"If I went to a lady of the night, I'd probably pay her to tell me jokes."
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Andy Warhol Signature
"I feel ever so strongly that an artist must be nourished by his passions and his despairs. These things alter an artist whether for the good or the better or the worse."
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Francis Bacon Signature
"There's a certain kind of equality I'm trying to create, which is what I believe American democracy is about"
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Catherine Opie Signature
"No prefix, suffix, or quotes"
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"Gay men today want to be ordinary - they want to fit in. Well, I didn't care about that. I didn't care about fitting in. Everywhere is so conservative."
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David Hockney Signature
"Hell is a place on earth. Heaven is a place in your head."
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David Wojnarowicz Signature
"Works of art sometimes help us to feel less out of place in the world. Alongside queer novels, films, poems and songs, art has played its part in nurturing the self-awareness and confidence of queer people around the world."
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Alex Pilcher
"Attempts to trouble the conventions of gender and sexuality to highlight the performative aspects of identity and to oppose the tyranny of 'the normal' are woven into the historical fabric of homosexuality and its representation."
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Richard Meyer

Summary of Queer Art

Any art that can be considered "queer" refers to the re-appropriation of the term in the 1980s, when it was snatched back from the homophobes and oppressors to become a powerful political and celebratory term to describe the experience of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and intersex people. Adhering to no particular style, for over more than a century, Queer Art has used photography, portraiture, abstract painting, sculpture, and collage to explore the varieties and depths of queer identity.

While homosexuality has a long history, the modern sense of the term is relatively new. Since the late 19th century, cultural and legal responses to homosexuality have evolved, but it was only in the second half of the 20th century that many of the laws criminalizing homosexual acts were overturned. It wasn't until the late 20th century that homosexuality was no longer considered a pathology by psychiatrists, and it wasn't until the 21st century that marriage rights were granted to same-sex couples. Throughout all of these circumstances, Queer Art has addressed these issues covertly and overtly, insisting on a voice in the art world that routinely suppressed it.

Key Ideas & Accomplishments

  • Because of the early criminalization of homosexual acts and the social stigma connected to homosexuality, much Queer Art employs coded visual language that would not arouse suspicion among the general public but would allow those familiar with the tropes of the subculture to glean the hidden meaning.
  • With the rise of activism in the wake of the Civil Rights protests and the AIDS epidemic, Queer Art became more frank and political in its subject matter, forcing the viewers to recognize queer culture and to underscore the institutional inequities and hypocrisy that fueled homophobia.
  • The Identity Politics surrounding Queer Art has sparked much debate, with some artists embracing Identity Politics and other eschewing it as not important for their work. The shifting nature of identities in particular and changing contexts has induced much questioning in queer communities and produced a myriad of answers.

Overview of Queer Art

Queer Art Image

Gay photographer Robert Mapplethorpe died of AIDS related complications in 1989. But when the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. cancelled the artist’s retrospective a few months later, hell broke loose. Protesters gathered outside the gallery, holding placards and shouting. And they projected the artist’s images onto the museum’s walls. In this and many other ways, Queer Art took representations of the gay experience and made it into art. And when it was prevented from doing that, artists and supporters defiantly fought back.

Key Artists

  • Cahun's photographs are renowned for blurring the lines between gender and sexuality, as illustrated in her Surrealist-inspired and non-gender specific photomontages and self-portraits.
  • Francis Bacon was an Irish-born, English painter and one of the 20th century's most celebrated and controversial existentialist artists.
  • David Hockney is an English painter, photographer, collagist and designer. Hockney's influence was particularly felt during the Pop art movement on the 1960s, yet his work has also suggested mixed media and expressionistic tendencies. Although based in London for most of his career, Hockney's most famous paintings occurred during an extended trip to Los Angeles, in which he painted a series of scenes inspired by swimming pools.
  • Robert Mapplethorpe was an American photographer known for his large-scale, highly stylized black and white portraits, photos of flowers and nude men. The frank, homosexual eroticism of some his work triggered a more general controversy about the public funding of artworks and censorship.
  • American sculptor and painter George Segal is best known for his life-size plaster cast figures, often in monochromatic white. He also worked with artists such as John Cage and Allan Kaprow at Rutgers University in the 1950s and 60s; Kaprow's famous "happenings" performances first took place on Segal's farm in New Jersey.
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Do Not Miss

  • Beginning in the 1960s, artists of color, LGBTQ+ artists, and women have used their art to stage and display experiences of identity and community.
  • Performance is a genre in which art is presented "live," usually by the artist but sometimes with collaborators or performers. It has had a role in avant-garde art throughout the twentieth century, playing an important part in anarchic movements such as Futurism and Dada. It particularly flourished in the 1960s, when Performance artists became preoccupied with the body, but it continues to be an important aspect of art practice.
  • Postmodernism is a broad period of artmaking that occured after the period known as modernism - a period that was driven by a radical and forward thinking approach, ideas of technological positivity, and grand narratives of Western domination and progress. Neo-Dada and later Pop artists are considered the first postmodern movements.
  • List of artists and the analysis of the work by Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender identified artists, or works associated with LGBT+ topics.

