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American Art: Lesbian, Post-Stonewall  
 
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Since Stonewall, lesbian artists in America, from installation artists to filmmakers and photographers to performance artists and painters, have become increasingly diverse and visible.

Lesbians in the 1950s and 1960s benefited from both the feminist and the civil rights movements. Within the feminist movement emerged lesbian feminism, which gave rise to groups and experiences that galvanized the lesbian movement and gave many middle-class women the freedom in which to "come out" and embrace their sexuality.

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During this time, however, there were few venues and outlets for women's art, let alone lesbian art. One exception was The Ladder, the newsletter from 1956 until 1972 of the San Francisco-based Daughters of Bilitis (DOB), the first lesbian rights organization, which regularly included artwork.

The 1960s: Feminism and Abstraction

Explicitly "lesbian" imagery did not emerge until the 1960s. The reasons for this are varied. Many lesbians shied away from sexual content for fear that explicit depictions of their sexuality would be misunderstood within a patriarchal, heterosexual society that was unable or unwilling to understand the nature of those images. Consequently, some lesbian artists made work with "ghetto content"--imagery that was understood only within the community. This strategy made it less likely for their work to be welcomed into a mainstream dialogue.

As the feminist and civil rights movements progressed and women artists persisted, woman-based content began to emerge in the visual arts. The ideas that art might validate women's lives, that previously devalued craft traditions were significant, and that women's bodies were biological vessels of creation and change--these were not concepts that had been previously welcome in the canon, but they increasingly became the impetus for women's art.

However, some lesbian artists who emerged during that decade, particularly New York-based artists such as Louise Fishman (b. 1939) and Joan Snyder (b. 1940), favored a more abstract style consistent with the dominant art movement of the time. For them, the lack of narrative or reference in abstract expressionism proved an apt metaphor for their inability to be open regarding their homosexuality elsewhere.

On June 3, 1968, a galvanizing incident occurred in the art world involving the radical lesbian feminist Valerie Solanas (1936-1988), founder of SCUM (Society for Cutting Up Men) and author of the SCUM Manifesto. Solanas tried to assassinate gay Pop artist Andy Warhol because she believed he had stolen her ideas. While Solanas was certainly mentally disturbed, her claim of stolen authorship and subsequent action, however radical, was keenly understood by women artists whose own groundbreaking works had frequently been overlooked while their male, sometimes gay, counterparts found fame and acceptance.

One year later, the Stonewall uprising on June 28, 1969, at the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in New York's Greenwich Village, became the watershed moment in gay and lesbian history and forever changed lesbian visibility in the art world.

The 1970s: Agitation and Change

In the 1970s both New York and Los Angeles became important centers for lesbian artists. However, there were differences between the art produced in the two places. East Coast lesbians were more likely to shy away from explicitly lesbian imagery, while this was less true on the West Coast, where the influence of the dominant art world was not as immediate or as pervasive.

The first Gay Pride parade was staged in New York in 1970 on the anniversary of the Stonewall uprising. Significantly, Fran Winant (b. 1944), a poet, painter, and member of the Feminist Lesbian Art Collective (FLAC), was pictured on the Gay Liberation Front's poster for the march.

As gays and lesbians began to organize and agitate for their civil rights, the necessity for documentation became paramount, and lesbian photographers actively chronicled their communities. Artists such as Joan E. Biren (JEB) (b. 1944) in Washington, D.C., and Tee A. Corinne (b. 1943), Jean Weisinger (b. 1954), and Cathy Cade (b. 1942) in the San Francisco Bay Area photographed the assemblies, marches, meetings, and other events within their communities.

In doing so, they both validated the existence of the lesbian and gay communities at the time and preserved a record for the future. The proliferation of postcards, posters, journals, and other alternative publications indicated a developing and expanding audience for their work.

As their imagery developed, each of the photographers mentioned above also explored a more expressive or artistic side of the medium. Self-representation was both literal, as photographers pictured their own bodies, and metaphorical, as they depicted their friends and lovers. Still, with the feminist agenda governing much of their work's content, many lesbian artists shied away from explicitly sexual depictions of their lifestyles, the end result of which was nearly to neuter themselves in the service of political correctness.

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