LGBTQ Artists and Subjects in the Reynolda House Fine Art Collection

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LGBTQ Artists and Subjects in the Reynolda House Fine Art Collection

By Phil Archer, Director of Public Programs | @LearnReynolda
Visit the online gallery of these objects.

To whatever degree their sexual identities are evident or suggested, LGBTQ artists have contributed immeasurably to the breadth and diversity of American culture. But between 1964 and 1982, when the works in this online gallery were created, homosexual activity between consenting adults was illegal in most states, including North Carolina, where it continued being illegal until 2003. Attitudes have shifted rapidly in the last ten years. In its 2014 diversity statement, Reynolda House affirms that the Museum respects, values, and welcomes self-defining differences among all people. We strive to reflect diversity across our Board, staff, and all aspects of our operations. Through these commitments and our proactive efforts, we cultivate an environment and experiences that include and celebrate the perspectives and contributions of all people.” Its collection includes works by artists who were more or less open about their same-sex attractions; works made in homage to pioneering gay cultural figures like poet Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) by artist Alex Katz and composer John Cage (1912-1992) by artist Joseph Beuys; and a portrait of Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), author of some of the first American works of lesbian fiction.

Any gallery of works by LGBTQ artists and subjects will contain more differences than commonalities, and most artists caution us not to interpret their work primarily as an expression of their sexuality. Even so, these works invite us to consider what it meant to make art in a society in which a non-normative sexual orientation was regarded as pathological in the doctor’s office, unmentionable in the media, and criminal in the eyes of the law.

A silkscreen by Andy Warhol of bisexual actor and dancer Eric Emerson is based on four film stills from Warhol’s rowdy experimental film Chelsea Girls (1968), set in the New York’s Chelsea Hotel. The film’s characters talk (for more than three hours) about love, art, drug use, and sex. Emerson was open about his sexuality. “My father thinks I’m a little sweet,” he said in an interview, “because I let my hair grow long. What he don’t [sic] understand is that my generation can swing both ways. The last time I saw my father, I walked up to him and said, ‘Hi, Pop,’ and he hit me in the mouth with a closed fist.” The repetition of Emerson’s face in the silkscreen echoes the repetitive and often banal dialogue in the film, in which characters who aspire to stardom assert their individuality with the single-mindedness of Hollywood agents representing themselves. Some of its actors, like Nico and Ondine, became Warhol “superstars.” Warhol cultivated this atmosphere of self-assertion and spontaneity. “I leave the camera running until it runs out of film, because that way I can catch people being themselves instead of getting up a scene and shooting it.”

A higher degree of reticence veils any personal content in the work of both Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who were long associated artistically and romantically, the latter relationship ending in the 1960s. Johns has said, “I didn’t want my work to be an exposure of my feelings…So I worked in such a way that I could say that it's not me.” He also said he tried to hide his personality, psychological state, and emotions. His appropriately titled print Decoy (1971) is a composite of mislabeling, misdirection, and enigmatic symbolism. The names of the colors of the visible spectrum appear as if stenciled on a narrow strip of paper which twice folds illusionistically. The colors are not printed in their designated color, e.g. VIOLET is a grayish brown, YELLOW begins as black and at the fold continues as bluish gray, and only RED and BLUE are rendered in the “correct” colors. Across the width of the lower section runs a thin line of the color spectrum over faded imagery from Johns’ previous artworks, i.e. an American flag, a flashlight, a Savarin brand coffee can holding artist brushes, stenciled numerals, and a light bulb—effectively crossed out as if the artist were finished with them. At the center of the spectrum is a tiny hole in which the viewer may peep through the paper into darkness. Titles matter for Johns, as they did for Rauschenberg, who called them “the last brushstroke.” So why Decoy—a deception intended to catch a prey? Decoy imitates a natural order, the visible spectrum, but the artist bends that order, doubles it, re-names it, and opens a way through it. He reminds us that people impose names on natural phenomena and suggests that assumptions about the seen world are generally in the eye of the beholder. The accepted spectrum comprises six pure spectral colors, but Newton’s included a seventh (indigo), while other animals see colors differently and detect light at different frequencies than ours. Reading this as a metaphor about human nature, the viewer might reconsider assumptions of sexual orientation and what people have imposed on the “natural order” of affections. Could these familiar, limited, cookie-cutter – literally stenciled – assumptions be the image’s intended prey?

Robert Rauschenberg’s lithograph Untitled (1982) borrows images of a javelin thrower, cross-country skiers, a piano, a computer technician, cafeteria trays and utensils, and an oil derrick like the ones the artist knew as a child in Port Arthur, Texas. A bold vermilion brushstroke crosses seemingly unrelated images but reveals, upon closer inspection, a section of a jigsaw puzzle. Are these borrowed images pieces of a personal puzzle? Or is the puzzling brushstroke a tease, a taunt for anyone who would attempt to read the work as autobiographical? The artist said, “I always select my images in order to have them look as little like a particular point of view as possible. And I’ll take images from any source, whether it’s a magazine or a letter, left on a table…I prefer images that are less specific so that there is room for everyone’s imagination.” Rauschenberg’s Rookery Mounds—Night Tork (1979) is equally irreducible: it centers on a bed piled with mattresses and pillows and is part of a series of prints named for rookery mounds, which are breeding grounds for birds. Above the bed, flowers and grasses seem to burst like fireworks, but below the bed iron bars suggest a prison, and detritus from a demolished building suggest a home pulled apart. And what of the subtitle of “Night Tork?” Rauschenberg’s dyslexia caused him often to misspell words, so it is safe to assume that “tork” equals “torque.” What torque or turning force is exerting pressure to couple two things or bodies in the night?

Stay tuned for future online galleries and blogs celebrating the perspectives and contributions of female artists, American artists of African ancestry, and Asian American artists in the Reynolda House collection.

Visit the LGBTQ online gallery of these objects.

Visit the Museum and share in the Museum's ongoing commitment to welcoming diverse audiences. Reynolda Thursdays: The Art of Seating - Nov. 6 is LGBTQ Night at Reynolda House, in partnership with the Adam Foundation. 

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