Photographing the Seventies: Breaking the Rules


The decades of the 1960s and 1970s are notable for a return of manipulated photography, that is, photography that is not “straight” but changed or manipulated by the artist for expressive reasons. One of the debates surrounding photography when it was invented in 1839 was whether or not it was an “art” or a mere “record.” and many of the early photographers worked hard to manipulate their images to make them look like watercolors or graphic drawings. This softened focus which was equated with art, not a machine, became a movement, called “Pictorialism.” For years darkroom manipulation played a significant role in allowing photography to be accepted as “art,” until “straight photography” of the early twentieth century redefined the “art” qualities of photography.

For over fifty years, straight photography was the prevailing approach and there was a unwritten but powerful rule that the only “serious” photography was “straight” and black and white. Then in what began as an underground gesture in the sixties, photographers began breaking these rules, using colored film and manipulating in the darkroom. There are a variety of ways to manipulate a photograph, from colored filters, used by Carrie Mae Weams, interference with the development process, seen with Lucas Samaras, and photomontage,which dates back to the nineteenth century.

Called “composite photography” by its most famous proponent, Oscar Rejlander, the final work was composed of many photographs combined into one. While Rejlander created complex photographic works of art, such as Two Ways of Life (1857), an homage to Thomas Couture’s painting, Romans During the Decadence (1847), cutting and pasting pieces of photographs was a common practice. During the nineteenth century, the photograph album played a very important role in late Victorian society. The images of family and friends were important components to bourgeois identity and the record of this social life was carefully recorded and the album was faithfully attended, usually by women. Many of these albums have survived and show that collaging family photographs were an important part of what we today would call “Scrapbooking.”

This collaging technique (then unnamed) was so common that the German government routinely adjusted the “news” with altered photographs. This practice caught the attention of the Dada artists and John Heartfield and Hannah Höch turned a way to tell a lie into a way to reveal the truth through what they called “photomontage.” But for several decades, photomontage was linked to a particular movement. Among the earliest late twentieth century artists to collage photographs together in a photomontage was Robert Heinecken and Jerry Uelsmann. Heinecken was a subversive political activist, opening using pornography (soft core) and mass media works which he simply appropriated and collaged (in the darkroom) with radically altered results. Uelsmann, in contrast, was closer to Magritte, using disparate images juxtaposed to create surreal visions.

These pioneers were indicative of new trends that were noted by influential photographic curators in The Persistence of Vision (1967), at the George Eastman House was organized by Nathan Lyons and included Jerry Uelsmann, Ray Metzker and Robert Heinecken, who was also included in Photography into Sculpture (1970) MoMA, organized by Peter Bunnell. Other exhibitions included, Collage and the Photo-Image, at MoMA, organized by Berenice Rose. These shows exhibited the works of Jerry Uelsmann, a silver printmaker (silver, referring to his method of development) of photomontages, combined superimposed images, while Southern photographer, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, produced Southern Gothic subject by the use of masks to dehumanize humans and to mystify ordinary reality with his naïve return to Surrealism.

This sudden departure from straight photography was certainly a response to the limitations of the single untouched image. These artists worked with their version of a cinematic storyboard, telling stories. Impacted by the Viet Nam War, Robert Heinecken waged guerrilla warfare against the purist aesthetic and assaulted the traditional form of photography. Many of his works are anti-war images; others are pornographic, referring to forbidden sources and to forbidden subjects in period when most artists are politically silent. Although he was supposedly a vernacular photographer, Danny Lyon was another outspoken photographer of the 1960s with his series of images of the Civil Rights era and of Southern Blacks, in chain gangs, in a Georgia prison.

Heinecken and Lyon were very engaged as artists, not with people, like the street photographers of the previous decades, but with events. Rare for artists of their era, these photographers responded to the intense and divisive politics of the Civil Rights Movement and of the Viet Nam War. Lyon shifted subtly from journalism to commentary when he became the photographer for the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee as what we today would call an “embed.” A (Jewish) photographer from New York, Lyon devoted his career to outlaws (motorcycle gangs) and prisoners and the discarded peoples of America and became famous for his moving and jolting images of the struggles for equality. His partisan and partial stance broke the rules of “objectivity” laid down by the documentary photographers of the thirties and forties.

Heinecken’s most famous works was an intervention: he took a horrific photograph of an American soldier carrying the severed head of a soldier from North Viet Nam. This war crime, which was a metaphor for the questionable legality of the war itself, was hidden under the constant barrage of propaganda of “progress” coming from the American military at the time. Heinecken, in his turn, beheaded the American soldier and gave him a new head, the smiling face of a fashion model. This composite photograph was then superimposed onto the pages of selected fashion magazines, which were then replaced on the shelves of the store. We know nothing of the reception of the fashionistas who, in search of the latest trends, would have come across this bizarre image.

These photographers led the way into the future and the result of their manipulations and their commentary on contemporary life can be seen in digital photography in the twenty-first century. Duane MIchals, like Robert Heinecken, was an isolated loner, breaking the rules. He was one of the first photographer to “stage” photography, operating in what was later called “the directorial mode.” Michals worked with actors, whom he directed in small and enigmatic mini-dramas, often narrated over several images in sequence augmented with accompanying texts. In addition, Michals manipulated many of his images, allowing him to recreate psychological and spiritual states in his reanimating of Surrealism.

Photography in the seventies was transitional, going away from one long held set of positions and moving toward another approach: that of examining the nature of photography and its supposed relation to “truth.” The result of the rule breaking and rejection of photography-as-truth in this decade was a schism between past and future. A line in the sand had been crossed and that line was the distance between Modernism and Postmodernism. Just as it was impossible to paint with conviction, it became impossible to believe that photography was anything but a subjective art form. In this post, the rule-breakers were discussed, in the next post, conceptual photography in the postmodern mode will be examined.

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Photographing the Sixties


The new generation of photographers, led by Robert Frank, did not come into their own until Edward Steichen resigned from the Museum of Modern Art, the only art museum at that time that seriously collected photography. A disciple of Stieglitz, Steichen had a traditional view of photography as art, dividing his own career between art and documentary photography. His last show at MoMA in 1955 was The Family of Man, a vast accumulation of photographs of people, with the theme that we are all connected because we are human. In the midst of atomic testing, McCarthy’s witch-hunts, and racial discord, such humanistic sentimentalism seemed utterly naïve, but the show was a huge success. His successor, John Szarkowski, was more open-minded about new photography and more in tune with the realities of the age.

Robert Frank’s The Americans said it all and by 1960, its found iconography and severe formalist style in black and white was taken up by the younger generation and dominated American photography for decades. Frank’s photographs did not depend upon content for their impact. True, he had found a wealth of new and innovative images and had created a new vocabulary of objects considered worthy of the photographer’s eye. But Frank also photographed in a way similar to Minimal painting, a non-composition with no discernable center or focus that was structured on a grid.

The composition or design used by Frank was rigorously frontal and always divisible down the middle, but the conceptual center was elusive and could be found, not through a reading of the content but through a reading of the form in relation to the content. The first of eighty-odd images forces the viewer to stare at a brick wall. His juxtapositions were startling—a shrouded car presided over by mourning palm trees, an untended runaway baby scooting past a passive jukebox—and thwarted narrative. The fascination of his photographs lies in the subtle and insistent repetitive motifs, organized by one of the great Eyes of the century who could frame the unexpected—two fat backs of Chicago politicians—in a perfect formal resolution.

It can also be said that photography was owned and re-defined by John Szarkowski after he succeeded Edward Steichen at MoMA as Director of Photography in 1962. Szarkowski answered Steichen’s sentimental and reductive exhibition, The Family of Man with The Photographer’s Eye (1964), which challenged expressionism, eliminated the “artiness” Steichen and Stieglitz and stressed the specificity of photography and what is particular to the medium. John Szarkowski introduced the new generation of photographers in 1967 at MoMA’s New Documents exhibition, introducing what was called the “snapshot” look, inspired by Frank. The 1960s were “owned” by Garry Winogrand and Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander the way that Frank had “owned” the 1950s.

