being reclaimed by some gay men, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgendered persons as a self-affirming umbrella term. Caution, still extremely offensive when used as an epithet.
  • Transgender (via dictionary.com) – denoting or relating to a person whose self-identity does not conform unambiguously to conventional notions of male or female gender.
  • Intersectionality (via dictionary.com) – the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage.

Questions to address as a class:

Think about the semester thus far. You may have covered feminist issues such as female objectification and “why have there been no great women artists?” As feminists have taught us, the canon of western art history has been shaped by their exclusion. This is true as well for queer artists, for whom censorship has been an enduring issue. While searching for women artists is a great starting point for a feminist art history lesson, it is slightly more complicated to look for queer artists in art history. A great place to start, then, is asking how does the concept of heterosexuality impact how we understand the history of art? Where are the queer artists, subjects, and patrons in the history of art?

Before beginning the lecture, one important note of clarification is that the notion of sexual identity is a relatively recent invention, which dates to the late nineteenth century and is tied to the formation of modern science and medicine (see Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality Vol. 1 for more information). While individuals have had same-sex relations throughout history, they may not have thought of themselves as “gay” or “straight” until fairly recently. Therefore, it is anachronistic to impose our modern notions of queer identity on the past. We can however “queer” art history by focusing on issues of sexuality, desire, and representation in art and how they relate to broader social constructions regarding sex, race, and gender in any given period.

For example, how and in what ways is heterosexuality depicted and naturalized in the history of art? Has the class encountered and engaged with homoerotic content in art? Can students name a queer artist if prompted? What is queer subject matter? What does the sexual identity of the artist matter? In other words – what makes a work of art “queer”?

Today, if your students were asked to name an LGBTQ artist or two, it is likely they could. In the past year, queer artists such as Kehinde Wiley and Zanele Muholi have had mid-career surveys at major museums. Yet, while it is not unusual for an institution to acknowledge an artist’s identity, gender and race are more commonly discussed than sexuality. For example, Wiley’s sexuality was not highlighted in his Brooklyn Museum retrospective. In 2010 the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC hosted the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the first museum show to overtly explore such issues. The exhibition included a thirty minute video by the gay artist David Wojnarowicz, A Fire in My Belly (1987), which featured an eleven second clip of ants crawling over a crucifix. After conservatives from the Catholic League protested that this imagery insulted Christians, the institution removed the artwork from the exhibition. This confluence of homosexuality and religion revived the “culture wars” of the 1980s-1990s, ideological battles over controversial social issues that shifted the ways in which American art is federally funded. Richard Meyer has argued that such conflicts regarding homosexuality and the creative arts are central to the history of modern art in America. In his influential book Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art, Meyer demonstrates that “outlaw representations” of homosexuality are a direct response to the constant threat of censorship that gay artists face. Some central examples of “outlaw representation” occur within the context of the culture wars of the 1980s-1990s, including the artist Robert Mapplethorpe and the activist art collective Gran Fury, discussed below.

JEB aka Joan E. Biren (1944-) is a documentary photographer and filmmaker who may be thought of as a “movement artist” for whom art is a political exercise. Biren was a member of the lesbian separatist generation of women who came out in the context of the feminist liberation movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s and a cofounder of the influential yet short-lived Furies Collective. The concept of “visibility” informs JEB’s art and politics, as she has stated: “without a visual identity, we have no community, no support network, no movement. Making ourselves visible is a political act, making ourselves visible is a continual process” (“Lesbian Photography – Seeing through Our Eyes,” in The Blatant Image: A Magazine of Feminist Photography, no. 1, 1981) JEB began photographing lesbians because she could not find any images of them elsewhere, such as in Priscilla and Regina, Brooklyn, NY. She said, “My thing was to take pictures of people that other people weren’t taking pictures of, to make visible what was invisible … I always try to present the entire diversity of our communities. That’s very much on my mind in all of my work” (Joan Biren oral history in the Rainbow History Project Digital Collections). Her work was published in two photo books: Eye to Eye: Portraits of Lesbians (1979) and Making a Way: Lesbians Out Front (1987). She also published her work in lesbian separatist and feminist periodicals such as Dyke: A Quarterly and Off Our Backs. Biren’s conception of art was to promote affirming and positive images of lesbians outside of patriarchal contexts—including the mainstream art world. Towards this end, she spent many years traveling across the country presenting slideshows of her work and conducting photography workshops.

