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Painting of of three young men in colored robes huddled together, an angel towering above them and enveloping them in its wide brown wings while orange flames surround them. Painting of of three young men in colored robes huddled together, an angel towering above them and enveloping them in its wide brown wings while orange flames surround them.

Highlights

Queer Artists and Art

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Explore the ways LGBTQ+ artists have expressed gender, sexuality, and identity in the vast world of queer culture.

David Wojnarowicz

American artist David Wojnarowicz (1954–1992) came to prominence in the 1980s amid New York’s vibrant East Village art scene. Working across media—painting, photography, installations, performance, and film—he created an eclectic body of work that fused the aesthetics of the punk music scene and street culture with a personal, political activism.


David Wojnarowicz

Following the death of his best friend, one-time lover, and fellow artist Peter Hujar from AIDS in 1987, Wojnariowicz’s work became more explicitly political and focused on writing, rawly expressing his anger about the inequalities and disenfranchisement of people living with HIV and AIDS. Exemplifying this period is Untitled, in which he surrounded a picture of himself as a child with a fierce critique of American political and social systems that sustain a culture of homophobia.

My queerness was a wedge that was slowly separating me from a sick society.

—David Wojnarowicz, 1990

Mickalene Thomas

In 2005, artist Mickalene Thomas (born 1971) began work on her Brawling Spitfire Wrestling Series, a series of self-portraits that began with photographs of the artist in classic wrestling poses. The photographs were used to create collages, paintings, and sculptures of a woman wrestling herself—biting, pulling, and pinning herself down. In Rumble, Thomas’s knee is in her teeth, an arm is wrapped around her neck, and a hand holds down her torso.


Mickalene Thomas

There’s a ferocity to the work but also a powerful complexity. Thomas asks us to reconsider the queer gaze: she loves women, but she does not objectify them in the way that art history is used to. The love she offers in her paintings is more expansive, more radical, allowing us to understand portraits of her mother and of herself as equally queer as the ones in which her female subjects are in obviously intimate poses.

I want the world to see what I see in Black women … This is the desire, this is the love, this is the beauty, this is the intellect, this is what we [Black women] have to give to the world.

—Mickalene Thomas

Marsden Hartley

Born in Maine, Marsden Hartley (1877–1943) had a lonely childhood. Intensely private about his personal life and sexuality, the artist found a more open approach to gay and queer culture in Paris and Berlin in 1912–13 and reportedly fell in love with a German officer. Later in life, he took to painting muscular and athletic young men.


Marsden Hartley

“I have for the first time since 1922 a real live model a magnificent young feller… . His body is so fine and dear I could work almost without end from him.” So the artist wrote about Lionel Daigle, a French-Canadian boxer from the town of Madawaska, Maine, who modeled for a series of paintings by the artist. Hartley drew upon local types at this time to create a mythic view of the state’s inhabitants as rugged individualists. He delighted in painting the man’s body, which allowed him to express his own sexuality. Hartley emphasized Daigle’s strong physique, exaggerating his anatomy and originally painting him nude (subsequently adding the brief covering). Ironically, critics in the 1940s applauded the work as a display of heteronormative masculinity.

Lili Elbe

Born in the Danish town of Vejle, Lili Elbe (1883–1931) studied at the local technical school before attending the Royal Danish Academy of Fine Arts in Copenhagen. The artist was in her 40s when she decided to undergo gender-affirming surgery for the first time, becoming one of the first trans women to do so. She started to use the name Lili Elbe and eventually moved to Paris in 1912, where there was greater acceptance of nonnormative gender expression. Her life as a transgender artist was chronicled in the movie The Danish Girl (2015).


Lili Elbe

The artwork is signed Einar Wegener, the name the artist still used while she was a student.