Szarkowski emphasized the works of Lee Friedlander, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, André Kertész, and Edward Weston and eliminated the notion of private truths. Private truth and beautiful photography was continued under the guidance of Minor White who pursued the concept of a photographic image as a poetic metaphor in his publication, Aperture. With the photo essay now a dead form, the photographic book, inaugurated by Frank, became the preferred form of photographic publication. Documentary photography was succeeded by a kind of gritty street photography that sometimes celebrated life in the streets uncritically and at other times commented upon the horrors of post-War life.

New and groundbreaking exhibitions made it clear that the aesthetic ground of photography had shifted, including Twelve Photographers of the American Social Landscape (1966) at Brandeis University and Toward a Social Landscape (1966) at the George Eastman House. Documentary or vernacular photography had become hybrid, both a personal reflection and a record of what was experienced, moving beyond photography as a social cause. Like the Italian neo-realists, these photographers used urban setting as raw material, relentlessly photographing the unsuspecting inhabitants of city streets.

In their gritty realism, the trio, Winnogrand, Arbus, Friedlander, was indebted to New York’s Photo League of the forties, but their primary concerns was new content and not new form. Vernacular photography took an anti-meaning position as a reaction to what were now perceived of as the excesses of the supposed “expressionism” of the beautiful. Many of the images are shocking, ugly or simply banal. Although social and political commentary can be read into the topical images, the meaning of photograph was embedded in medium itself.

For Winnogrand, the camera was an extension of the eye. And Winnogrand’s eye was that of a voyeur, especially when it came to women. “Photographing is perception (seeing) and description (operating the camera to make a record) of the seeing,” Garry Winogrand said. Far from being the “truth,” “The photograph is an illustration of what the camera saw,” as Winogrand asserted. The experience of the photograph is only the experience of the photograph. The camera cannot lie, but the camera cannot tell the truth; the camera can only transform. As Winnogrand stated, “I photograph to find out what the world looks like photographed.” “I don’t have anything to say in any picture…” The photographer made extreme use of the wide angle lens of his hand-held camera. Not since Ben Shahn had a photographer framed his images in such a skewed off-center manner.

Vernacular photography does not tell stories or sentimentalize but describes the political and social world and culture of a period. Winnogrand’s tilted camera was an extension of the mood of New York City, on the other hand, Lee Friedlander linked his work to the theory of photography through the more radical use of public subject matter. His works were constructed like collage in the fragmented and discontinuous parts, put together in a manner borrowed icons directly from Walker Evans and Robert Frank. Like Frank, Friedlander took a trip across America and the photographs of this journey are often an homage.

Like Frank, Friedlander like the blocked view, the plate glass window, the television screen. Friedlander was fascinated with ambiguity, using reflections and shadows to confuse the viewer and making it unclear where the photographer was standing when the photograph was taken. If Winnogrand made his presence known by his position as stalker and mocking observer, Friedlander was both a visible and invisible presence. Often inside the photograph and part of the image, Friedlander is both the taker and the taken in his own photographs. The result is an internal chaos within the strictly controlled formal composition.

In contrast to the studied and stubborn banality of Friedlander, Diane Arbus sought the unusual and the grotesque. Often guilty of exploitation and voyeurism, Arbus explored unconventional people to the point that the content often overwhelmed the form. No one could be more cruel than Diane Arbus who had a life long fascination for exhibitionism, both her own and the strangeness of others. The daughter of a wealthy Jewish family, Arbus lived her life as a protected observer of all those who are considered “strange” in America, the lower classes, the fat, the ugly, the deformed, the old, the short, the tall.

“For me the subject of the photograph is always more important than the picture…” as Diane Arbus described her merciless style of detachment. She became a favorite of those magazines that supported avant-garde photography, such as Esquire, and did not, like Winnogrand and Friedlander publish photographic books. Her subjects were widely skewed from freaks to the rich and powerful who were a freak in their own way. Her strange and moody temperament drive her obsessive and disturbing probing style that inspired Norman Mailer to say, “Giving a camera to Diane Arbus is like giving a hand grenade to a baby.” It is impossible to look at the image of a young boy clutching a hand grenade, the stunned king and queen of the Senior Ball, the giant and his parents without wondering about the connection between these riveting images and her mental illness.

Vernacular photography gave rise to Conceptual Photography, which explores straight photography radically, by parodying the vernacular with unexpected insight, wit, and humor. Many of these successors to the trio, Arbus, Winnogrand, and Friedlander, used the flash, instead of ambient light, and color photography in preference to black and white. The ironic content of Joel Sternfeld, the unexpected beauty of Joel Meyerowitz and the topographic landscapes of Stephen Shore, Jan Groover and William Eggelston reinforced the disappearance of the photo-essay. The images are so strong, that in the tradition of their predecessors, each image stands on its own. The unprecedented exploration of straight photography resulted in a topographical description of 1960s and 1970s.

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Robert Frank and “The Americans,” Part Two


Following in the footsteps of Walker Evans who, in the late 1930’s had produced The American Photographs, Robert Frank found the humble and forgotten America. But where Evans, the sophisticated and urbane New Englander, had located American Quaint and Picturesque, aestheticizing even dire poverty with his rectilinear formalism, Frank found a new America of post-war prosperity, poverty, power and alienation. He found an America socially divided and stratified into a caste system. He found an American hooked on cheap, easy entertainment, on fast foods and cheap thrills. And this was an America, because it was just coming into being, was in process of being invented, that had never been photographed.

“I was absolutely free,” Frank said later, “just to turn left or turn right without knowing what I would find.” But one traveled at one’s own peril in the land of the free. He was arrested in Arkansas, Frank was jailed for hours, simply because he was a “foreigner.” At a time when the South was on the defensive, Frank took his life in his hand, perhaps unknowingly at first, when he photographed African-Americans as the second-class citizens they were. In Mississippi, his life was threatened. We can only wonder how the xenophobia and racism registered on a Holocaust survivor and a Jew, who probably had no idea that being Jewish in the South was only a bit less dangerous than being Black. He later related,

What a lonely time it can be in America, what a tough country it is…I saw for the first time the way blacks were treated. It was surprising to me. But it didn’t make me hate America. It made me understand how people can be.

While the old generation was angered at the obvious political content of the book, the new generation saw in Frank’s work a new direction for the photography of “realism.” Photojournalism was in decline, slated to fall to television news, and the days of the big picture magazines, Life and Look were numbered. Frank had no use for photojournalism’s phony realism, which organized images into a neat narration; life was rarely neat. According to the recent catalogue, Looking In: Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” by Sarah Greenough, the American critics were not impressed: “A slashing and bitter attack on some U.S. institutions”—“A Degradation of a Nation!”—“a sad poem for sick people.”

Frank’s approach to his subjects was ambiguous. He was neither intimate nor empathic with his subjects, like Dorothea Lange, nor was he distanced, like an anthropologist, like Walker Evans. Frank was both present and absent. He seemed to glide through an environment, discretely, without interacting. Famously he used a small hand-held 35 mm camera, and used it like a notebook, quickly taking sketches or the overlooked and the unnoticed. Out of what must have been a vast warehouse of impressions, Frank seems to have found a series of “found” fragments that must have coalesced into a complete impression of the margins of America.

The fifties was a very dark period in America. Although disguised by the new television situation and domestic comedies, and smothered by a blanket of compensatory materialism, there was the dark threat of a new and lingering total war, the Cold War. There were many thoughtful Americans who looked beyond the affluence and were concerned that the population was being distracted from serious changes with serious consequences. With the Cold War always hovering in the background, Frank’s American flags (he photographed several) were not revered or even iconic.

The very first photograph in the book was the bottom piece of a flag, stretched across a brick wall blocking the windows, obscuring the people inside the building—a fragment of a flag and the theme for the book. The dead center of this photograph is the brick wall between the two windows. The viewer is blocked at every turn. The photograph of a trolley in New Orleans shows the same open/closed, grid composition that neatly and powerfully showed whites in the front and blacks in the back of the bus. And here is where we might begin to understand the true content of Frank’s work: this photograph is not about its mild-mannered title, Trolley—New Orleans, but segregation in defiance of a Supreme Court Order.

In photograph after photograph, the same ambiguity ruled. Frank never said, he simply showed, held up a mirror to Americans. The camera’s focus was clear, the composition was centered and gridded but the content, the topic, the very raison d’être of the image was in doubt. It was the jukebox, the drive-in movie, discovered or captured, “found” by Frank’s 35 mm camera on the run, created new pop icons before Americans were aware of their new gods. Frank, impressed by the grainy film of Italian avant-garde cinema, filmed on the cheap by the Neo-Realist directors, shot his images with available light, black and white film with a 35mm camera.