Catherine Opie (b. 1961) is a photographer who lives and works in LA. Her identity as an out lesbian shapes her artistic practice yet it doesn’t define it. Opie has said “I am queer and I have represented my own community in the work but I don’t think that necessarily defines my ideas. I don’t think that defines them whatsoever. I think what defines my work actually us more in relationship to underage American identity than being queer.” (Art21). Suitably, her mid-career retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum in 2008 was entitled “Catherine Opie: American Photographer” and was divided into two categories: portraits and landscapes. She has used these two modes to explore concepts of community and identity, organized around sexuality and other lines.

Opie’s 1991 series “Being and Having” consisted of her friends in frontal portraits with assertive gazes against egg-drop yellow backgrounds. These people were chosen from Opie’s group of friends, all of whom exist on a gender spectrum rather than abide neatly by categories of male or female. Visible spirit gum, the adhesive used to attach hair to faces to make mustaches on female bodied people, calls attention to the performance of gender. This theme relates to Judith Butler’s contemporaneous book Gender Trouble (1990), which became a landmark book for the emergence of queer studies. Opie’s “Portraits” series (1993-7) depicted her friends in Los Angeles and San Francisco, many of whom were performance artists or else members of radical sex communities. Their frontal poses recall the work of German photographer August Sanders and their assertive gazes and confident posture are significant images of queer empowerment. Later related series by Opie include “Domestic,” depicting lesbians in their homes across the US, and “Girlfriends,” portraits of butch women. Throughout her career, Opie has focused on queer, specifically lesbian, communities. She has also explored community formation in portraits of surfers and high school football players. Perhaps her most powerful queer works have been her own self-portraits: Pervert, Cutting, and Nursing. Opie’s queer portraits emerged during a time of unprecedented queer activism in the public sphere, in the context of the AIDS crisis. The ways in which Opie presents non-normative subjects on their own terms, against brilliant planes of color, is an example of visibility that complements the brash cultural activism of that historical moment.

In New York, many AIDS graphics were developed in explicitly activist terms, mostly in association with the organization ACT-UP, the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, “a diverse, non-partisan group united in anger and committed to direct action to end the AIDS crisis.” ACT-UP was founded in New York in March 1987 and chapters quickly developed in cities and towns across the US as well as abroad. ACT-UP met weekly, marched in demonstrations, and organized acts of civil disobedience to bring attention to the crisis of HIV/AIDS. Often graphics were attached to bodies—held as placards at demonstrations, and worn as T-shirts or stickers. Some ACT-UP members in 1988 formed Gran Fury, self-described as “a band of individuals united in anger and dedicated to exploiting the power of art to end the AIDS crisis.” For a time, Gran Fury became ACT-UP’s unofficial propaganda ministry of guerrilla graphic designers. They made public artworks that seemed at first to be commercial advertisements; upon closer inspection one realizes that there is an important political message at hand. This cultural activism took the visibility politics of gay liberation and combined them with the appropriation strategies of the 1980s art world. Their graphics helped to alleviate the AIDS crisis by disseminating safe sex information into the public sphere, holding elected officials accountable for their inadequate responses to the AIDS crisis, and by recruiting new activists to the movement.

