Museums across the United States are hosting powerful exhibitions that examine the country’s queer past, present, and future. Here are a few to visit in tandem with June’s Pride Month and the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.
The arts have long been a space for queer flourishing and refuge, a place for the LGBTQ community to wrestle with their past and present, while imagining what the future might hold.
In the 50 years since the Stonewall Riots first broke out in New York City—setting off a revolution that is largely credited with launching the LGBTQ liberation movement as it exists today—queer art and culture have undergone dramatic changes. Following Stonewall in 1969, the heady days of the Gay Liberation movement—and its utopian celebration of the new world waiting outside of the closet—were soon challenged by the horrors of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the 1980s and ’90s. During this time, the art world saw the rise of more politically engaged, activist art associated with LGBTQ groups like ACT UP and Queer Nation.
In the new millennium, queer art has gained increased visibility in mainstream media such as television, film, music, and fashion. But the LGBTQ community’s quest for freedom and equality continues. These eight exhibitions across the United States serve up queer history, beauty, politics, fierceness, and fabulous extravagance.
“Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern”
Through June 15, 2019; Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York City
A bisexual polymath whose influence can be felt across 20th-century American literature, art, and ballet, the late Lincoln Kirstein gets the star treatment at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art. “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” draws together over 300 works that evidence Kirstein’s contributions to the ballet world (he cofounded both the New York City Ballet and the School of American Ballet) and to the queer New York art sphere in which he was a central fixture.
“Implicit Tensions: Mapplethorpe Now”
Through July 10, 2019; Guggenheim Museum, New York City
Few figures in LGBTQ U.S. history have been at the center of public debates about art and sexuality in the way Robert Mapplethorpe has. As the renowned photographer trained his lens and aesthetic sensibility on queer subjects and sexual practices, Mapplethorpe earned the ire of political conservatives and became a flashpoint for agitation against public funding for the arts. On the 30th anniversary of his death in 1989, the Guggenheim’s retrospective features highlights from the museum’s extensive collection of Mapplethorpe’s work that tell the story of this daring, controversial artist and his transcendent photographs.
“Gregg Bordowitz: I Wanna Be Well”
Through July 14, 2019; Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago
During the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the ’80s and early ’90s, artworks by pathbreaking creators and activists helped shape the public face of the health crisis and of LGBTQ politics. Gregg Bordowitz is one such creator. His work as a video artist and activist with the New York chapter of ACT UP centered on how to capture and represent political protest, queer life, and health advocacy. That work is now on view in a sweeping retrospective of his career at the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibit—which spans Bordowitz’s work in video, poetry, live performance, and site-specific installation from the ’80s to the present—fuses history, politics, and art into one compelling show.
“Art After Stonewall, 1969–1989”
Through July 21, 2019; Leslie-Lohman Museum and Grey Art Gallery, New York City
In the two decades that followed the Stonewall Riots, LGBTQ art underwent various transformations in the United States, as documented in this expansive exhibition that's split between NYC’s Leslie-Lohman Museum and New York University's Grey Art Gallery (note it closes a day earlier, on July 20, at the latter venue). Surveying a diverse range of work by artists, including Vaginal Davis, David Hockney, Greer Lankton, Catherine Opie, Michaela Griffo, Judy Chicago, and Andy Warhol, the exhibition explores how creative luminaries represented queer worlds old and new amid the agonies and ecstasies of two turbulent decades. Another exhibition worth checking out at the Leslie-Lohman Museum is “Being Seen Makes a Movement Possible” (June 2019–May 2020), which explores photographer Joan E. Biren’s documentarian work across four decades of LGBTQ struggle in America.
Through July 28, 2019; Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, Houston
This showcase at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston surveys the work of contemporary LGBTQ artists from the United States and abroad, including Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Zanele Muholi, Nick Vaughn, and Jay Margolin, exploring the progress that has been made in the fight for equal rights since the ’60s—as well as the work that remains. “As they take up their work with cameras and lenses, paintbrushes, porcelain, garbage, glass, and blades,” explains curator Dean Daderko, “these artists show us how to imagine a future in which the fight to represent ourselves is no longer a necessity, but a pleasure.”
Isaac Julien: Playtime
Through August 11, 2019; Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), Los Angeles
British filmmaker Isaac Julien, who pioneered a new wave of black queer cinema in the 1980s and 1990s, is known for his filmic ruminations on the relationship between race, sexuality, desire, and identity. Julien’s film Playtime, now on view at LACMA, considers the ways in which money and the global financial crisis shape how contemporary art is produced, sold, and bought. Across six stylish vignettes set in London, Reykjavík, and Dubai, Julien’s film centers on the lives of the Artist, the Hedge Fund Manager, the Auctioneer (played by Simon de Pury, the world’s most famous auctioneer), the House Worker, the Art Dealer (played by James Franco), and the Reporter (played by Maggie Cheung).
“Gender Bending Fashion”
Through August 25, 2019; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston
Pulling apart the ties that bind traditional notions of masculine and feminine style, “Gender Bending Fashion” at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts challenges that binary, from the business suit to the bustier. Featuring looks from top designers and outfits worn by celebrities, including Marlene Dietrich, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, and Young Thug, the exhibit explores how the fashion world plays with our ideas about gender identity while attending to the ways in which LGBTQ visibility and the rise of social media have shaped new possibilities for self-expression.
“Camp: Notes on Fashion”
Through September 8, 2019; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City
In 1964, author Susan Sontag famously attempted to nail down a list of traits for the queer-identified “camp” aesthetic—its emphasis on artifice, its embrace of the exaggerated, its sense of fun—and there have been arguments about its true definition ever since. The current exhibition at the Met’s Costume Institute offers a series of sumptuously extravagant pieces from the 1600s to the present. Avian-inspired designs by Bertrand Guyon, Alejandro Gómez Palomo, and Marjan Pejoski suggest that some queer birds of a feather do indeed flock together, while the rest of the collection goes off in different tangents: Jeremy Scott’s take on the “silhouette,” Moschino’s remix of the iconic McDonald’s french fry container as design inspiration, Marc Jacobs’s slip dress with a print of Sigmund Freud’s head (get it?). It’s all “extra” in the most wonderful way.