Frank was a member of a small group of contrarians who disapproved of America’s materialism, the Beatniks. The introduction to The Americans was written by the Beat novelist, Jack Kerouac, author of On the Road (1957). The dissidents were sensitive to the dark side of America in the first decade of the Cold War. According to Krouac, Frank “sucked a sad poem out of America.” The black and white images symbolized despair and hope, but the old guard saw only sarcasm and satire. Who, after all, would photograph a tattered American flag? Who would photograph a juke box? Who would photograph a rodeo? The subjects captured by Frank were new and common at the same time, popular culture, and vernacular scenes. Jonathan Day, in Robert Frank’s “The Americans:” The Art of Documentary, quoted Frank, writing to his parents, “America is an interesting country but there is a lot here that I do not like and I would never accept. I am trying to show this in my photos.”

The small camera with its wide-angle lenses caught America off guard, candidly, capturing the ambiguity and the quirky off centeredness of “real” unarranged life. The images were unfamiliar, the people were unknown, the brutally candid and coldly impersonal stance was unsettling to the readers who were asked to put aside familiar aesthetic readings for this new definition of photography.Frank also created a new vocabulary for the photographers who followed him; as for Frank himself, he photographed only rarely after that. There was nothing more left to say.

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Robert Frank and “The Americans,” Part One



After Robert Frank, contemporary photography was never the same. In the middle of the twentieth century, photography was redefined by one book, The Americans, published in 1958 in France as Les Américains, and in America in 1960: fifty years ago. Before this book of carefully themed and arranged images of America, photography was roughly divided between “art” and “popular” photography, including commercial and documentary forms. Art photography, like commercial photography, was “straight photography,” meaning that the photograph was not manipulated. What Robert Frank achieved was the creation of a space in-between art and commerce, called “vernacular” photography.

As the terms suggest, “art” photography concerned itself with that which was photographed beautifully and made into beautiful prints, while “commercial” photography was used for advertising and “documentary” photography was employed for record making. A Swiss emigrant, Frank “documented” America in an “artful” fashion, separating art from documentary photography. The result was “vernacular photography” in which the every day, the ordinary was photographed with seeming casualness but with striking formal finesse. Akin to the vernacular glance of Robert Raushchenberg’s paintings, Frank’s photography ignored beauty in favor of the quotidian, looking at sights that were present but unnoticed.

Funded by a Guggenheim grant, the seminal book, The Americans, was supposed to be about America as seen through the eyes of a foreigner, as his grant application stated, “what one naturalized American finds to see in the United States that signifies the kind of civilization born here and spreading elsewhere.” Accustomed to being admired by Europeans, the American audience for Frank’s 1955 journey across the United States no doubt expected an homage to the Land of the Free. The photographer took 767 rolls of film and returned back to New York with some 27,000 photographs. After a year and half of sorting through the possibilities, Frank selected eighty-three images. Traditionally, photographers showed their art in galleries but Frank went a different route with a book, a format that allowed him to arrange the sequences into themes and to set up a formal rhythm was the reader/viewer turned each page.

In his penetrating 1986 illustrated essay, “Robert Frank: Dissecting the American Image,” Jno Cook explained,

The Americans uses a form completely different from the narrative, the illustrative, even from the diaristic and album type of photographic literature, and certainly from the “photo essay.” The anatomical form has a clear parallel in literature, and had been approached with the encyclopedic presentations of Walker Evans and August Sander. But Prank went further by taking The Americans to me expansive experience of a playful admixture of public and private, by bringing the emotional stance in direct contact with an acceptance of the commonplace, and especially by amassing endless qualifications on themes — the bewildering and dislocating, yet stylized, organization of the sequences, as in the free use of parody, incessant punning and occasional moralizing. The display of an intimate knowledge of contemporary photography, both European and America, turned out with a lively ironic wit, and set amid an overwhelming barrage of images from the American experience, presented a style which cautioned against jumping to conclusions and argued against an exploration of its meaning in any terms. This is a modernist argument; it is existential, ad visually it implies the surreal.

Because it operated like a book, The Americans could be “read” as much as much as it could be seen. Although , taken on a Guggenheim grant awarded in 1955, Frank’s photographs were not published in America until 1958 and were reviled and criticized by all but young photographers. The version of America from the perspective of a Swiss tourist was a socio-economic critique. The “America” captured by this moody photographer was not the “America” of spacious skies and purple mountains majesty. Frank’s America was not a scenic America but a nation composed of people who seemed alienated from each other. The question is how is one to account for this abrupt change in mood and approach that altered the definition of “America” from a land of scenic wonders to a culture on the edge of change?

Frank was a Holocaust survivor. Being Jewish, his live was saved because he grew up in neutral Switzerland. On the other sides of the borders of the surrounded nation was certain death in the territories controlled by Hitler. After the Second World War, Frank left Switzerland, never to return, and emigrated to New York in 1947. Isolated during the war, Swiss photographers still followed the old-fashioned approach to the beautiful print beautifully composed and lit. In contrast, America had developed a documentary and journalistic style that was direct, confrontational, quick to grasp a “picture.” But, oddly enough, Frank’s first job in America was as a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, and the demands of fashion photography are very formal; but he was given a chance to travel, apparently he became interested in studying his adopted nation.

We do not know, and may never know, the full range of the photographs Frank took for his Guggenheim Grant. All we have is the eighty-three selections. Because the photographer is famously taciturn, we are uncertain as to his lack of starry eyed idealism. But during the mid-fifties, the “Americans” displayed to the public were largely white and middle class and were apparently living in traditional suburbs. Frank presented a wide range of “Americans,” many of whom were sub-cultures, such as the transvestites, others were people of color, black and brown. The only precedent for a white photographer to publish images of lower class people of color was an artist like Helen Levitt, a street photographer, who worked in Harlem.

From looking at the photographs produced by Frank, especially those he took in Europe during these formative years, it is clear that he was careful about him artistic mentors. He rejected the easy thrill of Henri Cartier-Breson’s “decisive moment,” the journalistic reportage approach of Margaret Bourke-White, but his deep interest in Eugène Atget fed into the innate formalism of his youth. Frank always favored the centered composition of Atget, a point of view that never looked composed or arranged and always appeared to be spontaneous. Atget photographed the edges of Paris, the small but telling details, gathered together. Atget’s approach to Paris was analytic, studying Paris by increments. In contrast, Frank’s American mentor was Walker Evans who had used a late view finder camera and photographed everything, animate and inanimate from dead center, a summing up synthetic approach. But, according to Weston Naef, curator of photography at the Getty, there is a bright line from Atget to Evans to Frank.

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“White” Art

Finding White Art

There is an interesting painting by the (white male) artist, Mark Tansey, White on White (1986), featuring an unexpected encounter between a Bedouin tribe and a band of Eskimos. At the edges of a sandstorm and a snowstorm is a white out, a reference to a famous 1913 painting by Kasimir Malevich. But the concept of a “white out” could equally apply to the whiteness of the art seen in art galleries and in museums and in auction houses. The whiteness of art is stressed (put under stress) when the occasional artist of color enters the purity of the white cubes, usually reserved for whitened art. The reason for the white out of art of color by the tiny brush loaded with “white out” is the survival of the atavistic belief that “white is right.”

So now there is the question—what is white art? This question only brings up another question, what is not white art? Art institutions, which were established in America in the nineteenth century, displayed only art by white people about white people. Some artists actually included people of color in their works but almost always in contrast to whites in a way to call attention to the differences of “white” and “color.” Of course, there were artists of color, but their art would never be seen in museums. If people of color appeared in museums, it would be as characters playing proscribed roles in white art, such as the paintings of boxing by George Bellows.

A famous example of a white photographer “constructing” Otherness was Edward Curtis, who photographed the West and its people. We can assume Curtis meant well had good intentions, but at the beginning of the twentieth century, he was a man of his own time intent on depicting the Other in terms of white assumptions. His extensive project, documenting Native-Americans, could be seen as part of a cultural effort to establish “difference” to justify white American dominance. The indigenous culture of Native Americans was being actively wiped out and suppressed by the whites, and, yet, those same white comforted themselves with a growing industry of images of the “Vanishing American” and the romance of the Wild West before it was “tamed.”