In a number of early posters, for example, Gran Fury adopted Barbara Kruger’s seductive graphic style, which was subsequently, and perhaps less knowingly, taken up by other ACT-UP graphic producers. Gran Fury’s best-known appropriation is undoubtedly the public service announcement for San Francisco (and later New York) city buses produced for “Art Against AIDS on the Road,” under the auspices of the American Foundation for AIDS Research. Imitating the look of an United Colors of Benetton advertising campaign, Gran Fury photographed three stylish young interracial couples kissing and topped their images with the caption: KISSING DOESN’T KILL: GREED AND INDIFFERENCE DO. The caption referenced and subverted the misperceived risk of HIV transmission and compared to the Benetton ad, only one pair of the three kissing couples was of a man and a woman. If Gran Fury’s sophisticated postmodern style gained art world attention, the collective accepted it only hesitatingly, determined to aim their efforts to the public at large, rather than appease art critics.

In the 1990s, visibility was a key strategy for activists who reclaimed the term “queer.” One tactic was the promotion of flagrant obscenity via vulvic iconography, drawn from cultural feminists of the 1970s. fierce pussy is an activist art collective comprised of queer women that formed in New York in 1991. For its 1992 Political Greeting Cards Campaign, fierce pussy distributed a mailing card pre-addressed (in two versions) to Catholic Cardinal of NYC (John O’Connor) and NY Senator Alfonse D’Amato that featured a large black-and-white photographic reproduction of a woman’s genitalia, accompanied by text “You can’t legislate it. You can’t lick it. You can’t beat it.” The vulvic image used in the Greeting Cards campaign is one of several photographs taken by Zoe Leonard of women in her circle, on the condition of their anonymity. While the images mine pornographic tropes, they also expose the extent to which such tropes are dependent on context. For example, the photograph recalls Gustave Courbet’s painting Origin of the World (1866) yet Leonard’s image is more direct, since it is taken from a straight-on angle. While such a graphic image would seemingly reinforce female objectification, in effect it became personified and empowered when paired with the bold, declarative text. It literally became a fierce pussy.

Leonard’s image provided the source for several projects in 1992: besides its feminist deployment in fierce pussy’s Political Greeting Cards Campaign, the image was used in an abortion rights poster by the art activist collective GANG that paired it with the all-caps phrase “READ MY LIPS” (a decidedly feminist appropriation of the slogan used by Gran Fury and President George H.W. Bush in 1988). Leonard also used it in her 1992 installation at Documenta IX in Kassel, where she juxtaposed different versions of it with seventeenth-century portraits of bourgeoise and aristocratic women in the Neue Galerie. The viewer who encountered Untitled at Documenta with an awareness of feminist art history might have understood its vaginal imagery as distinct from both the central-core aesthetics of the 1970s and the photo-and-text conceptualism of the 1980s. Leonard’s confrontational deployment of sexuality was a decidedly “queer” gesture; playful, yet intent on reconfiguring the means by which marginalized populations are represented in mainstream contexts.

Like the brash strategy of fierce pussy et al, Mary Ellen Strom’s Nude No. 5Eleanor Dubinsky and Melanie Maar (2004) also uses sexually explicit imagery in order to reclaim the representation of women’s bodies from heterosexist historical contexts. The work is a video installation that references Gustave Courbet’s The Sleepers, an erotic painting of 1866, but with a new version of women’s eroticism. The Sleepers depicts two women entwined in bed asleep, presumably after sexual intercourse. Storm’s work is not static, but a meticulously staged video projected at the size of Courbet’s painting. In the video projection, the image transforms into a moving tableau in which the figures caress each other. The piece debuted in a 2005 LGBTQ art exhibition entitled “Homomuseum: Heroes and Monuments” that highlighted works by queer artists referencing the artists who have inspired them. Many of the artists referenced were queers themselves—Jack Smith, Quentin Crisp, but Courbet’s inclusion marks a particular challenge faced by lesbian women. The majority of images of lesbians, including Courbet’s The Sleepers, has been created historically by males for male titillation. It is not until the lesbian feminist art movement of the 1970s that sex positive images of lesbians by lesbians begins to emerge. In Nude No. 5, Eleanor Dubinsky and Melanie Maar, Strom achieves a “lesbian gaze” that reflects how lesbians see each other (regardless of men). While Courbet’s sleepers remain anonymous, Strom names her models: Eleanor Dubinsky and Melanie Maar, two artists who are Strom’s peers. This is not a depiction of lesbian sexuality for the benefit of a heterosexual male viewer (the purported patron of Courbet’s piece was a male Turkish diplomat). Not only are Strom’s models named, but “they [also] collaborate with Strom in making lesbian pleasures available to lesbians, among other viewers,” as Catherine Lord put it in Queer Art and Culture.

