The History of Gay Representation in Art

As more and more queer artists reach critical mass, their works are beginning to make it into museums. But despite this progress, many people remain ignorant about the history of gay representation in art.

Throughout the decades, artists used coded imagery to challenge sexist and heteronormative perceptions of femininity and masculinity. Here are ten such examples.

Felix Gonzalez-Torres

Gonzalez-Torres’ work influenced the development of queer aesthetics in art. He was openly gay and his installation works frequently addressed feelings of melancholy and loss – themes that resonated with many people during the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s.

Gonzalez’s minimalist works draw from the traditions of Minimalism but also incorporate a strong sense of gay psychosexuality. For example, his work Untitled (Beds) features six black and white enlarged photographs of an empty double bed. The beds’ pillows show noticeable dents from where bodies rested on them, which reinforces the concept that a body and its memory are ephemeral and fleeting.

This ephemerality is a key theme in queer art, and Gonzalez-Torres’ use of the body is particularly poignant. He challenges the idea that an individual can be isolated from politics, and that sexuality is inextricable from societal structures.

Moreover, Gonzalez-Torres’ use of textual elements such as parenthetical titles or aphorisms emphasizes the linguistic basis of cultural identity. He contrasts this against the expressionism of his predecessors, which posited an amorphous subjectivity that could be filled with preconstituted meanings.

Nan Goldin

Goldin’s photography is well known for depicting her friends and lovers in their most intimate, often chaotic moments. She captured a creative community that was soon to be torn apart by the AIDS crisis. She has said that she wished to capture their lives before it was too late.

Her most famous work, The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, features drug use, abusive relationships, and other intimate aspects of her life. She cites the works of Andy Warhol and Velvet Underground singer Lou Reed as influences on her work.

Novy believes that depictions of queer culture belong in the public realm where they can be accessible to all passersby. She says that “gay imagery has a deeper conceptual meaning” and that it should make people think about how we perceive each other’s gender identities. Increasingly, artists are incorporating themes of transgender identity into their work. Trans-feminist activist Tuesday Smillie has delved into the history of the LGBTQ feminist movement, while abstract painter Zoe Walsh transforms hyper-masculine images appropriated from gay porn into genderless ones.

Many LGBT artists have struggled to have their work recognized by the art world. Until recently, the art establishment held to a double standard when it came to discussing an artist’s sexuality. If they were heterosexual, they were fine; but if they were openly gay, museums were reluctant to display their work.

Keith Haring

Artists have used their work to explore a variety of topics in the LGBTQ community, from personal struggles to the effects of the AIDS epidemic. From Nan Goldin’s photographic series to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ deeply conceptual and ephemeral installations, gay artists found ways to express their concerns without fear of censorship or ostracism.

Art activism also became a powerful tool in the fight for LGBTQ rights, with artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe using their work to draw attention to the era’s intolerance towards the LGBT community and to advocate for better funding of art. The AIDS Memorial Quilt, which allows people to commemorate via quilt squares loved ones who died of the disease, is another example of how artists have used their art for activism.

Today, LGBTQ artists continue to use their work to raise awareness about a wide range of issues. From painter Kehinde Wiley’s reexamination of Black male stereotypes to Mickalene Thomas’s colorful street art murals advocating safe sex, these artists are bringing queer themes out of the closet and into public spaces. They are also using their work to celebrate LGBTQ women and challenge heteronormative ideas about beauty.

Leslie Biren

When Leslie Biren, known as JEB, took a photo of her lover Sharon Deevey kissing in 1975, it could have led to jail time under obscenity laws that were still enforced in New York. But the cheeky photo is now part of an exhibition at New York City’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and Grey Art Gallery called “Art After Stonewall, 1969-1989,” which explores LGBTQ contributions to art since the Stonewall riots that helped launch the gay liberation movement.

Known for her photographs of lesbian couples and other totems of lesbian life, JEB sought to counter patriarchal fantasies about homosexual women and challenge censorship and stigma through self-representation. She used her work as a form of activism, traveling the country giving slideshows and teaching photography workshops.

Like many artists of her generation, JEB was influenced by the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who created portraits of nude black men and women in explicit queer sadomasochistic poses. Unlike the distanced stance of traditional documentary photography, Mapplethorpe’s photos conveyed a sense of participation-observation, as he was able to capture his subjects from within their own subculture.

In the AIDS crisis of the late ’80s, AIDS activists like the feminist artist Carland Strom and the art collective fierce pussy turned to flagrant sexual obscenity as an artistic strategy. They incorporated vulvic iconography, drawing on cultural feminists of the 1970s and appropriation strategies popularized by 1980s art world avant-garde.