Editor's Note: The Columbus Museum of Art was closed to the public as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic shortly after the opening of Art after Stonewall, but will reopen its doors on June 30 and has extended this groundbreaking exhibit through Oct. 4.
Named one of the most important exhibitions of the past decade, Art after Stonewall was organized by the Columbus Museum of Art's curatorial team and coincides with the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots. The museum closed a few days after the exhibit opened, so we wanted to give you as close to a guided tour as we could.
Art after Stonewall focuses on both the work of openly LGBTQ artists as well as the practices of artists in terms of their engagement with newly emerging queer subcultures. Art after Stonewall, 1969-1989 highlights a wide array of conceptual, performance, film, and video art, as well as photography, painting, sculpture, music, along with historical documents and images taken from magazines, newspapers and television.
Daniel Marcus is the inaugural Roy Lichtenstein Curatorial Fellow at the Columbus Museum of Art and a visiting lecturer in the Department of History of Art at the Ohio State University. Marcus is an art historian, critic and curator whose work rethinks the political, social and theoretical frameworks of modern and contemporary art.
Q: How did the idea for this exhibition come about?
A: More than seven years ago, Columbus Museum of Art started conversations with art historian and artist Jonathan Weinberg, the guest curator of Art after Stonewall, 1969-1989. Weinberg is among the preeminent scholars of LGBTQ art, and his idea of a large-scale exhibition honoring the legacy of Stonewall struck a chord with the Museum’s director, Nannette V. Maciejunes. Initially, Art after Stonewall was slated to open in 2018; we assumed that other—larger, better-funded—museums would take charge in organizing major loan exhibitions to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Uprising, and we figured that our show would be a sort of teaser or preview. However, as the project developed, we realized that Art after Stonewall was going to be the major loan show devoted to the LGBTQ liberation movement and its impact on art of the 1970s and ‘80s. Working closely with our two New York venues, the Leslie-Lohman Museum (formerly the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art) and the Grey Art Gallery, New York University, we changed our plans to take advantage of the opportunity, and timed the opening of Art after Stonewall to coincide with the Stonewall 50 - World Pride celebration in 2019.
Q: Why was the Columbus Museum of Art the right team to organize it?
A: The relationship between modern art and radical social movements is central to the CMA’s collections—especially its Philip and Suzanne Schiller Collection of American Social Commentary Art 1930 - 1970, which comprises more than 400 works by socially engaged artists, many of whom were dissidents and activists. Likewise, some of the most iconic works on view in our galleries—I’m thinking of our wonderful collection of paintings by Marsden Hartley, and Paul Cadmus’s remarkable canvas, The Herrin Massacre (1940)—were created by LGBTQ-identified artists (both Hartley and Cadmus were gay). Art after Stonewall reflects the long legacy of queer art and culture; it also resonates with the history, past, and future of Central Ohio: In the twenty-first century, Columbus has emerged as a major hub of LGBTQ culture in the Midwest; in fact, it was the birthplace of the gay circuit party scene in the late 1970s, a history explored in Art after Stonewall. In 2018, the Museum created its first ever LGBTQ and Allied membership group, Loud and Proud, in recognition of the queer community’s visionary role in shaping CMA’s future. Art after Stonewall reflects the generosity of queer communities across the region, and is both a love letter and a reminder that LGBTQ history is art history.
Q: How did the curatorial staff select pieces?
The selection process unfolded over many years, and was a team effort conducted in consultation with a group of outside advisors, including Christopher Reed, Ara Merjian, Flavia Rando, Margaret Vendryes, Alex Fialho and Nelson Santos.
Q: Tell us about a couple of pieces and the stories they tell about the LGBTQ experience in America.
A: Gay Liberation Front, Come Out, 1970. Offset lithograph. 14 x 10 inches (35.56 x 25.40 cm). © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC. Collection of Flavia Rando. Image courtesy Pace/MacGill
One of the more iconic works in the show is Peter Hujar and Jim Fouratt’s poster for the Gay Liberation Front (GLF), which they created collaboratively in 1970. The photograph for the poster was taken by Hujar, who would later be recognized as one of the most influential photographers of his generation; although the image appears to depict a group of marchers at a protest, it was in fact staged by members of the Gay Liberation Task Force early in the morning (so as to avoid competition with car traffic). To my mind, it ranks among the very best propaganda photos of the late twentieth century: Rather than depict homosexuality as debased or shameful, Hujar makes gay liberation—and gay and lesbian social life in general—look absolutely exhilarating: an expression of ecstatic joy. By the same token, however, while the image refuses the popular stereotype of queers as effete and lonely, it also leaves the impression that gay liberation was primarily for the young, the white, and the cisgendered.
Lula Mae Blocton, Summer Ease, 1975. Oil on canvas. 48 x 48 inches (121.92 x 121.92 cm). © Lula Mae Blocton, courtesy of the artist
Lula Mae Blocton was one of the very few out African American lesbian artists living and working in New York City in the 1970s. She got involved with the burgeoning Women’s Liberation movement in the period directly after the Stonewall Uprising, and was among the contributors to an issue of the art journal Heresies devoted to Third-World women artists—a project undertaken as a response to the notable (and controversial) absence of women-of-color artists in an earlier issue of the journal. Importantly, Summer Ease doesn’t directly represent Blocton’s experience or identity as a black lesbian: it’s a completely abstract painting—although there’s something skin-like, or flesh-like, perhaps, to its peach-pink palette. In commenting about this work, Blocton attributes the painting’s warm glow to her sense of joy at coming out within, and connecting to, a community of fellow women.
Gran Fury, The Government Has Blood on its Hands, 1988. Poster, offset lithograph. 31 3⁄4 x 21 3⁄8 inches (80.65 x 54.29 cm) ACT UP, FDA Action Image courtesy of Avram Finkelstein
As governments across the globe scramble to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, this poster by Gran Fury comes immediately to mind. Taking their name from the Plymouth car model favored by the New York Police Department in the 1980s, the Gran Fury collective served as the “unofficial propaganda ministry” of the AIDS activist group ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power). In keeping with the group’s mission to end the AIDS crisis through collective direct action, its members wheat-pasted posters such as this one across New York City in an effort to both expose those complicit in the ongoing crisis and inform the public about the human toll of HIV/AIDS. Often celebrated for their innovative use of graphic design and advertising techniques, Gran Fury always saw art as a vehicle for activism: Their world was falling apart; friends, lovers, and colleagues were sick and dying. In the words of Gran Fury member Marlene McCarty, they “were not making art”—they were fighting for life.