Artworks and Artists of Queer Art
Self Portrait (1927)
In this carefully posed Self Portrait the artist sits on a chair with her legs crossed, facing the viewer. Dressed as a weightlifter, she holds a dumbbell on her lap. Nipples drawn on the long-sleeve top give the impression that Cahun is bare chested. Written across her 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 she painted onto her leggings and cheeks, and her painted, puckered lips. Her expression is camp, playful, and her posture 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 her 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 she rejected categorization as either a woman, lesbian, or artist. She consciously played with masculine and feminine stereotypes to destabilize accepted gender norms. In her portrait series she 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)
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."
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
Two figures (1953)
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.
Oil on canvas - Private Collection
We Two Boys Together Clinging (1961)
In this work, two figures embrace in the center of the canvas, kissing as one's arm encircles the other. The abstract style robs the figures' gender, identity, and facial features to a certain extent, but script written around the two bodies reads, "We two boys together clinging." The paint marks are rough and expressive, contrasting with a calming color palette of blues, whites, rose pinks, and reds. Elsewhere around the canvas, words, numbers, and horizontal lines resembling an empty musical staff can be seen. The text suggestively appears to be graffiti on a public bathroom wall.
During a time when one had to be careful about openly sharing one's sexuality, Hockney described his work as "homosexual propaganda." His work was especially daring, as he explored notions of gay sexuality in painting before sodomy was decriminalized in the United Kingdom in 1967. Queer theorist Catherine Howe explains that Hockney often borrowed imagery from physique magazines, which while ostensibly about men's sports were catering to homosexual men.
This painting was produced at the beginning of Hockney's career and represents a marked difference from what would become his more realist style. The almost child-like technique was suggested to him by the French artist Jean Dubuffet. He produced it towards the end of his second year at the Royal College of Art. Hockney's work is a powerful declaration of independence; neither his artistic style nor his sexuality will be dictated. His British Pop art later provided a space where he could deliberately break rules, simultaneously deconstructing linear perspective along with accepted societal expectations.
Oil on Board - National Portrait Gallery London
Jim and Tom, Sausalito (1977)
In this photograph, two of Mapplethorpe's friends engage in a carefully staged and intimate sexual act. The man on the left leans back into the shadow as he urinates into the other's mouth. His face is concealed behind a gimp mask, while his penis is clear in the light. The man on the right is closed-eyed, submissive, kneeling on the floor. A shaft of light is carefully placed to highlight his face and his lover's penis.
Mapplethorpe's photography depicting still lifes of flowers, celebrity and Royal Family portraiture, and pictures of children are well-loved, but his powerful and subversive images of homoerotic subjects are most notable in their power to dramatically alter perceptions and push boundaries. Mapplethorpe, fascinated by the male gaze on the male body, brought underground queer culture of the 1970s and 1980s into the public eye. He produced provocative male nudes, explicit sex scenes, and erotic portraits of leather-clad men in sadomasochistic scenarios. It was work that captured social change in real life and brought the gay experience into the light for all to see - encouraging members of the gay community to come out of the shadows.
Mapplethorpe was central in the fight to make the queer experience recognizable as political identity, and his work was famously caught up in the Culture Wars when in 1989 the Corcoran Gallery of Art cancelled a major Mapplethorpe show just weeks before it was due to start. Mapplethorpe politicized the physical body; he used images of the body to reassert his and other gay artists' right to exhibit images of the gay experience in public view. The value of this was made clear after the artist's death in 1989 from AIDS-related complications when US politician Jesse Helms said Mapplethorpe's work was a "threat to American values." His work highlighted the homophobia that reached into the highest ranks of American power.
Gelatin silver print - Los Angeles County Museum, USA
Gay Liberation (1979)
In this work, two life-size couples are relaxed in each other's company in the public space. A pair of men stand, talking casually, as one affectionately places his hand on the other's back. Nearby two women sit on a bench, one resting her hand on the other's thigh as they look eye to eye. The work is placed in a park, opposite the Old Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village and the site of the Stonewall riots in 1969 - one of the most important events in the gay liberation movement.
Using orthopedic bandages dipped in plaster, New York artist George Segal constructed haunting and memorable life-sized models which he seated at lunch counters, poised on street corners, or waiting in train stations. In doing so, he made sculpture that wasn't separated from the viewing public by a plinth or pedestal, allowing viewers a closer look and a more immersive experience.