An accomplished example of traditional academic practice, Still-Life with Geometric Forms sensitively renders and presents an eerie, symbolist quality in its focus on clustered and overlapping forms. The sharp edges of the geometrical forms and the firm horizon line of the wall are softened by the shading done with a stump to manipulate the chalk. Elbe’s drawing, a recent acquisition, builds our collection of work by late 19th- and early 20th-century Scandinavian artists and expands our holdings of work by transgender artists.

The experience, the awakening of one’s true self, after being so long suppressed, can never be adequately explained with language.

—Lili Elbe, 1931

Luis Medina

After immigrating to Chicago from Cuba, Luis Medina (1942–1985) enrolled in the School of the Art Institute, intent on studying sculpture. His plans changed when he met two legends of the Chicago photography scene, teacher Harold Allen and Art Institute photography curator Hugh Edwards.


Luis Medina

Medina swiftly switched his major to photography and began making pictures. He came to focus his work on what he called “aspects of life that have—by tradition, negative social conditioning, or sheer social necessity—been stamped with the stigma of evil.” These included street gangs, graffiti, Sons of the Devil (a Puerto Rican motorcycle gang), Santeria practitioners, and Chicago’s LGTBQ+ scene, like the gay bar in this photograph. No matter the subject, Medina captured it without judgment, aiming to encourage the viewer to reflect on their own personal response.

Each day that passes, each new unhappiness that life presents to me, solidifies and fixes my determination to continue on the same road.

—Luis Medina, 1977–78

Zanele Muholi

A self-described “visual activist,” Zanele Muholi (born 1972) aims—in both their photographs and social activism—to redefine the face of South Africa and combat violence against the LGBTQ+ community.


Zanele Muholi

In 2006 they began a series of portraits celebrating black lesbians in South Africa, in their words, “marking, mapping, and preserving an often invisible community for posterity.” Muholi photographs actors, soccer players, scholars, dancers, filmmakers, writers, activists, and others, all of whom face the camera with forcefulness and dignity—countering oppression by giving human expression to otherwise faceless statistics.

I wanted to build an archive that is not erasable, that would live beyond us … and to ensure that any person who thinks they are alone can instead know that there are others like them, and know that they could reach out—where possible—for support.

—Zanele Muholi, 2020

Greer Lankton

Born in Flint, Michigan, artist Greer Lankton (1958–1996) created dolls since childhood. Drawn by the East Village art scene of the 1970s, she moved to New York and studied at the Pratt Institute. She became friends with photographers Nan Goldin and Peter Hujar, who photographed her.


Greer Lankton

Lankton, who had gender affirmation surgery at a young age, admired transgender celebrities like Candy Darling and Teri Toye. Her dolls, which ranged in size from miniature to life-sized, explored ideas of gender, sexuality, and beauty and featured celebrities, drag queens, circus acrobats, and other “outsiders.” “It’s all about me,” she famously said. The sculpture Rachel, an homage to the interdisciplinary performance artist Rachel Rosenthal, typifies Lankton’s ability to combine the glamorous with the grotesque, the sexual with the androgynous.

If you think you have the wrong body, you are always going to think about it.

—Greer Lankton, 1977

Simeon Solomon

Simeon Solomon (1840–1905) was born in 19th-century London, the youngest son in an intellectual Jewish family. He was trained to paint by his older siblings, Abraham and Rebecca, but found his true mode of working when he fell in with the Pre-Raphaelite circle, whose literary paintings inspired Solomon to turn to the Torah for subject matter.


Simeon Solomon

In this lustrous watercolor, three Old Testament heroes, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, are miraculously protected from King Nebuchadnezzar’s fiery furnace by an angel behind them. The three young men hold each other close, their cheeks pressed against each other as the angel holds them. There is a softness to the painting, an undeniable intimacy among the somewhat androgynous men. In reality, in the world of Victorian England, physical intimacy among men was not accepted. At the age of 32, the peak of his artistic career, Solomon was arrested for the first, and notably not the last, time for “attempted sodomy.” After subsequent arrests, he fell into poverty and alcoholism. His legacy persists today in part because of the patronage of queer aristocrats and the influence he had on artists and writers like Oscar Wilde and W. B. Yeats. 

