August 7, 2014
Stanford art historian explores the shocking yet affirmative power of gay imagery
Stanford's Richard Meyer co-authors the first major historical survey to consider the ways in which homosexual codes and cultures yield creative resources for visual artists.
By Barbara Wilcox
George Segal's 'Gay Liberation' sculpture. Collection of Iris & B. Gerald Cantor Center for Visual Arts at Stanford University. (Photo: Linda A. Cicero / Stanford News Service)
News coverage of recent milestones in gay rights routinely includes images of happy same-sex couples kissing in celebration.
But according to Stanford art historian Richard Meyer, visuals of same-sex kisses and other gay images do much more than illustrate happy moments.
In making formerly private content public, such scenes "help to create queer culture by generating alternative images of – and possibilities for – love and intimacy," says Meyer.
Whether in art or in mass media, such images convey universal emotion, while also drawing power from their ability to shock.
As such, Meyer argues that pictures of same-sex kissing and other homoerotic imagery demonstrate in a uniquely clear manner the interdependence of all art within its social context.
Meyer, a scholar of 20th-century American art history and the Robert and Ruth Halperin Professor in Art History at Stanford, co-authored Art and Queer Culture, the most comprehensive survey of queer art in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Co-authored with retired University of California, Irvine, artist and critic Catherine Lord, the book traces a dialogue between visual images and queer culture, including but not limited to high art, and homosexual culture from 1885 to the present. The authors survey 300 visual artists from all over the world, in what they see as an enduring resource for art teachers, students and enthusiasts.
By "queer," Meyer says he means "sexual and cultural practices that defy the norm, and that build community around an idea of difference rather than assimilation."
During the course of the project, Meyer, whose research had previously centered on 20th-century America, learned that varying degrees of homophobia and persecution around the world meant that artists expressed their queerness in varying degrees of radicalism. For example, Polish photographer Karolina Bregula (b. 1979) is represented by her 2003 image of two women holding hands – a radical statement in her place and time. "We'd maybe find something visually not galvanizing at first," Meyer says. "But then the context opened our eyes."
Meyer and Lord mined archives and libraries for works with queer content that might not be well known to the public, particularly for works made in the 19th and early 20th centuries. These include a map from a scrapbook by Tim Wood (b. 1924), a Sears salesman who frequented San Francisco's gay beaches in the 1950s and '60s and documented the proclivities on offer at each.
The scrapbook, Meyer says, exemplifies how queer people have defined and occupied their own social spaces over the years, even when they could not publicize either their sexuality or the images that they made depicting it.
"My favorite page in the scrapbook," says Meyer, "is a spread which includes a golden map of the city specifying the location of several nude beaches. Near each beach, Wood has placed a small circular photograph of men enjoying themselves au naturel. The caption for the page reads, 'The San Francisco we know and love.'
"By mixing canonical figures like Picasso and Robert Rauschenberg with a salesman at Sears who made scrapbooks, we are inviting people to think about the various worlds that art inhabits and makes possible, and the relation between private and public forms of artistic expression."
The authors found that writing queer culture into the history of art meant redrawing the boundaries of art as well as those of history.
"Queer culture cannot be understood if we only look at its public articulations of art," says Meyer, whose previous works include Outlaw Representation: Censorship and Homosexuality in Twentieth-Century American Art (2002). "Sexuality is for the most part a private matter, and images of it most often had to be kept private. We have to be willing to look at both arenas, the public and private, to understand this history."
Accordingly, in addition to paintings, photographs and works on paper, Meyer and Lord include images of gay-rights demonstrations and billboards, mimeographed pamphlets and other works often considered private, ephemeral or outside what is considered to be "art."
"Art and Queer Culture is about the dialogue among the works and the history the works sketch," Meyer says. "If there had been a book like this when we [Lord and I] were coming of age, it would have been really useful."
Meyer hopes the book, which has been adopted nationwide in art and gay studies classrooms, will inspire young people and give them a sense of continuity with the past by showing them the longevity and vitality of queer culture over the past 130 years.
Possibilities outside the norm
Not all the artists who are profiled in Art and Queer Culture identified themselves as LGBT, in many cases because they lived in times or places where doing so would be risky. Others were straight, including Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) and sculptor George Segal (1924-2000), yet portrayed subjects drawn from lesbian or gay culture within their artistic projects.
"Queer art points to possibilities outside the norm, but that doesn't mean that queer people are the only ones who do make art," Meyer says. "All kinds of people are using queer imagery, culture and historical vocabulary."
For example, Meyer and Lord included an iconic portrait of the writer Gertrude Stein by the very heterosexual Picasso, partly because it portrays a towering figure in LGBT culture and partly because it embodies a confrontation between two great artists.
"Stein's massive body in this portrait in no way suggests conventional femininity," Meyer says. "Rather, it's a face-off with Picasso: Who is going to be the major modernist figure of the 20th century?"
Also included is Segal's 1981 plaster-cast bronze sculpture Gay Liberation, which exists in two castings in New York and at Stanford. It depicts two same-sex couples relaxing in a park, their forms rendered in provocatively immaculate white-painted cast metal.
The work commemorates the 1969 Stonewall rebellion that is often cited as the beginning of the modern gay rights movement. The New York casting, depicted in the book, is installed in the park across the street from the Stonewall Inn site.
Stanford's casting of Gay Liberation is located on Lomita Mall near the northwest corner of the Quad. It was vandalized and restored in 1984 and again 10 years later. While the work was offsite for restoration, members of the Stanford community posed together, imitating the postures of the missing figures to reoccupy the space that the statues had claimed. When it was reinstalled, gay and lesbian students responded by showering the sculpture in hundreds of colorful flowers. Each act of vandalism inspired calls for political engagement, including what eventually became a university-wide ban on LGBT discrimination. Meyer argues that this interplay of image and action is integral to queer art and, perhaps less visibly, to much of art in general.
Meyer links Art and Queer Culture to current developments in the lesbian and gay movement that have focused on marriage rights. While both he and Lord support the right for same-sex couples to marry, they are concerned that the drive toward assimilation may erase the history of dissidence and transgression that has, in their eyes, constituted so much of queer culture.
"'Queer' is partly about 'Let's resist this current pull toward normalization,'" says Meyer. "This book is about preserving a precious archive of visual protest and exuberant difference. It is an archive, we hope, on which artists – and people – of all stripes will continue to draw."
Barbara Wilcox is a student in the Master of Liberal Arts program and writes about the humanities at Stanford.