Curtis was later accused of tainting his supposedly “documentary” photographs by dressing up his subjects in clothes they no longer wore and by asking them to act out rituals they no longer conducted. The impact of the resulting images was to give a white audience the illusion that the Native Americans were frozen outside of historical time, untouched by the wars of extermination that had reduced their numbers and had incarcerated them on reservations. The ideology of whiteness had a very real purpose—that of alleviating collective guilt by making the misdeeds of the white invisible.

There seems to be a vacancy of reciprocity: when faced with the possibility of a choice, just as women artists rarely represent the male, people of color rarely represented white people. Robert Duncanson, an African-American artist, avoided the problem of the reversal of power by painting landscape paintings. One of the exceptions is a painting of Uncle Tom and Little Eva in which the young girl is standing, clad in white, her whiteness shining like a flame while the older man, dark and passive and seated, fixed his attention on her. Duncanson conformed to the expectations of his white audience and white patrons in this painting but a little white girl holds the hand of a black man in a careful act of subversion, smuggled in under the pious cover of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

On the other hand, white artists throughout the history of European and American art represented Africans, and the history of these depictions is laid out in the late Albert Boime’s The Art of Exclusion: Representing Blacks in the Nineteenth Century in 1990, the same year as a groundbreaking exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, Facing History: The Black Image in American Art 1710-1940 with a catalogue by the late Guy McElroy and Henry Lewis Gates, Jr. which showed works of art by both races, black and white, representing African-Americans.

There is very little art historical research or analysis of what should be called “white art.” But it is possible to put forward a few thoughts. First, it could be said that any group of artists that is all white produces “white art.” An example of an all white group producing “white art” might be the Abstract Expressionists whose main artistic message that they were making “humanistic” art. On the surface such claims might seem noble and laudable, but, against a backdrop of racism, the term “human” has racist connotations in America. Only whites were designated as “human,” having the right to vote and the right to be artists.

(Male) artists in the Fifties, if they were white, probably never considered that they were enjoying the “unearned privileges” of whiteness. They probably never wondered why they were all white, much less why none of their group was black. They probably all took for granted their privileges as white males: only they could be artists and only they were entitled to speak as humans to humanity. Pop Art would be another example of “white art,” not just because all the artists were white, not just because the Black artists of the Sixties were ghettoized, but also because Pop Art and popular culture were about an affluent white culture of consumption.

Few art history texts take into account that the pop culture upon which the art was based was for, by, and about whites and was almost completely unavailable to African Americans. This society of abundance, swamped by commodities, was created by a federal government that deliberately shifted funding to white middle class groups and deliberately excluded through a maze of laws and regulations, communities of color from these benefits. Roy Lichtenstein’s paintings of comic books are written about in terms of his use of “low art,” but the fact that the comic books he appropriated were all about white subjects.

Andy Warhol’s portraits were all of white pop icons, and no blacks appeared until Jean-Michel Basquiat and the painter’s mother. But on the other hand, Warhol was the only artist of his day who referred to the Civil Rights Movement in his series on Birmingham race riots. Pop Art was, like Abstract Expressionism, considered to be “American” and yet it ignored the multicultural reality that made up the United States. Art followed the ideology of the larger culture by defining “American” as “white.” Pop Art shared with Minimal Art a prevailing characteristic of American art during the Sixties: a determined refusal to face topical events and current politics.

“Fine Art” claimed transcendence from the real world and yet it actively excluded certain people as “artists.” Part of the desired “transcendence” was the lack of political content in high art, but the effect was one of a secondary exclusion of people of color. In the midst of the Civil Rights Movement and in the midst of the Viet Nam War, both major stories involving people of color, art was supposedly neutral and abstract. While one could state with correctness that Minimal Art was totally abstract and could not be expected to address political issues, it was convenient that in a time of social turmoil that art remained non-representational and non-confrontational and thus marketable.

Even when representation came back in with Photorealism, for example, figurative art was overwhelmingly white in content. When painting “returned” after being exiled by Conceptual Art, whites dominated the field of painting. Here and there, a few women crept in around the edges and pushed their way in, but most of the artists were as white and male as the Abstract Expressionists. The content and the characters of representational art were all white as the artists did what artists always do; they painted what they knew.

The only artist of color to be found in the eighties was Jean-Michel Basquiat and some of the graffiti artists, all of whom were destroyed, one way or the other, by a white system that used them, consumed their art and discarded them when the craze for street art had passed. White artists, in contrast, could count on careers that could be developed and nurtured over time. The art world might move on past white artists such as David Salle and Eric Fischl, but those same white artists became “blue chip” artists in the maturity of their careers. It would be inconceivable for the art world to “discard” or to “use up” white artists.

The imagery of both Salle and Fischl could be termed as “white art” because their content was white. Salle appropriated imagery from white culture, from pornography to fine arts, with no reference to any black imagery. Fischl, a white man from a Long Island suburb, painted scenes of middle class white suburban life, again excluding blacks, who, of course, lived elsewhere, in ghettos. But all artists are ego-centric, concentrating on their own visions which are often personal. Should anyone require any artist to make art about all races equally? Of course not, but the question of “white art” raises another question: that of representation.

While white painters, sculptors, and other fine artists usually paint what they know—their own culture—photographers, usually white, often depict people of color as part of a documentary project. And when a white photographer photographs a person of color, dynamics of power and racial construction come into play. Only certain groups of people have the power to represent and that group is usually white and male. From the very invention of photography, photographic imagery was used to document and catalogue the Other put under surveillance by the white lens.

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Studying “Whiteness”


The study of “whiteness” is a newly emerged field of scholarship, only about ten to fifteen years old. One if its leading scholars, Richard Dyer, expressed concern about even embarking upon such an enterprise for, after all, isn’t the entire field of Western culture about “whiteness” or the lives of white people? Why pile white on top of white? Why add to what is already there? And worst of all, why risk reinforcing the power of white people? The answer is paradoxical. Whiteness is “invisible,” according to Dyer. Whiteness is invisible because it is assumed. It is assumed that an artist, for example, is white, because one uses the term “African-American artist,” rather than simply “artist.” This course has used the term “people of color,” not because it is a palatable term, but because it is a convenient term that serves a limited purpose, that of designating artists who are outside of the mainstream because they are “of color.” However, white is a color. But we do not “see” this color.

Whiteness is invisible because it is assumed to be the “norm.” Everything and everyone else has to be labeled as an exception, outside of the norm. Many writers and intellectuals think it would be appropriate to label every noun, saying, for example, “Jackson Pollock was a white male middle class American artist.” This modest attempt to make whiteness visible often meets with irritation and hostility on the parts of whites, who are uncomfortable when whiteness is called out and made specific. The purpose of studying whiteness, then, is to make whites aware of being white and all that whiteness entails and to examine exactly what “whiteness” really is.

The art world has a long history of assuming the whiteness of art and of making the white nature of art invisible by excluding art make by people of color. Well into the Twentieth Century, art by the Other was exhibited in anthropological museums or in ethnographic displays. Well into the Twentieth Century, art by the Other was labeled “folk art” or “ethnic art.” These exclusionary designations flew in the face of formalism, a form of analyzing art, favored in New York City by art critics.

According to formalist tenets, one analyzed art from a “disinterested” and “detached” standpoint. One can remain indifferent to emotional attachment to content or subject matter only if one judges the value of the work of art in terms of its formal qualities: line, color, form, shape, composition, etc. So far so good. Formalism guarantees a fair and just reading of a work of art in its own terms, suggesting that any work of art, regardless of who has made it will get a judicious hearing in the court of art critics. And honorable hearing is precisely the promise of formalism and the raison d’être or reason for formalism—-to give avant-garde a chance of being accepted.

However, even a cursory examination of who’s who in the art world reveals that the vast majority of the prominent and high earning artists are white (and male). Despite formalism, despite the philosophy of aesthetics which does not mention race or gender, who the artist is matters. If you are not white, you are excluded from the art world. If you are excluded, then all art is white. Therefore, art is white. All that the public sees is art made by white people, and therefore “art” is white. One could assume that if you are not white, you are not an artist and what you make is not art. Clearly, aesthetics and formalism has a racial and gender component that was unspoken but very active and very real. “Art” was supposed to be above the considerations of the real world. It was not.

