Albrecht, Donald. “Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture in New York”, Rizzoli, October, 2016.
A Must Have
Quite recently there was an article in the Sunday New York Times stating that that the Museum of the City of New York is mounting an exhibit entitled “Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture in New York.” Museum director Whitney W. Donhauser announced that it will open in the fall and it “celebrates the creativity and the richness of the L.G.B.T. community.” A few days after the article appeared I received a notice from Pat Sommers, the publicity executive director of Rizzoli Press that they were issuing an accompanying book which is due out in October (now September). I had the chance to look at the plates included and let me tell you that this is a book that belongs in every gay man’s library. It is absolutely stunning and an important piece of our history. I will include samples of what will appear in various places in this review but I can tell you that each page of the book is a special treat. The exhibit uncovers the lost history of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender artists in New York City. I am not allowed to say much more until the book’s release but keep your eyes open for it.
New York has always been a destination for queer searching for freedom and creating close-knit groups for support and inspiration. “Gay Gotham” shows us the countercultural artistic communities that have sprung up over the last hundred years and we immediately see a creative class with radical ideas that would determine much of modern culture. “Gay Gotham” contains more than 200 images (including works of art, paintings and photographs, letters, snapshots, and ephemera) that show us the bonds that were created and the scandals that existed that the straight public did not know about. We start in the 1910s and 1920s with Greenwich Village and Harlem brought all kinds of people to the city. The artistic freedom was so popular that it could not be denied, especially to men from Idaho and women from Arkansas, places where was no visible gay community (I understand that Arkansas has had one for about a year now).
Broadway as well as Fire Island became not only havens for gay people but also hotbeds of unrest as if preparing for what Stonewall came to symbolize. Post-Stonewall was like a ten-year long party at which the gay clubs became watering holes for those enjoying the times. Sex was everywhere as were gay people. The Mineshaft and Studio 54 were places to be at and to be seen at. And then came AIDS and our lives changed. Activists were mobilized and gay man and women fought for acceptance tearing down closet doors as they did so.
Here is our history on unprecedented display at The Museum of the City of New York. It is a very timely exhibit that looks at the gay underground that explores how gay creativity was not only an outlet but also a refuge for LGBT people. Whitney W. Donhauser, the museum’s director, says that after the horror we felt as we lost forty-nine people in Orlando, Florida, the show is so important as it shows that the LGBT community is about creativity and that there is a richness to our community that is often overlooked.
The show is based on the lives of ten major artistic LGBT people and their networks of associates and friends. We know their names and many of us are familiar with their works but we do not always see them in an LGBT context. These ten are the composer Leonard Bernstein; the photographers Robert Mapplethorpe and George Platt Lynes; the visual artists Andy Warhol, Richard Bruce Nugent, Harmony Hammond and Greer Lankton; the playwright, poet and novelist Mercedes de Acosta; the impresario Lincoln Kirstein; and the dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones. Do not misunderstand, these ten stand at the center of groups that have emanated from them and so, of course, we see more than just ten.
The formation of groups within the LGBT subculture began relatively early when those who were marginalized came together and formed communities of people with common interests. It was these small groups that enhanced their private lives and created a sense of belonging long before other LGBT organizations came into being. These groups also helped to advance professional. We see that oppression and marginalization nurtured creativity.
The exhibit and the book bring to life the LGBT creative networks that existed in New York City during the 20th century and within these we find a surprising and lasting effects on the mainstream. Much of what went on did so in the shadows and now we can see a hidden history that most were not privy too. The exhibit will be contained in two full galleries
that feature the work of these artists. It is possible to find a bit of scandal and a few secrets that even today, few are aware of. What has fascinated me the most by reading the book are the overlapping layers of culture and the surprising relationships that emerge.
Let’s just look at Leonard Bernstein as an example. Both on display and in the book are the original designs for “West Side Story,” and we learn that the reason it is included is because the creators were all gay: Bernstein (music), Stephen Sondheim (lyrics), Arthur Laurents (libretto), Jerome Robbins (choreography), Oliver Smith (scenery) and Irene Sharaff (costumes). In the Bernstein display is also a copy of his “Romeo and Juliet” as the basis for the musical “in which he writes a plea for racial tolerance. At the time, Mr. Bernstein had yet to come out”. We can only wonder if this was “not a plea for tolerance of other types of relationships.”
If you are familiar with the publications by Rizzoli, you know that you can expect the highest quality available. The book is absolutely gorgeous. It is organized chronologically and stops before the newest federal laws permitting same-sex marriage went into effect. We realize just how important that is after having just read about the eighty years that preceded that historic move.