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American Art: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall  
 
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During the last three decades of the twentieth century, gay male art underwent a radical transformation. Like individuals in many other professions, gay artists came out of the closet after Stonewall, and they began to treat gay themes openly and directly.

Since the mid-1980s, prominent gay artists have been able to take advantage of opportunities for mainstream exhibitions, which would have been inconceivable earlier in the century. However, the highly publicized (and sometimes successful) attempts to suppress exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe's X- Portfolio exemplify the threats of censorship, which continue to worry many gay artists.

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In the post-Stonewall period, artists of color have challenged the white racist underpinnings of much American gay art before Stonewall. In addition, during the past two decades, queer perspectives have inspired artists to visualize "fluid" constructions of gender and sexuality. Thus, contemporary artists integrate sexuality and passion into explorations of other aspects of identity, such as race, ethnicity, spirituality, and family life.

In response to AIDS, artists have created powerful works that help to inspire courage in the face of suffering and loss. Within the limits of this short entry, it is possible to mention only a few representative examples of the many artists active in the later twentieth century.

The 1970s

In the years immediately after Stonewall, a sense of exultation and liberation stimulated artists to create many different types of works, recording and celebrating diverse aspects of gay communities and relationships. Agit Prop (1971), a forty-foot-long, collage mural created by John Burton and Mario Dubsky in the "Firehouse" (the Gay Artists Alliance Building in New York City) is generally acknowledged to be the first monumental, group image of the newly liberated gay community. Combining photographs of gay protests with images of African-American political leaders and other cultural heroes, Burton and Dubsky visualized the hope for an egalitarian and just society.

Very different in mood, but equally effective in affirming the solidity of the gay community, are the intimate, domestic portraits of middle-class gay couples by David Alexander. In these colorful paintings, Alexander often includes reminders of gay cultural history that subtly relate his subjects to the long struggle for gay rights.

In his elegantly composed and lit photographic portraits, Peter Hujar (d. 1987) captures the distinct personalities of a wide range of gay and individuals living in New York, including famous personalities as well as street hustlers and others living "on the fringes" of society. In such characteristic images as Jerry Rothlein (1979) and Nicholas Abdallah Mouffrage (1980), Hujar defies stereotypical ideas of beauty but, nevertheless, manages to endow his subjects with a sense of great dignity.

A similar sense of dignity and strength imbues the photographs and paintings of New Orleans artist George Dureau, whose portraits of dwarfs, street youths, and amputees are at once erotic and moving.

Mainstream Success and Censorship

By the mid-1980s, the struggle for gay rights had progressed sufficiently far that some openly gay artists attained great success in the mainstream art world. Probably the most prominent of these artists is Keith Haring, who remained active as a "street artist" even after his paintings and sculptures were exhibited at major galleries and museums. His exuberant compositions--densely packed with "comic-book style" figures--had great popular appeal. Thus, he was able to celebrate gay sexuality, advocate safe sex practices, and promote various political causes in widely circulated works.

However, other politically engaged gay artists enjoyed less easy relations with the public than Haring, and many of them became embroiled in controversy. For instance, David Wojnarowicz became absorbed in several censorship battles involving Tongues of Flame (1990) and other major works. Combining photographs, paintings, and print techniques, Wojnarowicz created angry and impassioned pieces that linked to the structures of capitalist society.

Opening in 1975, the Leslie-Lohman Gallery in New York was the first major commercial gallery devoted to the promotion of gay art, including explicit erotic work; by the mid-1980s, similar galleries were opened in several other major cities. However, widespread intolerance for gay erotic imagery was revealed by the intense controversy provoked by two exhibitions of Robert Mapplethorpe's work: a Whitney Museum (NYC) retrospective (1988) and the nationally touring Perfect Moment (1988-1990).

The Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. canceled Perfect Moment, and, in 1990, Dennis Barrie, Director of the Contemporary Art Center, Cincinnati, Ohio, was tried on the charge of pandering obscenity because he refused to cancel the exhibit. Although Barrie was eventually cleared of this charge, his long, nationally publicized trial demonstrated the limits still imposed on gay expression.

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