Ryan McGinley, Spirit of Pride (2018)
We might think of the LGBTQ rights movement as a recent social development. Who could have imagined a mainstream rom-com like Love, Simon being made even five years ago? But while the spotlight on the LGBTQ community is growing stronger, it’s important to remember that queer love isn’t a twenty-first century phenomenon; it dates as far back as humanity itself. Even in art history, queer imagery is everywhere—from ancient Egyptian tombs to Nan Goldin’s photographs—if you know where to look.
Recently, the steady trickle of queer imagery has surged to a tidal wave. In the last 50 years alone, Keith Haring’s drawings have raised awareness for the AIDS crisis of the ’80s; Nan Goldin’s haunting photographs of New York’s underbelly has shed light on the queer community; Robert Mapplethorpe shocked the public with his graphic images of gay sex acts, prompting a revaluation of beauty and propriety.
And while 20th century artists bold enough to explicitly reference queerness in their work had to stand alone, today, a wave of young artists is working to bring queerness into the mainstream. Think Ryan McGinley’s gay kissing photographs, