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Critics, curators and art lovers have a tendency to place individual artists on pedestals—to see one person as the apex of a certain style or movement. But artists do not work in vacuums, and are not, as we so often like to envision them, solitary figures who create work in isolation. There are communities behind most (if not all) major movements in art, and Gay Gotham, on display at the Museum of the City of New York, reveals how crucial those networks were to the lineage and evolution of LGBTQ art in New York City.

“I think people will be surprised by the extent of these networks, and how important they were to people and their careers,” says Gay Gotham co-curator Stephen Vider. “By putting this art into a historic context, you begin to see the social scene more clearly, and really see New York City as an incubator.”

The Peter Hujar Archive
Christopher Street Pier #2 (Crossed Legs), 1976 © 1987 The Peter Hujar Archive LLC; Courtesy Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Spanning half a century, the exhibition establishes connections between artists and art forms that would otherwise go unnoticed, and links major moments in queer history to geographic locations in New York City. It’s a truly holistic view of what we now call the gay rights movement, but more importantly, provides a visual and physical history of a marginalized community through the actors, filmmakers, painters, musicians, writers and photographers who lived and thrived among cultural adversity and political oppression.

© Chantal Regnault
From left: Whitney Elite, Ira Ebony, Stewart and Chris LaBeija, Ian and Jamal Adonis, Ronald Revlon, House of Jourdan Ball, New Jersey, 1989 © Chantal Regnault

Donald Albrecht, MCNY’s Curator of Architecture and Design emphasized the show’s multi-faceted approach to exploring the gay subculture of the city via networks, as opposed to individual artists. “The show really has to be viewed as a synthesis between LGBTQ contributions to life in New York City in the 20th century as well as the gay geography of New York and how these communities and networks were formed.”

Split Britches,  Upwardly Mobile Home
From left: Lois Weaver, Peggy Shaw, and Deb Margolin performing as Split Britches in Upwardly Mobile Home, 1984 Courtesy Eva Weiss

While Gay Gotham does showcase the work of 10 specific artists, split across two levels and separated by two different timelines, both curators noted that their intention was to feature artists who weren’t just well known among the mainstream, but who also crossed genres and generations, influencing the culture and community that in turn inspired them. Peter Hujar’s iconic portraits of his friends and lovers, and Robert Mapplethorpe‘s erotic and confrontational images feel comfortably at home in Gay Gotham, but the show truly shines in the work of less familiar artists, like George Platt Lynes, Alice O’Malley and Chantal Regnault.

Alice O'Malley
Melanie Hope, Clit Club, c. 1992 © Alice O’Malley

Lynes, a professional fashion photographer in the crushingly conservative 1940s and ’50s, used his camera to create beautiful portraits of his friends and colleagues, with subtle and, in the case of his male nudes, not-so-subtle clues about his own desires and his subject’s hidden homosexual identities. On the surface, much of Lynes’s work is a reflection of the kind of stately, upright masculinity that was expected of men in the mid 20th century, but the way he staged his scenes and posed his subjects, limbs entangled and bodies intertwined, alludes to a bending of rigid gender lines and arbitrary moral codes that would later inspire Mapplethorpe, who Albrecht said was a big fan of Lynes’s photographic figure studies.

Leonard Fink
Charley Inside Ramrod, photo by Leonard Fink, c. 1976 Leonard Fink, Courtesy LGBT Community Center National History Archive

By the 1960s, the networks that had fostered Lynes and colleagues like Cecil Beaton and Carl Van Vechten had morphed into vibrant creative clusters in New York City. It was a time of radical activism, and the queer community responded with art that demanded progress and forward movement, while at the same time looking back in an attempt to define itself. “There was more activism happening, partly in response to state oppression,” Vider says, “but the ’70s is also a time of legacy building where the sense of a ‘gay identity’ becomes more solidified.”

Gladys Bentley
Gladys Bentley at the Ubangi Club in Harlem, early 1930s Photo by Sterling Paige, Courtesy of the Visual Studies Workshop, Rochester, NY

In oppressed and marginalized communities, lineage is hard to come by. Evidence, artistic or otherwise, is often hidden or destroyed by a dominant culture that sees alternate histories as insignificant and unworthy. But in the later decades of the 20th century, LGBTQ artists took it upon themselves to document the communities that nurtured them. From anonymous photos of men cruising Times Square in the 1960s to Chantal Regnault’s shots from the Voguing and Ballroom scene in New York and New Jersey and O’Malley’s photojournalistic images of women at legendary lesbian bar the Clit Club, the art and photography in Gay Gotham shows a movement establishing itself, refusing to be defined by anyone other than those directly contributing to its livelihood.

Gay Gotham is on view at the Museum of the City of New York through Feb. 26, 2017.

New York City
New York City street photographs taken by anonymous photographer, 1960s Collection of Philip Aarons and Shelley Fox Aarons, New York
Courtesy Liza Cowan and Penny House
DYKE, A Quarterlyflyer, design by Liza Cowan, c. 1974 Courtesy Liza Cowan and Penny House
Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong, 1932 Photo by Carl Van Vechten, Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Carl Van Vechten, 42.316.231. Used with permission of The Van Vechten Trust
Alvin Ailey
Alvin Ailey, 1955 Photo by Carl Van Vechten, Museum of the City of New York, Gift of Carl Van Vechten, 63.4.9. Used with permission of The Van Vechten Trust