How did “whiteness” come about? Whiteness is a new invention, like the concept of “race” and is linked to European imperialism and colonialism and empire building, especially in the New World. “Race” is not a biological fact but a “social fact,” which refers to morphological differences among human beings, from the texture of one’s hair, to the shape of one’s eyes, one’s nose, one’s lips, to the color of one’s skin. But mere “differences” do not constitute a scientific category of “race.” Until the eighteenth century, and into the nineteenth, “race” referred to the characteristics of one’s nationality. For example, the French “race” drank wine with all meals, while the English “race” preferred tea.

But race took on morphological content when the Europeans arrived in the New World. The New World experience was not the first encounter between Europeans and people of another “race.” Think, for example of the presence of Moors (Black Africans) in Spain and clashes with Arabs during the Crusades and Marco Polo’s long stay in China. Encounters with another “race” didn’t result in actually living with the Other. In fact, the Moors were expelled from Spain in 1492, the year Columbus “discovered” America. What changed was when the Europeans arrived in North American with the idea of staying there. The encounter had become a situation in which whites had to live side by side with Native Americans and Africans, sharing land and social space with them.

It is known that during the seventeenth century the discourse of racism began to form. Territory, land, ownership and control of the New World became a contest among racial groups, a contest that the British colonists were determined to win. The precedent for this racial discourse—that is a series of laws and customs and life styles, etc.—was the terminology developed by the British to describe the Irish. The Irish were arguably the first group to be set apart in order to be conquered and colonized on the basis of their “essential” “inferiority.” The British invaded and occupied the small island off their western shores under the reign of Henry VIII, and the Irish did not end the struggle for their freedom until about five years ago.

The Irish occupation was justified by language, which insisted upon the “inferiority” and the “savagery” of the inhabitants of the Emerald isle. The discourse and its terminology could be easily transferred to the Native Americans and to the Africans. The British in America believed that God had granted them divine rights to a “virgin” “wilderness” that was without “people,” inhabited only by “savages” who were “uncivilized.” Over that century, the concept of “whiteness” was forged. “Whiteness” became defined as “British” and “Anglo-Saxon” and “Protestant” and “American.” But “whiteness,” in these early decades was still linked with upper class.

White people were actually hierarchically arranged in ethnic categories, from high to low. Many came to America as indentured servants, treated no differently from the African slaves. The problem for the upper class whites was how to keep the lower-class whites and the Blacks and the Indians from uniting in a common cause against their oppressors. In order to maintain the power of the upper class whites, those in charge manipulated the lower class whites into working against their own economic best interests by training them to identify with their fellow “whites” instead of with those who were equally oppressed.

By the time the nation became independent, “Whiteness” became an accepted ideology, a narrative that explained everything and resolved all contradictions, by eliminating the Others. America was supposed to be a democracy, founded on the idea of freedom and self-determination and right to improve oneself. However, there were peoples within the borders who were denied full enfranchisement, the right to vote, the right to participate completely socially and economically, and most of the benefits of what “America” promised. The contradiction between promising rights and denying rights was resolved by simply asserting that certain people, because they did not posses the necessary “whiteness,” were inherently inferior and undeserving of American rights and benefits.

Not only that, certain people were “essentially” and “inherently” inferior, meaning that the Other could not improve, could not move forward, because by “nature” s/he was doomed to subservience by God and by biology. There was no hope and no future for people of color. Only the whites were Americans, and everyone else was not an “American” and, therefore, was not worthy of legal recognition. Thus by linking “whiteness” with “superiority” and “color” with “inferiority,” the conflict between democracy and the denial of rights could be resolved. The Founding Fathers were well aware of the contradictions as they were writing the Constitution but they chose to not extend the benefits of freedom, self-determination, and social mobility to any but white men of property. An “American” was a selected white person who was defined in terms of exclusion of “color.”

African-Americans and other “Americans of color” certainly did not accept their designation as second class. But unlike whites they were always in the position of having to “prove” themselves. If a person of color achieved and succeeded, s/he was labeled an “exception.” Unlike a white person, a person of color did not have the privilege of being immediately credible and accepted. By the end of the nineteenth century, America was self-defined as “white” and all of the cultural institutions worked to erase the actual diversity that was America. The divide between “white” and “color” was understood as “natural” and not as the result of social and economic forces that privileged one group over the other.

Public education ignored the histories of peoples of color and had the effect of making white children ignorant of their own country and making children of color internalize their own supposed lack of history. Toys and dolls were all white and had the effect of teaching children of color that they were “inferior.” Newspapers, magazines, books, radios, and movies focused on the narratives of white people. When people of color appeared, it was usually in a criminal narrative, as a lesson of their inherent inability to “better” themselves. Until the end of the twentieth century, there were few people who had an understanding that the great social differences between the white and other races was in fact “unnatural,” created through discrimination.

During the early decades of twentieth century film, African-Americans were demonized or infantilized in mainstream films and often were played by whites in blackface. Native Americans, often played by Jewish actors, were portrayed as “savages” who got in the way of the brave settlers and deserved their extermination. Asians, also portrayed by whites in makeup, were represented in stereotypical fashions that both created and foregrounded differences. By the second half of the twentieth century, mainstream media, both popular and erudite, was almost all white, with only specialty publications focusing on people of color. In fact, in her book, The History of White People, Nell Irvin Painter, unveils the underside of American intellectual culture that trafficked in narratives of “Anglo-Saxon” superiority and reveals how recent these narrative justifying racism were both respectable and long-lasting in the nation’s history. Only Hitler’s genocidal actions in the Second World War made racist discourses problematic.

As late as the fifties, progressive Life Magazine lost readers when it printed pictures of black people, and mainstream films with black people were designed so that African-Americans could be edited out for Southern audiences. The Swiss photographer, Robert Frank, who traveled around America on a Guggenheim grant, photographed Blacks and was threatened by white Southerners. Overt racism was finally challenged by the moral force of the Civil Rights marches. The Civil Rights Movement was extraordinary in that it was the first time that mainstream American newspapers had not only reported on the lives of Blacks but also published pictures of them, even on the front pages.

For the first time in American history that whites had seen people of color in mainstream papers and magazines and on television. The phrase “the whole world is watching” acquired a special meaning, as America was suddenly exposed to the entire world as a nation based upon the myth of whiteness. During this period, whiteness as an ideology of superiority was exposed, however briefly. In the art world, however, business went on as usual and with rare exceptions, such as Charles White and Faith Ringgold, few artists of color were visible. The mere fact that their art was referred to as “Black Art” was indicative of the unstated fact that “Art” itself is “white.”

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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“Queer Art” and Lesbians

Girls Night Out

As was explained earlier, after the Witch Hunts of the seventeenth century, women who were single, independent, and sometimes lesbian were able to function with more freedom from legal persecution than their male counterparts. So great was the imperative to marry and reproduce in the nineteenth century, men who were “straight” and did not wed were looked upon with suspicion for not doing their reproductive duty. Women, if they were single and presumably virtuous, were excused from such complains and were allowed to form female based households. However, due to an expansion of economic and social opportunities for women, lesbians, openly identified as such, are more a product of the twentieth century than the nineteenth.

The Great War ended the nineteenth century and along with it, the complex network of moral, religious and social restrictions that had restrained the lives of women. After the slaughter on the battlefields, it was impossible to take authorities seriously and this was especially true of male authority figures who had led millions to their futile deaths. With many women left without male protectors and on their own, the females of the post-war period cut their hair and skirts short, discarded underwear, took up smoking and drinking and fast dancing, and drove cars and sped away from their old lives. Some of these women came together as lesbian couples and entered into the intellectual worlds of art and literature as new voices for the newly liberated society.

Described in Tirza True Latimer’s book, Women Together/Women Apart: Portraits of Lesbian Paris, Paris was a center for artistic lesbians, led by the famous couples, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Tolkas and Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks. Confining herself to a discrete black, white and gray palette, Brooks painted restrained portraits of the lesbian community in Paris during the 1920s. Her early works, like White Azelas of 1910 are related to Art Nouveau but by the post-war decade, Brooks had found her own linear style. Sometimes, as with The Black Cap from 1907 there are earth tones in her paintings but her self portrait, with her flat black hat and sharp edged white shirt that is more common. As explained in Wild Girls: Paris, Sappho, and Art: The Lives and Loves of Natalie Barney and and Romaine Brooks, Brooks, a fragile personality, hinged her life on that of her flamboyant companion and leader of a glittering salon and, for a brief period, painted the inhabitants of a privileged world.