Kehinde Wiley is another artist who has mined art history to create new, empowering images of gender, race and sexuality. Born in 1977 in Los Angeles, Wiley is known for his naturalistic and heroic portraits of people of color, many of which are sourced from Old Master paintings. Wiley uses a “street casting” process; he approaches young men on the street, invites them to his studio to look through art history books, lets them choose an image, then paints their picture in a powerful pose while the models remain in their street clothes. The result is larger-than-life paintings with highly patterned backgrounds that ask us to rethink our assumptions about masculinity and art history. The models remain anonymous, and the titles are derived from their art historical source. For his exhibit “Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic” at the Brooklyn Museum of Art he began to replace white women with women of color in art historical masterpieces to add to his overall critique of representation and race in art. Beyond the racial critique there is also a homoerotic twist—Wiley has called male beauty “the elephant in the room” (in 429 Magazine (http://dot429.com/articles/1436-kehinde-wiley-gay-artist-shattering-concepts-of-normalcy); some of his subjects are gay men and Wiley depicts them as bold, regal, and powerful.

Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989) was a gay American photographer who worked primarily in black-and-white and in a studio. He created still lives of flowers, celebrity portraits, and self-portraits, as well as portraits of people involved in BDSM and homoerotic portraits of black nude men, such as Man in Polyester Suit—with a very rigorous and unique formal aesthetic. Rather than a distanced and purportedly objective stance of traditional documentary photography, Mapplethorpe was a participant-observer. That is, he took photographs of people who were part of the subculture he belonged to and of himself. By foregrounding explicit queer sadomasochistic acts, Mapplethorpe was a controversial figure. Yet, his work dealt with a variety of subjects.

Mapplethorpe’s retrospective “The Perfect Moment” was organized into three categories: portraits, interracial figure studies, and flower arrangements. In 1988 it opened at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia where it was favorably received. The show, scheduled to travel to five other museums across the US, was cancelled by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington DC over the explicit sexual imagery, sparking a debate about what taxpayers’ dollars should and should not fund. In Cincinnati, a conservative citizens group campaigned for the Contemporary Arts Center to cancel “The Perfect Moment,” which led to the unprecedented prosecution of a museum and its director (Dennis Barrie of the CAC) for displaying art considered obscene (Barrie and the CAC were acquitted). These debates, known as the culture wars as mentioned above, brought discussions about censorship and artistic freedom into national discourse, and continued well into the 1990s through a series of well-publicized event including the trial of the so-called NEA Four (Karen Finley, Tim Miller, John Fleck, and Holly Hughes).  The NEA Four were performance artists who successfully sued the government after the National Endowment for the Arts revoked individual funding after peer review, due to the controversial themes of each artists’ work. Some important outcomes of the culture wars include the increased circulation of controversial works of art, the influence of such art on new generations of artists, and cultural conversations about the artistic merit of controversial themes such as queer sexuality.