Vaginal Davis

It’s impossible to consider the history of queer music, performance, and video art without thinking of Vaginal Davis, whose ironic, pastiche-based practice bridged the queer performance and punk club scenes in Los Angeles in the late 1970s. Often insistent that her audience address her as Dr. Davis, she positioned herself early on as an intersex, genderqueer counterpart to activist Angela Davis, creating a mythology of self in live performances she calls “terrorist drag” and pushing the tensions between identity, fiction, and social critique.


Vaginal Davis

The White to be Angry is a visual album in which each song functions as a chapter. The piece originated as a live music performance and vinyl record recorded in Chicago in the mid-1990s. Clips of appropriated American television footage separate segments parodying the work of established film directors like Woody Allen, Bruce LaBruce, and Clive Barker. In one of the key scenes, a young skinhead is indoctrinated into a culture of hate but struggles with conflicting desires of violence and attraction toward those he is taught to despise, offering a timely look at white supremacist culture.

Isaac Julien

One of England’s most important independent filmmakers (who was recognized as Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire in 2022), Isaac Julien (born 1960) creates films and video installations that explore how race and masculinity are represented in visual culture.


Isaac Julien

Combining conventional cinematic structure with avant-garde techniques, Julien upends traditional portrayals of black and gay subjects, forcing viewers to question accepted stereotypes. Produced collaboratively with Venezuela-born choreographer Javier De Frutos, The Long Road to Mazatlán is a modern cowboy story that explores the construction of masculinity within mythic landscapes of the American West. The three-screen installation follows the erotically charged exchanges—both acted and danced—between a young Hispanic man and the emotionally unavailable cowboy he pursues.

My piece is a play on white masculinity and those sorts of representations in Hollywood movies but also within gay subcultural representation.

—Isaac Julien, 2002

Hadrian and Antinous

In terms of public displays of grief over lost love, few stories can compare with that of Hadrian and Antinous. Well known today, the Roman Emperor Hadrian (r. 117–138) was beloved for traveling widely around the empire and commissioning buildings, roads, and aqueducts. In fact, there are more portraits of Hadrian than any other emperor. About Antinous, little is known other than that he came from a northern region of modern Turkey. Once he became Hadrian’s beloved, the young man became a very public figure.

Tragedy struck on an imperial tour of Egypt when Antinous drowned in the Nile River under mysterious circumstances. The devastated Hadrian commissioned statues of Antinous and founded the city in Egypt called Antinoupolis, creating a cult in his lover’s honor. Worship of Antinous spread, and over time portraits of him were produced throughout the Roman Empire, depicting the emperor’s beloved with a characteristic oval face, smooth complexion, deep-set eyes, full lips, and distinctive hairstyle of thick, wavy locks. In one such depiction, Antinous wears a style of headdress associated with the Egyptian god Osiris, who also drowned in the Nile and was reborn from its waters.

Claude Cahun

Claude Cahun (1894–1954) was the name preferred by the French photographer Lucy Schwob, who settled in Paris in the early 1920s with lifelong romantic partner Suzanne Malherbe, also known as Marcel Moore. Cahun challenged traditional ideas about gender through intimate photographic self-portraits that often doubled her famously androgynous image.


Claude Cahun

For Object, the only sculptural work by the artist known to still exist in its original form, Cahun assembled a doll’s hand, a cloud-shaped piece of wood, and a tennis ball painted with an open eye, suggesting female anatomy. On the base of the work, Cahun added text, in French: “The Marseillaise is a revolutionary song”—a well-known slogan from France’s antifascist coalition—and “The law punishes counterfeiters with forced labor,” taken from Belgian currency. In both image and word, Object juxtaposes the unexpected.

Masculine? Feminine? It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me.

—Claude Cahun, 1928

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