Bonnie Zimmerman wrote in Encyclopedia of Lesbian and Gay Histories and Cultures, long, a city fascinated by lesbians, that Paris was, from the nineteenth century, a place of refuge for communities of women who would not be allowed to live anywhere else in such freedom. The only other city that offered such opportunities was post-war Berlin. This brief period of cultural freedom in France, during which women could still not vote, was cut short by the Second World War and the writings and art of these talented lesbians, the “Sapphos” and the “Amazons” were marginalized. Not until the women’s movement of the 1970s did this remarkable community with the writers such as Radclyffe Hall and painters such as Romaine Brooks and photographer Claude Cahun were recovered. The portrait of Una, Lady Troubridge who appropriated male attire from the monocle to the cravat to the trousers to the stern expression seems to trenchantly sum up a brave and forward looking women who were far ahead of the their time.

The portraits of Romaine Brooks were the visual equivalents of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and Radclyffe Hall’s Well of Loneliness. Today these sharp-dressed women, such as Peter, A Young English Girl, in their masculinized attire would be right at home in any fashion magazine. Another fifty years would have to pass before self-identified “lesbian artists” would be visible in the art world again. Although there are many lesbian artists, most women prefer to exist simply as “artists,” but there are those, such as Nicole Eisenman who have explicitedly lesbian content. Eisenman’s work ranges beyond lesbian content and is often a commentary on contemporary life in all its mindless absurdities and there is no doubt with its confrontational political content (lesbian or not) would not be well-received outside of the narrow art worlds of New York, London, Paris, Los Angeles and the international art fairs.

Eisenman is never precious about there art and is well-known for her bravura murals which she paints inside galleries and then paints them out when the show is over. Some of these murals comment, in the best Postmodern fashion, upon the history of art, especially art made by men. Other murals are amusingly anti-male and rather brutal in their assessment of the male of the species. In one series, Eisenman imagines a girl scout troop which has kidnapped a scout master from the boy scouts and have lashed him to a stake and used him as kindling for their campfire. Later in the series, the girls use penises for weenies in a weenie roast. Like her Los Angeles counterpart, Kim Dingle, Eisenman imagines an all female world, teaming with colorful and often violent inhabitants, on the move without men.

Dingle, who prefers to not be identified or limited as a “lesbian artist,” has created a world of wild girls, little girls in white dresses, a danger to society and to themselves. Free from adults and male authority figures these little girls live in the wild, like feral children. One of the veteran women artists who identified herself as a lesbian is Harmony Hammond who wrote a book on Lesbian Art in America published in 2000. On the cover is a photograph of Catherine Opie, a Los Angeles artist who produced a body of work on “butch” lesbian culture. Hammond was a stalwart of the feminist movement and became famous for her sculptures which features bonds and bindings, referring to the strictures on women and their lives.

Opie, a very intelligent artist from Cal Arts, showed a shocking side of lesbian life: one of tattoos, piercings, and cutting. There is a domestic side of Opie, who lives in a “transitional neighborhood” near USC with her partner and their children that has emerged in her later work with themes quite at odds with her earlier work which was equal to Mapplethorpe in its explicit portrait of homosexual life. When you go to her name on the internet, you will find a “report images” link for offensiveness. Opie who is a “leatherdyke” combines domesticity with transgression, showing herself as a lesbian and a devoted mother and a denizen of an underground of sado-masochism. Like many homosexuals, Opie was radicalized by the AIDS crisis as victims were “marked” by society and shunned.

The idea of “marking” as a form of “identity,” which categorized some people as untouchable is literalized by Opie through the tattooing and scarification of her own body in her photographs. Although it is this sometimes shocking subject matter that made her reputation, most of her work is a study of urban landscapes and suburban settings and the people who live quiet lives in America. The distance between Opie and Brooks is now a hundred years and the LGBT community has become more visible, more vocal and more politically active. But, as with Brooks and her lesbian community in Paris, the lesbian and gay communities are archipelagos, surrounded by an often uncomprehending America. Even in the twenty-first century, it still does not seem possible for men and women of whatever sexual inclination to simple produce “art,” without an adjective or a label.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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Gay Art

The Many Shades of Gay

As the previous posts pointed out, many artists who were gay were caught up in attempts from various forces, both political and religious, to censor art. Confused and angered that art would be attacked in a land of free speech, the American art world directed its protests towards the red herring of censorship. Many gay artists were able to make gay-themed art with little or no interference, so it would seem that the incitement for censorship was not necessarily homosexual content but displays of Otherness in sites where the larger public could see this diversity. There are undoubtedly sincere individuals who honestly believe for moral and/or religious reasons that homosexuality is against their religion and their rights to their beliefs are protected by the Constitution.

However, the so-called “Culture Wars” begin when personal beliefs enter into the domain of “free speech” and the freedom to pursue happiness. Art was and still is on the front lines of those Culture Wars, and because art is public, it is always in the line of fire from those who want to remove anything they (personally) consider “offensive” from public view. The more precise problem of art censorship was a political one: people making statements through art that were not welcomed by other people. While the art world ignores the conservative culture, the conservative segments of American society are very concerned about the world of visual arts.

The censorship of gay art is less about the art and more about the “gay:” homosexuals were and are, legally in many states, second-class citizens, denied the rights enjoyed by “straight” people. Any threat coming from politicalized art to that “moral” order would be met with resistance, suggesting that the goals of conservative movements is political control and silencing of voices that presented another point of view. In other words, one can ask, is the issue one of the censorship of art or the domination of a minority? The art that has been targeted for censorship has been the kind of art that seems easy to read and that is susceptible to misinterpretation from those who refuse to inform themselves on the content.

Perhaps the level of difficulty in understanding homosexual art explains why some artists, whose work is more layered or subtle, are ignored by the religious and moral authorities. Other self-identified “queer” artists include David McDermott and Peter McGough who were among the earliest queer artists to emerge as a working couple. In order to understand McDermott and McGough, who did activist art on the margins, one has to understand the entire history of photography and a particular era in English history and numerous cultural references from the past. Like old photographs and early movies, their photographs are tinted in old fashioned tones, blues, lavenders and grays.

The pair are best known as photographers and in 1994, the pair did a photo book, The History of Photography, in which they rephotographed and restaged genres of photographs from the nineteenth century. Many of these images depicted the art couple, dressed up in period clothes and posing as a typical Victorian or Edwardian married couple. The pair lived in New York City on Avenue C and recreated a Victorian way of life in their apartment and used the fussy décor for their photography. To pose as a contented couple from the era of Oscar Wilde in the time of AIDS was a very political position, but the conceptual works of McDermott and McGough were subtle and visually not shocking, well within the intellectual realm and out of reach of the conservatives.

McDermott and McGough were part of a growing coterie of artists who were “out of the closet.” By the 1990s, “coming out” was a major narrative for queer people and many, like McDermott and McGough came out loud and proud. The couple was associated with other gay artists in the East Village scene in Manhattan during the 1980s, such as Keith Haring who worked hard to raise AIDS awareness. Keith Haring began as a “street artist” with Jean-Michel Basquiat, staking out the subway tunnels as his territory. The walls of the waiting areas of the stations had bulletin boards reserved for advertisements.

While waiting for new advertisements, the boards were covered with black paper and Haring would draw his signature line drawings with white chalk on the paper. Films of his fugitive invasions of the subway territory show an assured hand swiftly creating complex line drawings populated with humans and animals. Like Basquiat, Haring made his debut in the word of fine art in the late eighties and found fame and fortune with a wide range of works that included paintings, murals and graphic arts. When the AIDS epidemic swept the art world, Haring and other artists, such as David Wojnarowicz, worked hard to educate people, men and women, to the dangers of careless sex.

