Earlier this year, President Barack Obama named New York’s most famous gay bar a National Historic Monument. Greenwich Village’s Stonewall Inn was the birthplace of the gay rights movement, when a riot broke out in June 1969 during a police raid, launching a national movement. But, as a new exhibition at the Museum of the City of New York proves, the Big Apple had long been a hub of gay culture, a place where LGBTQ individuals flocked to find community and acceptance.
“Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture in New York,” which opens Friday and runs through Feb. 26, 2017, examines the way in which these queer communities inspired and nurtured some of the greatest artists of the 20th century whose radical work still reverberates today.
“I had done two other shows at the Museum of the City of New York, and I had noticed both times these gay networks, sort of hidden in plain sight, among artists,” says exhibition curator Donald Albrecht. “I wanted to ‘unhide’ that story.”
“Gay Gotham” features 225 works from LGBTQ artists, both iconic and obscure, presented chronologically to create a trajectory through 20th century culture. While the exhibition includes work from so many artists, it focuses on 10 key figures: composer Leonard Bernstein, playwright and poet Mercedes de Acosta, activist Harmony Hammond, dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones, “arts impresario” Lincoln Kirstein (who co-founded the New York City Ballet), artist and doll-maker Greer Lankton, photographers George Platt Lynes and Robert Mapplethorpe, Harlem Renaissance author and painter Richard Bruce Nugent and pop artist Andy Warhol. “We picked these 10 individuals not only because their artwork is very good, but because they’re emblems of a certain chapter of gay life in New York.”
De Acosta, for instance, represents the more permissive swinging ’20s and ’30s, with her hauteur and lesbian affairs with high-profile stars like Greta Garbo and Isadora Duncan. Bernstein, who largely stayed in the closet at least publicly, wrote the music for “West Side Story,” a retelling of “Romeo and Juliet” with a message of racial and cultural tolerance whose other creators, from the choreographer to the lyricist, were all gay.
And of course there’s Warhol, whose Factory provided a haven for all sorts of misfits in the 1960s, and who brought gay sex and culture, uncoded, into mainstream art. The exhibition highlights how Warhol learned and then paid homage to other gay cultural gadflies who came before him, including the writer Truman Capote and the fashion photographer Cecil Beaton, all of whom worked together.
That cross-generational collaboration is what has given the LGBT community such influence in New York’s cultural and artistic landscape. “The exhibition,” says Albrecht, “is really about the power of collaboration.”
Oct. 7-Feb. 26, 2017
Museum of the City of New York,1220 Fifth Ave.