Gay Gotham: New York as a Queer Metropolis – Through February 26th

Art Scene

Gay Gotham: New York as a Queer Metropolis – Through February 26th

In ‘Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture in New York’, a new exhibit at The Museum of the City of New York, charts the early beginnings of queer culture in the city during modern times (1910-1995), which was mostly concentrated uptown in Harlem and downtown in the Greenwich Village. Chronicling the influencers and artists who culturally shaped the city, ‘Gay Gotham’ presents over 200 works of art, a myriad of media including video, photography, paintings, books, magazines, journals, and other vital ephemera. The show intentionally ends at 1995, cueing the peak of LGBTQ culture shifting into the mainstream, and just focuses on the eight decades prior during it’s more ‘underground’ status.

Displayed on two levels, the top floor highlights art from 1960 to 1995, and where we see the most recognizable queer culture creators such as Andy Warhol, Robert Mapplethorpe, Keith Haring, and Tseng Kwong Chi. A blown up still by photographer Chantal Regnault, featuring Octavia St. Laurent ( a protagonist from ‘Paris is Burning’, the seminal film about black and Latinx voguers) greets viewers as they enter the gallery. Warhol’s ‘Screentests’ shot during The Factory years include celebrities and muses such as Edie Sedgwick, Donyale Luna, and influential museum curator Henry Geldzahler. There is a touching photograph of a youthful Robert Mapplethorpe captured at Max’s Kansas City in 1972  by Anton Perich. Tseng Kwong Chi captures a Keith Haring collaboration in a painting performance with the legendary choreographer Bill T. Jones. One of the lead works of the exhibit is an enchanting portrait of Warhol and his beloved muse Candy Darling taken by Cecil Beaton.


The second floor introduces early LGBTQ pioneers (from 1910-1960), some well-known such as the iconic composer Leonard Bernstein, and the ballsy movie star Mae West ( a heterosexual ally). Lesser-known culture shifters such as the poet and novelist Mercedes de Acosta, who famously had affairs with Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich, was a first-wave feminist and suffragette, and very active in political causes. The writer and painter Richard Bruce Nugent, a key artist who was ‘out’ during the Harlem Renaissance published several works on bisexuality and interracial male desire. Bernstein, known for ‘West Side Story’ and ‘On the Town’, carried male relationships while married, and recruited his mostly gay network of writers, producers, and choreographers to help bring these classic productions to life. Celebrated bisexual photographer Carl Van Vechten, became a self-appointed ambassador of the Harlem Renaissance and would invite well-heeled whites to socialize at happening Harlem speakeasies.  There are a few sensual portraits of Alvin Ailey and Anna May Wong shot by Van Vechten in the exhibit. Revered writer James Baldwin is depicted beautifully in a vibrant painting by Beauford Delaney.


Gay Gotham reveals how LGBTQ artists flourished artistically in this city despite the most harrowing circumstances –  HIV/AIDS, marriage inequality, discrimination – and how art will continue to provide therapy even in our present day complicated, dark moment.


Gay Gotham: Art and Underground Culture in New York will be on view only through February 26th at The Museum of the City of New York, 1220 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street.