It was, in fact, this drawing of the “radiant baby” that inspired art critic, René Richard’s groundbreaking article, The Radiant Child, which focused on Haring and mentioned Basquiat in passing. Richard’s inspiration for the title of the article was Haring’s Radiant Baby, a child, drawn in outline, on his/her hands and knees, was surrounded by rays of light. Unlike Basquiat who quickly left his public persona as “Samo” behind, Haring’s career was largely devoted to public art and dedicated to the art education of children. Haring, like many of his colleagues, was diagnosed with AIDS and established a foundation for AIDS awareness before he died in 1990.

Although he outlived Keith Haring, David Wojnarowicz also turned his attention to the decimation caused by AIDS in the arts community. Like Goldin, Wojnarowicz chronicled the dying moments of the victims of the disease in his art. Part of the East Village crowd, he lived long enough to witness the destructive assault on the arts by politicians in Washington, D. C. who called certain kinds of art “pornography.” He actually sued and won against a Mississippi-based group that had misrepresented his art as pornography. Wonjnarowicz was a writer and a visual artist and many of his images combined image and text. The artist produced four bodies of writings and just before his death in 1992, he did a series of readings for the benefit of a program for needle exchange (sharing needles among drug users was a major factor in the spread of AIDS).

The veterans of gay art would certainly be Gilbert (Proesch) and George (Passmore), a British couple who began in the late sixties as conceptual artists, working collaboratively. They became famous in 1969 doing their signature performance piece, Singing Sculpture, sometimes for eight hours at a stretch. Dressed in neat gray suits with their faces bronzed like sculptures, the two initiated their art practice of putting themselves, their faces and bodies and their lives and their English heritage at the center of their art. But these artists also did text and image graphics, using the grid format, which resembled stained glass windows for cathedrals, the Medieval way of telling stories and teaching moral and ethical truths. The audience has watched the duo age over the past forty years from innocent young men to wise old men (still in the same suits) who have made profound comments on the alienating world of their time. As they explained,

Our subject matter is the world. It is pain. Pain. Just to hear the world turning is pain, isn’t it? Totally, every day, every second. Our inspiration is all those people alive today on the planet, the desert, the jungle, the cities. We are interested in the human person, the complexity of life.

Because of the small number of people any one performance could reach, they began to make films, such as, The Nature Of Our Looking (edition 4), 1970, Gordon’s Makes Us Drunk (edition 25), 1972, In The Bush (edition 25), 1972, and Portrait Of The Artists As Young Men(edition 25), 1972. As the pair became more famous, films about them proliferated: The Red Sculpture 1975, The World of Gilbert and George (1981), Gilbert & George, The Singing Sculpture (1991), Gilbert and George: Daytripping (1992), Gilbert & George , The South Bank Show (1997) and The Fundamental Gilbert and George (1997) and No Surrender of 2oo7.

Although Conceptual Art tended to be non-political, the couple made art that was pointed and activist, perhaps due to the growing politicization of the gay community. It has been noted that Gay Liberation was an American movement, but that this movement spread world wide, having the effect of “Americanizing” gay men everywhere. When the AIDS epidemic began, the art of Gilbert and George, like that of many gay artists, began to focus on queer subject matter. Being British, these artists were not subjected to the criticisms of the American right wing. Gilbert and George use the phrase “Art for All” to describe their art and work in a single and unchanging format for their two dimensional work: a grid which is imposed over their images. Now well-dressed and well-mannered middle-aged British gentlemen, the couple had a show at the DeYoung in San Francisco, winter of 2008, the same year as the film With Gilbert and George, directed by Julian Cole.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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“Queer Art” and AIDS, Part Two

The Reception of “Queer Art”

Part Two

A large blue painting, the color of a dark daylight sky, filled with falling birds, dropping from the heavens, wings paralyzed in death is one of the great images on the AIDS crisis. Using the discredited and discarded style of Op Art, the painter, Ross Bleckner, was the elegiac poet of mourning. Memorium of 1985 features a silver urn, a visual/verbal l play on the early term for homosexuals: “uranian” and the urn, used to hold the ashes of the deceased. In retrospect it seems unthinkable that the United States government would allow an epidemic of a deadly and incurable disease to break out, unchecked, endangering all citizens, but the falling/floating birds of Birdland (2000) commemorates the fallen and the falling and the failing.

This unthinkable neglect, a fact of history, is a measure of the antipathy of the American government towards its gay and lesbian citizens. One wonders if the gay community had not had large numbers of talented artists who had equally talented straight allies and if these victims had not been well-educated and articulate and well positioned in society, what the outcome of the AIDS crisis would have been. It is possible the epidemic could have swept the nation with devastating impact. It is rare that one can point to such a clear example of the power of art. But the power of art often also puts art and artists who are activists in the cross hairs of censorship.

One senator, the late Jesse Helms of North Carolina waged a full scale war on art with perceived “homosexual content.” Locked in a close re-election in 1989 with an African American candidate, Harvey Gantt, Helms seized an unlikely opportunity to put race on the agenda. His target was Robert Mapplethorpe, a well know New York photographer whose work was being shown in a local art institution, Southeaster Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, a recipient of federal funds for the National Endowment for the Arts. Helms made the case that Mapplethorpe’s photographs of male nudes, most of them African American and gay, was a misuse of taxpayer money and that the viewers of these images would be morally and sexually impacted by the sight of nude males.

From the standpoint of the art world, Mapplethorpe was essentially a conservative art photographer, specializing in portraits and in flowers, and his work was beautiful and classic. Mapplethorpe’s approach to photography was based upon the ideas of Greek art and its reverence for the human body. For anyone in the art world, nudity is commonplace and accepted and the photographs of this photographer were no more or less interesting than any other art photographs. Indeed, Mapplethorpe had a modest reputation as a portraitist of local stars in the art world, but other photographers, such as Cindy Sherman, enjoyed higher acclaim for their Conceptual Art photography. However, there was an underground content of some of his photographs in the notorious X Portfolio, which were of the “rough trade” world of homosexual fetishism that would have been unsettling to an art audience outside of New York or Los Angeles.

Mapplethorpe’s works were divided into portfolios, X, Y and Z and it was one significant body of work that came to the attention of Jesse Helms, called The Black Book, a book of photographs of nude black men. Today, it is sad to leaf through the pages of this famous book, for all those involved in the making of the book, the models and the photographer himself, are dead from AIDS. The book is full of beautiful photographs of beautiful black men, photographed beautifully in the tradition of Greek art and the idealization of the human body. Mapplethorpe was simply part of a line of twentieth century photographers, such as Edward Weston and Minor White, who photographed and abstracted the human body.

But the art world traditions and the classical roots of The Black Book were lost on Jesse Helms who objected when a public gallery, funded by federal monies, in his state showed photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, including those from The Black Book. Helms went on the attack and decimated federal funding for artists through the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts), stating that tax-payer money should not be spent on “pornography.” The art world responded with anger to Helms and his views on art and the attack on the arts strengthened the support for all art—especially gay artist and gay art.

By the nineties, homosexual artists were accepted without comment and gay art as political art was accepted and began to exist apart from the AIDS controversies. Glen Ligon, an African-American artist who is gay, commented upon the politics of racism in the work of Mapplethorpe with his own art. Mapplethorpe posed black men like objects for white people in the art world to admire. Ligon’s Notes on the Margin of the Black Book (1991-93) unmasked the supposed formalism in Mapplethorpe’s work and revealed the eroticization of the less-powerful black men, disempowered in their nudity (a slave practice), by a more powerful white man. Notes was Ligon’s first work to deal with the cultural eroticization of the black male and his first revelatory work as a gay artist.

Nan Goldin is a self-identified bisexual artist who made her reputation with her seminal work, The Ballard of Sexual Dependency (1979-1986), which originally was exhibited as a slide show in a gallery. This series of color photographs were candid shots of herself and her social circle in the underground punk, gay, transvestite cultures of New York City. Compared to the scandal surrounding Mapplethorpe, Goldin’s career, post AIDS, has been relatively uneventful, and her images of drag queens (below) have caused little consternation among the art public. But for the arts community, the AIDS crisis was a lingering one and Goldin produced a powerful series of images of friends dying of AIDS. As Goldin stated, “AIDS changed everything in my life. There’s life before AIDS, and after AIDS.”