Glenn Ligon is an artist who was influenced by Mapplethorpe, and created a work that simultaneously critiqued the conservative climate of national culture wars and the problematic manner in which Mapplethorpe, a white artist, created homoerotic photographs of black men.  In Mapplethorpe’s publication The Black Book (1988), a selection of his homoerotic nude photographs of black men, he failed to contextualize his subjects within a broader history of racialized tropes of violence and sexuality. Like the photos themselves, the book prompted a range of negative and positive responses. Ligon, a black gay artist, responded to Black Book by “scrawling his reactions to each image on the pages of his copy” (Guggenheim.org) which resulted in the artwork, Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991-1993). Ligon conceived of the work as a retort to Mapplethorpe and a piece on black masculinity more broadly. He installed the framed pages of the book in its original order, on a wall in two rows, and between them, inserted around seventy framed texts by diverse sources including philosophers, activists, curators, historians, and religious evangelists. Some are specific responses to Mapplethorpe’s text, but some are not. All have to do with race in some capacity. In conjunction with Mapplethorpe’s photographs, these texts chart the discourse that suggests the various fears and fantasies that are projected onto black male nudes. For Ligon, this work demonstrates that sex, race, and desire are entangled, which relates to his larger artistic practice of investigating the construction of black identity through words and images.

In the 1970s, Harmony Hammond was a central figure in the development of the feminist art movement in New York City, where she co-founded A.I.R. (Artists in Residence) Gallery and the magazine Heresies: A Feminist Publication on Art and Politics. Hammond came out as a lesbian in the context of the women’s movement and has championed lesbian art, artists, and activism, for example writing Lesbian Art in America: A Contemporary History in 2000 Along with other feminist artists, Hammond utilized craft materials to reference women’s traditional artistic practices and to rethink the material hierarchy of contemporary art, which traditionally elevates painting and sculpture as fine arts and relegates craft to a lesser realm. For example, in her work, Hunkertime 1979-1980, sculptures are made from cloth, wood, acrylic, gesso, latex rubber, rhoplex and metal. The sculptures in Hunkertime are made from layers of fabric—old rags and clothes—covering underlying wooden armatures. The materials were collected from her friends (“It meant I was literally putting all these women in the work”)  (broadstrokes.org, National Museum of Women in the Arts) and the use of fabric also references women garment workers in Lower Manhattan, where Hammond lived and worked at the time.

In the late 1970s, Hammond utilized abstraction in works such as this and others to expand the field of feminist cultural production. She did this at a time when feminist art was, in some camps, becoming consolidated toward a regime of politically correct content and suitable styles. Alongside more legibly political work, including activism in teaching and writing, Hammond explored abstraction in her art, and today she is well regarded for her queering of this penultimate modernist style. Whereas abstraction in the dominant narrative of modernist art is usually understood in terms of universalism, queer artists and art historians have probed the ways in which abstraction can be a queer mode of representation. One appeal of abstract art is its capaciousness; artists can engage with “identity” without making specific statements regarding race or gender.

In her art, Sheila Pepe (born 1959) also references the work of women artists, especially those involved in the women’s liberation generation of the 1970s. She utilizes feminist tropes to promote feminist art and to build intergenerational bridges. Mr. Slit is made from industrial rubber bands and crocheted yarn with hardware, a response to Faith Wilding’s Crocheted Environment (Womb Room), an influential installation made in 1972. Pepe has said, “Wilding’s crochet work has long been the historical ground on which much of my own work rests. Mr. Slit takes my own crocheting back to its 1980s lesbian feminist roots. It’s a nod to Wilding as well as an overtly sexualized update; I don’t really care about your womb; it’s the other parts that I like” (Brooklyn Museum of Art). Although lesbians were central contributors to the feminist art movement, they sometimes endured homophobia and marginalization from straight women artists. Lesbians were sometimes alienated by feminist content fixated on tropes of femininity such as makeup, childbirth, and domesticity. Both Hammond and Pepe ask us to rethink feminist art history with a particular attention to lesbian issues.

Queer art that references the body by underscoring its absence has a particular resonance in the context of the AIDS crisis. Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Beds) combines an intensely personal point-of-view with universal associations of comfort and intimacy. Six black-and-white enlarged photographs of the artist’s empty double bed were posted as billboards throughout Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Queens in the winter of 1991. This project subverted expectations of billboards in bustling public spaces: no text, no caption, and no explanation, and so instead the works invoke viewers to pause and to look. The introspective, contemplative quality is at odds with how one typically consumes media in the urban public sphere. In the early 1990s, as AIDS was ravaging the gay community, and this juxtaposition of public and private was especially poignant. These were on display at the time Gonzalez-Torres’ lover Ross Laycock died from complications due to AIDS, in January 1991. The series also refers obliquely to the 1986 United States Supreme Court ruling Bowers v. Hardwick, which upheld the criminality of sodomy even between consenting adults in private homes. In this series, absence connotes loss and the bed becomes a contested site that symbolized both love and death, as well as the public right to sexual privacy. Gonzalez-Torres’ used art to address social concerns but did so in a way that also questioned the idea of the unique art object and necessitated the participation of viewers in the public sphere.

