The works of queer artists can be found everywhere. Museums in the U.S. and abroad collect works by Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe, not to mention ancient Greek vases and Renaissance paintings depicting erotic gestures of same-sex couples. Yet the acknowledgment of sexuality, if acknowledged at all, is often confined to a footnote on a tiny placard.
This is not the case at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay & Lesbian Art in New York.
The museum sits a few blocks north of Chinatown in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. Secluded from the bustling tourist shops and traffic of Canal Street, it features an impressive number of artworks, from Renaissance sketches to 20th-century photography (there is no shortage of male and female nudes), sculpture and mixed-media, which together form a carefully curated exploration of queer life and sex. Celebrating its three decades and recent expansion of roughly 2,000 square-feet, the museum opened its Expanded Visions: Fifty Years of Collecting to highlight the variety in its 30,000-piece collection.
Walking into the galleries, the most striking thing is the breadth of the collection’s chronology: the walls are lined with drawings and paintings spanning hundreds of years, and multiple continents. A series of Jacques Callot (1592-1635) etchings depicting actors and buskers in homoerotic poses hangs close to a Robert Indiana Pop Art screenprint. The 17th century is at home with 20th and 21st in the Leslie-Lohman.
Charlie Leslie and Fritz Lohman founded the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation in the height of the AIDS epidemic as a way to ensure the survival of important works of art revealing the experience of gays and lesbians - art that may have otherwise been overlooked or discarded. And the museum has indeed succeeded in this role, officially becoming the first gay art museum in the world in 2015. This year, thirty years after the nonprofit was founded, the collection harkens back to its founding in the ‘80s with its frank portrayal of queer sex as an act of defiance and destruction.
Expanded Visions is a particularly impressive show of 20th-century visual artists, exhibiting works by Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, Andy Warhol and David Hockney, whose work is now on view at the Tate Britain. And Peter Hujar’s series of male nudes - a black and white trio, standing, sitting and kneeling, respectively - is mesmerizing. Yet the biggest names in the gallery are in dialogue with lesser-known queer artists, and this is by design. It gives visitors an opportunity to discover new artists.
Women also appear in force throughout the gallery, especially in photographs by 20th- and 21st-century artists. Ruth Bernhard’s “Folding” underscores the elegance of the female figure effortlessly poised like an origami crane. Sophia Wallace’s “Untitled (Ena and Sin),” which seems to be the impetus for the whole exhibition, frames a joyful, sensual lesbian embrace - the women beam into each other’s eyes, blissfully aware of the camera’s focus. And Ianna Book’s “Trans and the notion of Risk Post Surgery” is a fascinating study of a trans woman in transition. Book shows us a woman unafraid of the camera in spite of her bandages.
The Leslie-Lohman’s Expanded Visions is not just a haphazard sampling of decades of collected works. It demonstrates, rather, an inherent understanding that art may be shocking, defiant and completely human. It is statement about current politics, and it underscores the fundamental difference between art and pornography: Art directs our attention to the things beyond ourselves.
On the subway ride back, I couldn’t help but notice a young gay couple sitting across from me holding hands, carefully placed between their thighs so as not to attract sidelong glances in the stuffy car. Like queer art in other venues, gay life often has an understated existence. It tries often and hard not to offend. The Leslie-Lohman gives us the chance to imagine it otherwise.
Jayson Keeling, Untitled, 2007. Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum.
Horst, Male Nude I (Frontal), 1952.
Expanded Visions: Fifty Years of Collecting, at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay & Lesbian Art in New York runs through May 21, 2017. Free admission. Much of the collection can be viewed online at leslielohman.org.
Graphic at top: Luna Luis Ortiz, Chleo Silent Film Star, 1999. Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum