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Contemporary Art  
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The 1990s

As was the case in the 1970s and 1980s, no single style or medium characterized contemporary art at the end of the twentieth century. Photography and video art were in the ascendancy, aided by technological advances and an increasing emphasis on their importance in commercial art galleries and museum exhibitions and permanent collections. Pluralism thrived, permitting a gamut of art that ranged from traditional realist styles to electronic-based art.

Realism, which underwent a revival of interest in the 1970s as a bona-fide contemporary style, had been the established basis for earlier twentieth-century art depicting subject matter. For example, a "gay realism" characterized the art of the American Paul Cadmus and the sexualized drawings of Tom of Finland and gay comic-book illustrations.

In contemporary art of the 1980s and 1990s, a resurgent gay realism ran parallel to more innovative styles and media that addressed gay themes. Even within this category, which mostly addressed the male nude, there was a considerable range of expression, from the sadomasochistic essays on love, hate, and sexuality in the work of the Canadian Attila Richard Lukacs to the studio-based neoclassicism of Michael Leonard (Britain) and Luis Caballero (Colombia).

There were two developments that gave coherence to the decade: the dominance of installation art (site-specific, multi-media works); and the preoccupation of artists with race, ethnicity, and gender.

Many artists still felt that cultural and social identity had not been sufficiently endorsed by the art world. This neglect had its initial correction in a landmark exhibition of 1990: "The Decade Show," which, organized by the New Museum of Contemporary Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Museum of Contemporary Hispanic Art in New York, provided a stage for black, Hispanic, Asian-American, and feminist artists. It set the tone for the decade, one in which gay art would reach new heights of exposure and acknowledgment.

Gay and lesbian art thrived in the United States during this period in contrast to Europe, which had no counterpart in terms of exhibition histories, critical attention, and market viability. A number of factors contributed to this disparity, including the more conservative nature of European culture and its persistent nationalism, which in many countries inhibited cultural diversity.

The sustained history in the United States of social reform and struggles for enfranchisement, although not without its complexities, contributed to a multicultural society. Moreover, major American institutions, especially the New Museum of Contemporary Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art, played central roles in validating a contemporary art of gay identity.

The 1991 Whitney Biennial

The multiculturalism of American art was nowhere clearer than in the 1991 Whitney Biennial. In a review of the best of contemporary American art, the curators made a generational selection--early, mid, and late-career artists. Of the seventy-five painters, sculptors, photographers, installation artists, and artists' collaboratives represented, seventeen were gay male artists, the majority of whom focused on gay themes.

Although lesbian artists were not represented in the 1991 Whitney Biennial, lesbian artists did have renewed and important exhibition exposure during the decade. "All but the Obvious: A Program of Lesbian Art" opened in 1992 in Los Angeles. It was the first exhibition devoted to lesbian art in over ten years. In 1996, "Gender, fucked," one of the most significant exhibitions of lesbian artists during the 1990s, was curated by Harmony Hammond and Catherine Lord for the Center of Contemporary Art in Seattle.

In a joint show, reminiscent of the "Extended Sensibilities" exhibition of 1982, lesbian and gay artists joined forces in "Situations: Perspective on Work by Lesbian and Gay Artists" in San Francisco in 1991; and, again, in "2 Much: The Gay and Lesbian Experience" at the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1993--in reaction to a state constitutional amendment that denied lesbians and gay men protection from discrimination.

In the 1991 Whitney Biennial, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, now among the most celebrated of American artists, were included. Lovers in the 1950s, they number among the most famous artist couples in twentieth-century art. McDermott and McGough returned with platinum prints of staged recreations of nineteenth-century scientific experiments.

Glenn Ligon made his first appearance in this Whitney Biennial with oblong paintings of stenciled lines of repeated text that chanted his alienation as an African-American. Although Ligon made his debut as a Black artist, he was candid about his sexual orientation. In Notes on the Margin of the "Black Book," a mixed-media installation in the 1993 Whitney Biennial, he paired family photographs with gay pornography and Robert Mapplethorpe's nude photographs of black men.

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