Like Gonzalez-Torres, Tammy Rae Carland also created artwork depicting empty, recently inhabited beds. Carland started her “Lesbian Beds” series in 2000, before she had gallery representation. She photographed her friends’ beds, all either single women or couples, all lesbians in their twenties and thirties. Each color photograph is an aerial view of an unmade bed utilizing natural light, taken during the day. The beds are un-staged and mismatched; these are portraits of people “not fully arrived to assimilated adulthood,” as Carland described it. Looking closer, we learn about the bed’s inhabitants from the objects contained within it. In one example, one notices a baseball hat that says “Black Workers for Justice” and the book Women in Cuba, leading us to gather that this bed belongs to a lesbian who is an activist, or at least politically minded. A central issue of lesbian representation is circumventing the male gaze that traditionally creates images of lesbians for male titillation. These photographs reroute visual expectations of lesbian sex by using absence to create a portrait. It’s one approach to the vexing issue of lesbian representation, as outlined above in the discussion of Strom’s video. Carland’s strategy also has the effect of making the images applicable to all viewers regardless of their sexuality.

In class, do a comparison of the Carland and Gonzalez- Torres works. What does the concept of “presence through absence” have to do with queer art? Are these portraits? What does refusing to image do? Possible functions include an allusion to AIDS crisis, circumventing culture wars, rerouting the male gaze, and making the work universally relevant. How are the aesthetics different? Carland underscores tactility–light, textures, color, while Gonzalez-Torres’ images are stark and cold in terms of their constrained palette.

Themes of personal-political and public-private are common in queer art, and the following performance by Sharon Hayes could also work as a comparison with Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled billboards.

Hayes is a multimedia artist who came of age in the New York art scene and the AIDS crisis of the early 1990s. Her practice is thus deeply informed by the identity politics and gay activist concerns that shaped that period. For her 2008 performance Revolutionary Love: I am Your Worst Fear, I am Your Best Fantasy, she invited one-hundred LGBTQ people to read in unison an open letter addressed to an absent lover at the sites of the Republican and Democratic national conventions (in St. Paul and Denver, respectively). These ten to twenty minute texts were read three times over the course of two hours, and addressed political desire and romantic love from a first-person voice. It began “Test, test, test. My sweet love, I know it’s been a long time since we’ve seen each other and this isn’t the best time to reconnect.” The effect was a personal address to the power structures of national political conventions that drew upon the deep relationship between sex and politics that characterized the gay liberation movement. In fact, the subtitle is drawn from a slogan created for the first pride parade—the Christopher Street Liberation Day parade in 1970, following the Stonewall riots of 1969— “I am your worst fear, I am your best fantasy.” Bringing up love and queerness in the context of these events, which were focused on the economy and warfare, Hayes encourages us to critique our contemporary moment and question the extent to which our personal lives intersect with political issues.

Juliana Huxtable (born 1987) is an artist who lives and works in New York and also deals with themes of personal versus public identity. Her name is a reference to the television program The Cosby Show and to her house (non-biological queer family), House of LaDosha, the queer arts collective she belongs to. As one critic put it, “the group saw it as a proper nod to her longing to experience in her trans body, the kind of black normality that the Huxtable family portrayed in the eighties” (Antwaun Sargent, “Artist Juliana Huxtable’s Bold, Defiant Vision” Vice Magazine March 25, 2015). Huxtable is also affiliated with the multi-disciplinary queer feminist art collective Witches of Bushwick. She is a DJ, a poet, a painter and a photographer. In her photography she utilizes digital manipulation, fantastical colors, and editing effects to make her look like an internet avatar with an otherworldly green hue.