While created in 1979, the work wasn't installed until 1992, and one made for Los Angeles was not accepted by the city. Critic Catherine Lord explains, "In 1980, 'public' signified audiences identified by race, class and ethnicity, rather than sexuality. At the time, gays and lesbians were seldom named as either producers or consumers of their own public culture."
The whitewashing effect of the work presents a blank canvas, onto which the viewer can add their own experience, but it also gives a ghostly feeling. The work caused consternation at the time as many felt the work should have been produced by a gay or lesbian artist. Detractors argued the whiteness of the sculpture suggested Caucasian individuals, thus whitewashing the role people of color played in gay liberation. Some also suggested that the anonymity of the figures depersonalized the very real stories of the people who fought for their rights outside the Stonewall Inn.
In 2015, the sculptures were vandalized (or improved - depending on one's viewpoint) when two of the figures were painted brown and wigs and colorful costumes added. The anonymous protesters said they did so in honor of the people of color who led the movement. "What we did was rectification, not vandalism. Those statues are bronze (brown) underneath the layer of white paint - the symbolism behind that is infuriating."
Bronze covered in white lacquer - Greenwich Village, New York
One Day This Kid... (1990)
A black and white image of the artist as a child looks out at the viewer. Smiling and innocent, the subject looks like any other ordinary child growing up in the 1960s. It is taken from a personal photo but blown up, newspaper-style, removing elements of intimacy and placing it within a political, public context. The figure is entirely surrounded by text that discuss the gay experience and the myriad ways society will attempt to oppress it. Statements that include "This kid will be faced with electro-shock, drugs and conditioning therapies in laboratories" paint a grim picture for the child's future. The words crowd him, filling the frame, oppressively at odds with the boy's youthful, optimistic expression.
The piece combines the personal and political in a powerful way that counteracts conservative representations of queer art of previous years. Newspapers and the right wing press had aggressively presented gay love as a dangerous perversion, particularly during the AIDS crisis. This piece however places it back in the realm of the ordinary, the final line reminding the viewer that gay love is as physical as heterosexual desire. The work's colorless composition and clear black text enabled it to be copied and shared widely, and it has since been circulated online and throughout bookstores across the United States and beyond. It has become a powerful icon for gay rights, a tool of activism, and one of Wojnarowicz's most well-loved works.
Curator Clare Barlow, says: "Queer theory of the early 1990s radically critiqued concepts of gender and sexual identity, and suggested new methodologies that privilege transgression, subversion and the unsettling of established norms." With this work we see Wojnarowicz flip notions of normalcy on their head to point the finger at a prejudicial and unjust social order powerfully stating that the problem is not with the child who is born genetically different from his peers but with an unjust society that persecutes difference.
Photostat mounted on board - Whitney Museum of American Art, New York
Melissa & Lake (1998)
Two women's bodies face one another as their faces turn to the camera. To the left stands a woman with cropped hair in a white shirt and black bow tie. She holds her partner's shoulder with one hand, while the woman in the green shirt clasps her waist. Their serious faces are half lit, giving the piece a dramatic feel, but they are in an ordinary domestic setting.
Catherine Opie, who has described herself as a "kind of twisted social documentary photographer," made a career exploring the world and people around her. This work was part of Domestic, a body of photographs she took during a road trip, to better understand the lives of ordinary lesbian American couples. Opie began her career shooting powerful and subversive portraits of cross dressing, sadomasochism, and the leather community. Later, she wanted to present ordinary pictures of queer life as a retort to the notion that the gay lifestyle was somehow deviant, and in doing so she produced insightful and intimate portraiture that has been wholly absent from mainstream media. In this way, her work aligns with the trajectory of Feminist art, whose goal, as artist Suzanne Lacy declared, was to "influence cultural attitudes and transform stereotypes."
Gender Trouble, Judith Butler's 1990 feminist text, sought to uncover the ways in which the very thinking of what is possible in gendered life is foreclosed by certain habitual and violent presumptions. She looked at how the gay experience impacted gender norms, asking for example, why do some butch lesbians who become parents become "dads" and others become "moms"? We see such questions at play in Opie's work, as she presents differing, subverted and updated images of gender, maternity, partnership, and domesticity.
Critic Liz Kotz wrote of Opie's work that "there is no text, no artist's statement, and a refusal to read and hence 'frame' these images for the viewer." Opie's social documentary, although produced out of a spirit to tell the stories of the oppressed and underrepresented, does not shout and confront like previous works of the genre. Rather it is quiet and inviting, asking the viewer to understand from a different experience the realities of universal notions of love and family.
Chromogenic photographic print - The Guggenheim Museum, New York