Important Art and Artists of Queer Art

Self Portrait (1927)

Artist: Claude Cahun

In this carefully posed Self Portrait the artist sits on a chair with legs crossed, facing the viewer. Dressed as a weightlifter, Cahun holds a dumbbell. Nipples drawn on the long-sleeve top give the impression that Cahun is bare chested. Written across the artist's shirt are the words: "I am in training. Don't kiss me." This deliberately and playfully contradicts the lips drawn beneath the assertion, the hearts Cahun painted onto the leggings and cheeks, and the painted, puckered lips. Cahun expression is camp, playful, and the posture is jaunty.

Born Lucy Renee Mathilde Schwob, the French photographer, writer and political activist chose the name Claude Cahun after a number of different iterations before concluding "neuter is the only gender that always suits me". With gender playing such a huge role in how we understand ourselves in society, transgender variance is an important subject for Queer Art. Before the late-twentieth century, non-binary identities are hard to spot or understand, but Claude Cahun changed all that, creating, along with partner Marcel Moore, a subversive body of work that explored new possibilities for gender, sexuality, and personal identity.

French writer and Surrealist André Breton recognized Cahun as "one of the most curious spirits of our time" in the way Cahun rejected categorization as either a woman, lesbian, or artist. Cahun consciously played with masculine and feminine stereotypes to destabilize accepted gender norms. In the portrait series Cahun transmutes from one version of herself to another, bringing both personal and political agency that has traditionally been denied to marginalized groups.

Cahun died at the age of 60 and fell into obscurity but was rediscovered in the 1990s. Alex Pilcher explains, "A generation schooled in queer and postmodern thought rushed to embrace the forgotten artist as a prophet. Though Cahun's literary works and surrealist constructions are impressive, the artist's cult following is a response to the extraordinary self-portraits in which genders are swapped and mixed. This 'weightlifter' photograph has become one of the most revered (and regularly impersonated) queer icons of the twentieth century."

Medallion (YouWe) (1936)

Artist: Gluck

This double portrait shows two women's faces in profile. The gray background gives the piece a powerful, somber tone. All that is visible beyond the head and shoulders of the figures is a low, green horizon. The artist is in the foreground, her focused and intense expression clearly one of a painter at work. Her hair is dark, cropped, and masculine. She wears no makeup or jewelry. Behind her and looking up as if to the stars in the darkening night is her lover, Nesta Oberma. Her profile, highlighted and tempered with a brighter palette mirrors the artist. The composition evokes a sense of strength, power, and permanence.

Gluck was born Hannah Gluckstein, but she built an androgynous identity by insisting upon "no prefix, suffix or quotes" around her gender-neutral name. The painter, who became known for her still lifes, portraits, and landscapes, defiantly rejected societal pressure by wearing fastidiously tailored men's clothes and closely cut hair.

Medallion was a radical portrait to release in 1936. The artist referred to it as the couple's "marriage" picture, decades before gay marriage would become an accepted norm. She called the public declaration of love her "YouWe" picture, adding, "Now it is out and to the rest of the Universe I call Beware! Beware! We are not to be trifled with." But the significance of the work was not discussed at the time. Male homosexuality was a criminal offense and there was no acceptable vocabulary for being lesbian or transgender. As Richard Meyer and Catherine Lord suggest, "Importantly, the painting's focus on their heads not only romanticizes the merging of two like spirits but also restricts the field of signifiers of lesbian visuality."

Two Figures (1953)

Artist: Francis Bacon

In this work, whitish-blue bodies wrestle on top of rumpled sheets. The powerfully rendered male figures are bulky and rawly expressed. The power of movement is emphasized by the minimal black background, and the dynamic brushwork around the faces distorts the men's expressions, leaving it hard to tell whether their faces are twisted in expressions of pain, anguish, or rapture.

This piece was among the darkest and most powerful of Bacon's work. It was inspired by late 19th-century photographs by Eadweard Muybridge of two men wrestling, but here the tangled sheets atop the bed make the homosexual meaning clear. This work was problematic for curators, and it had to be shown out of public view at London's Hanover Gallery, most likely due to the figurative hint of an erect penis. Later, police were called to investigate Bacon's work on grounds of obscenity. Howe says, "Bacon was probably aware that he was building upon aesthetic tropes of classical wrestling used since the nineteenth century as cover emblems of homosexuality.. The uniqueness of Bacon's approach to the subject is that he captured a moment of violent tenderness and intimacy through figurative rupture, the sensations and atmosphere of the clandestine sexual experience symptomatic of his own desire and time."

Much of Bacon's work was based on people he met in bars and clubs of London's Soho, an important locus for the queer community, and an area the artist called "the sexual gymnasium of the city." Bacon was an openly gay man, and as a teenager he was thrown out of the family home when he was caught trying on his mother's underwear. His autobiographical paintings provided a space where he could exorcise his demons; his life was shrouded in sadness, and in 1971, his lover of eight years, George Dyer, committed suicide in their shared hotel room.

The male nude was an important motif in Queer Art, as artists sought to present alternative versions of love and sexuality. In Bacon's work however, queer theorist Catherine Howe says, "The male body is both venerated and reduced to the status of animal; restricted yet liberated from societal conventions of desire." He would explore the wrestlers theme in different incarnations throughout the decades. The subject provided a perfect disguise for the sexual act, allowing the queer experience a respectable critical interpretation at the time.

Useful Resources on Queer Art

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Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Queer Art Movement Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Sarah Ingram
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 23 Dec 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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