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Contemporary Art  
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The 1987 and 1989 Whitney Biennials

The 1987 and 1989 Whitney Biennials in New York were significant indications of the increasingly more open stance of gay art. Since 1935, the prestigious annuals and biennials organized by the Whitney Museum of American Art have been curatorial summaries of what was considered to be the best in American art. Not without their controversy, given the authority of a major museum to establish the historical importance and market value of artists, these exhibitions have always been keenly awaited and discussed.

The 1987 Whitney Biennial was striking for the inclusion of gay artists whose works of art were explicitly gay in content. The exhibition included a large-scale painting by David McDermott and Peter McGough, A Friend of Dorothy, 1943 (1986), a whimsical and chilling study in postmodernist "naming." In a florid and delicate black script, the artists wrote slur words for gay men in a graffiti-like fashion: faggot, homo, fairy, cocksucker, queer, pansy, Nellie, and fem.

The name Mary, painted in red, and the title "Friend of Dorothy" distinguished themselves from the other terms as positive references for gay men. Shocking to see in an oil painting in a major museum, the invectives made public the hushed language of hate. With affectionate wit, the painting checked the foul words with the gay community's own terms.

Among the other gay artists represented in this turning point exhibition was Ross Bleckner, a painter whose earlier work in the decade borrowed and personalized 1960s minimalist abstraction. The more recent paintings on view at the Biennial were from the artist's series of "trophy paintings." Under densely clear-varnished and reflective surfaces, Bleckner scattered colorful emblems of love, death, and redemption on dark grounds, among which were flowers, funeral urns, and radiant streaks of light. Although universal in their lamentations, these paintings were conceived by Bleckner as personal memorials to the casualties of AIDS.

The 1989 Whitney Biennial would again include Bleckner and also Robert Gober, who, invited back for the 1991, 1993, and 2000 biennials, would become one of the most honored of living American artists at the end of the final decade of the twentieth century.

Culture Wars

With gay artists more willing to declare their sexual identity in their art, a conservative reaction was probably inevitable. Gay identity art contributed to polarizing certain segments of the general population into what became the "culture wars."

On one side stood the religious right, given license by the conservative presidency of Ronald Reagan. To the other side were the social minorities of gays, African Americans, Native Americans, and Hispanics who became all the more defiant and determined to defeat conservative agendas of exclusion and hate.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) was the target of such conservative and homophobic activists as United States Senator Jesse Helms and fundamentalist evangelist Rev. Donald Wildmon. In the name of the Christian Right's morality, they attacked federal funding of what they labeled pornography and obscenity.

These activists determined to destroy the NEA, whose budget President Reagan had attempted to diminish earlier in the decade in the wake of growing contempt for contemporary art, particularly public sculpture that the government was asked to subsidize.

The focus of Helms and Wildmon's ire was the Cuban-American Andres Serrano and the gay American artist Robert Mapplethorpe, both photographers whom the religious right made scapegoats in their crusade against "degenerate art." Other artists eventually caught up in the culture wars included performance artists Holly Hughes and John Fleck.

The largely successful efforts to curtail the activities of the NEA and demonize contemporary art were thinly veiled reactions, in the name of "family values," against growing ethnic populations, demands for gay rights, and an increasing social tolerance of Americans towards minorities.

The undermining of contemporary art by religious and political conservatives was countered in important ways by institutional endorsements in the late 1980s, notably those of the Whitney Museum of American Art.

But the stock market crash of October 1987, which brought the economic juggernaut of the decade to an abrupt end, had an enormous impact on the art market. It further demoralized the art community. Many artists who had gained initial recognition during the decade all but disappeared.

Despite these reverses, however, younger artists gained additional resolve to make racial, ethnic, and gender identities the basis of their art.

For all the advances of the 1980s, there was much to be done and many more voices to be heard. In 1992, with economic recovery at hand and Bill Clinton in office as the new president, the climate for gay men and lesbians in contemporary art was becoming more hospitable. With two major exhibitions as overtures for the new decade, "The Decade Show" (1990) and the 1991 Whitney Biennial, the last years of the century were auspicious for continuing a tradition of art based on gay identity.

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