Huxtable exhibited photographs alongside her poems in the 2015 New Museum Triennial, including Untitled in the Rage (Nibiru Cataclysmfrom her “Universal Crop Tops for All the Self Canonized Saints of Becoming” series. Herein she depicts herself as, in her words, a “cyborg, cunt, priestess, witch, Nuwaubian princess.” This is a futuristic world in which Huxtable reimagines herself apart from the trauma of her childhood wherein she was assigned the male gender and raised in a conservative Baptist home in Texas. Huxtable’s photographs and poetry offer new ways to think about sexuality and gender in terms of fluidity, rather than fixity. They were displayed in proximity to a sculpture of her by the artist Frank Benson, a reference to the sculpture Sleeping Hermaphroditus, an ancient Roman marble sculpture likely copied from an earlier bronze Hellenistic work. Discovered in the early seventeenth century, the sculpture rests on a marble bed created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1620 and is now on display at The Louvre. Benson’s Juliana (2014) has a prismatic finish that imparts a molten, digital sensibility well suited to the artist’s presentation of femininity in terms of the fluidity of gender and beauty.

Amaryllis Dejesus Moleski investigates femme identity as it pertains to QPOC (queer people of color) communities. In her artist statement, she describes that she wants to “create culturally recognizable images which depict marginalized people in positions of power without referencing the canon of European Art History” and apply the “’voice of authority’ typically used to catalog history in favor the of male European perspective, and apply it to an imagined futuristic mythology of ourselves.” She works on a monumental scale and uses unconventional symbols of power, such as dinosaurs, pugs, and staffs. Rather than portraiture or single-figure compositions, her images contain multiple corpulent and strong bodies, thus creating an empowering vision of collectivity, such as in Instructions for a Home Team. She also draws upon science fiction and feminist theory, explaining in her artist statement: “I am interested in using the future as a site of experimentation, as well as a space to gain freedom and visibility around the conversations of race, gender, sexuality, and class.”

Both Moleski and Huxtable do not reference the art historical past, but look towards the future and create an archive of queer and color femininity that offers a different interpretation of “visibility.” In general, queer can be loosely defined as a norm-challenging aesthetic. For many, especially for these two artists, queer art can not be thought of apart from the concept of intersectionality: looking at sexuality in art entails a consideration of race and gender as well.

At the End of Class...

Catherine Opie, Papa Bear, Chief, Jake, and Chicken from “Being and Having” series, 1991.

Bring up the questions that you began the lecture with and ask the class to reconsider: what is queer art? What is queer representation? How do the representational imperatives of lesbians and gay men differ (if at all)? What can we glean about race and gender (if at all) from these works?

In 2015, queer issues of visibility, identity politics, and censorship may no longer seem as pressing as in previous decades. Yet for many artists “queer” is an important concept tied less to identity (being “gay” or “lesbian”) than to a non-normative sensibility evident in aesthetic practices. Queer may describe facets of embodiment—how we see, create, and inhabit our own bodies. It may also provide a framework to explore social constructs and realities of gender, sexuality, and race through an intersectional lens. This lecture is a brief overview of the ways in which queer art can intervene in past traditions of art, critique the present, and imagine new futures.

Tara Burk (author) is a Philadelphia-based art historian. Her work appears in places such as WSQ and Journal of Curatorial Studies. You can check out more of her work at https://gc-cuny.academia.edu/TaraBurk.

Amy Raffel (editor) is a PhD candidate at the CUNY Graduate Center. She has a Master’s degree in Contemporary Art history from the Institute of Fine Arts (NYU) and has taught Introduction to Modern Art as a Graduate Teaching Fellow at Lehman College since 2010. Currently, Amy is a genome contributor for Artsy and editor and contributor of Art History Teaching Resources.