Working in the tradition in which artists would sit near the bedside of a dying loved one and drawing a series of death bed portraits, Goldin commemorated her friend, Cookie, and her Parisian art dealer, Gilles Dusein through wrenching candid photographs. Goldin who was among the AIDS activists in the arts who introduced the red ribbon which was soon worn by millions of people in solidarity. The photographer gave an account of the art world reaction not just to AIDS but also to government indifference:

The same day Cookie died, my big show “Witnesses: Against Our Vanishing” opened, which I curated at New York’s Artists Space. It was the first major show done by people in the community where all the work was done by people with AIDS or by people who had died of AIDS. It became a national controversy. The government took away the show’s grant from the National Endowment of the Arts because of David Wojnarowicz’s text, a brilliant dissertation against the government and the Catholic church for their position and their silence on AIDS. There were 15,000 people at the opening because of the rage at the government’s response.

David Wojnarowicz has since died of AIDS and, before his death, he produced a significant body of work that paralleled that of his friend as witness to the AIDS death of photographer Peter Hujar. The power of his work and his protests against the mistreatment of AIDS victims was still potent in 2010, when over a decade after his death in 1992, a brief video Fire in My Belly, A Work in Progress (1986-87) was censored by the Smithsonian Institution. The film, a shortened version of a thirteen minute video, showed a crucified Christ covered with crawling ants. The theme was a condemnation of the attitude of the Catholic Church towards AIDS victims and made the point that these victims were also martyrs. The Church misinterpreted the work, in the words of William Donohue, as “hate speech.” Twenty years after the assault on the art of the late Robert Mapplethorpe, the Smithsonian removed the work from view.

Read Part One of this topic: “Queer Art and AIDS”

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Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

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“Queer” Art and AIDS, Part One


Part One

Once again, the question arises. Like the questions of what is “Black Art?” What is “Chicano Art” What is Women’s Art?’ the query demands a neat definition that is impossible to give. Is “Homosexual Art” art that is made by homosexuals? Or is “Homosexual Art” art that is about homosexuality, regardless of the sexual preferences of the makers? The absurdity of the dialogue is depended when one extends such questions to other professions, from literature, to finance, to manufacture. Does an automobile become “gay” because the designer was homosexual? Does your home mortgage become “lesbian” because of the same-sex inclination of the loan officer? On the other hand, there are artists who have deliberately chosen to present themselves as “homosexual artists” who presented works of art with homosexual content. As was noted earlier, such displays of Otherness have been political acts and will continue to be as long as the culture is bifurcated between the One and the Other.

“Homosexual art” is different from art done by homosexuals. Like “queer” the designation is “auto-descriptive,” that is, an identification taken by the artist, not given to the artist by society. Therefore there are many homosexuals who made art and who are making art and who prefer not to give themselves a label that either reveals their sexual preference or limits the interpretation of their art. There are a number of reasons for a decision to remain artistically “in the closet.” For example, during the Fifties and the Sixties, being gay was illegal and its was simply unsafe to “come out.” Artists such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg chose to not discuss their homosexuality for their entire careers. Many works of art done by both Johns and Rauschenberg referred obliquely to the homosexual culture of their time.

The art critical climate of the fifties and sixties in New York City did not allow for discussions of homosexual content in art works and artists who dared to be open about their sexuality met with an unfavorable response. For example, Andy Warholbegan his career making frankly homosexual art but received critical disapproval. Making a smart decision to change his content, Warhol’s subsequent public art featured consumerism and mass media advertising and his career took off. Another point needs to be made here. By the seventies, lesbians, in contrast, found a hospitable home in the feminist movement and lesbian artists were simply folded into the larger feminist discourse. The male homosexuals had no outlet for homosexual subject matter until the eighties.

Although it was well known in the art world who was “straight” and who was “gay,” no disapproval was attached to gay artists or to the Gay Liberation movement in the Sixties, but the art public was not ready for “gay” art. It took the AIDS crisis to bright about some public acceptance of homosexuals, who were the first and most visible victims. The source of AIDS is a matter of some dispute but an individual proclaimed “Patient Zero” was identified. This man was a steward on a French airline and his career as a world traveler allowed him to spread AIDS to a number of other men.

Because of this identification of “patient zero,” accurate or not, during the early 1980s, AIDS in America was called the “gay disease.” Due to the pressures from conservative constituencies, President Ronald Reagan, a veteran of Hollywood, another refuge for gay men, remained silent on the subject of AIDS. The Reagan administration ignored the dangerous epidemic until it was proved that AIDS was spreading to the “general population.” The implication of the inaction was that gays could and should die for their “deviant” “lifestyle,” but when women and children proved to be equally susceptible to the disease then the medical community in America rallied for a cure.

The story of the American neglect of an epidemic is told in the film And the Band Played On. The film’s judgment is a bit harsh but it contains a grain of truth. The Reagan administration did ignore AIDS until the good friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Rock Hudson, died of AIDS. By that time, it was too late for thousands of gay men who died during the early to mid Eighties. The art world lost a generation of gay artists in the visual and performing arts. The decimation of a community rallied the art world behind the victims and, after years of being underground, gay and lesbian art emerged on the scene.

For the general public, AIDS awareness came about thorough graphic activism, most notably from the group, ACT UP, AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power, formed in 1987. Although the group would later have chapters in every state in America, its most visible activities were focused in New York. For example, ACT UP led a protest that shut down Wall Street to speak out against the way in which the financial and pharmaceutical powers were profiting from a national tragedy. ACT UP and Gran Fury (named after a popular Plymouth model) presented powerful graphic designs to educate gay men on how to prevent AIDS and to inform the public about the basic humanity of homosexual people.

The target of this agit-prop art were diverse, the Catholic Church, Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush, the FDA, Wall Street, and other institutions that labeled AIDS inaccurately as a “gay cancer” and displayed an immoral range of behavior from indifference to condemnation to stigmatization to profiteering (AZT cost $8,000 a year). One of the most powerful graphic images was the pink triangle with the strong words: “Silence = Death” underneath. The pink triangle was worn by homosexual prisoners in Nazi concentration camps, interned due to their sexual preferences. Gran Fury used this powerful and simple image as an installation above the entrance to the New Museum as a protest against the statement by conservative journalist William Buckley who proposed a draconian and punitive action towards homosexuals, who, he said, “should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to protect the victimization of other homosexuals.”

The artist Keith Haring, who died of AIDS, took up this simple graphic and elaborated it in his own signature style of “street” art: “Ignorance=Fear/Silence=Death/Fight AIDS.” Donald Moffett designed a very famous poster featuring a target on the right and a photograph of Reagan on the right with the phrase “He Kills Me.” Gran Fury mimicked the international and interracial Benneton fashion advertising campaign with a memorable series of “kissing” images of same sex and interracial kissing. The message was loud and clear: “Kissing Doesn’t Kill. Greed and Indifference Do.” Gran Fury also appropriated the famous (and broken) promise of President Bush, “Read My Lips” to educate the public on the true causes of AIDS and the price of inaction.

Undoubtedly what saved many lives was the fact that many of the victims and their friends had powerful positions in the worlds of fine arts, graphic design, and popular culture. They had voices, talent, and the backing of an important constituency: the art world. Their activism, whether on Wall Street or on the sides of busses or in movie theaters forced a resolution to a crisis that ultimately killed a generation of artists. Although Gran Fury and ACT UP (sometimes under different names) are still active, the center for AIDS in America is far from their New York roots—the American South. The South is the epicenter for AIDS in 2012 and the main victims are poor, often Black, without health care, without health insurance, without public education. In a conservative region where sex education is against the law and there are no funds for women’s health, the epidemic has moved on and is reaching crisis proportions. The graphic art campaign of ACT UP and Gran Fury would not be allowed to appear in this environment.

Thanks for the mobilization of the arts communities and the power of the arts, the tide against AIDS (in certain parts of the nation) began to turn. The public was educated on “queer people” and their humanity through popular movies such as, Philadelphia, starring a “straight” actor, Tom Hanks, and In and Out, starring straight actors, Kevin Klein and Tom Selleck, and popular television shows such as Will and Grace and Modern Family brought about public acceptance of homosexuals. Today “homophobia” has been named a psychological disease, and multiple and continuing examples indicate that those who are the most opposed to gay rights are also those who are most likely to be homosexuals still “in the closet,” because these individuals belong to conservative cultures.

If you have found this material useful, please give credit to

Dr. Jeanne S. M. Willette and Art History Unstuffed. Thank you.

[email protected]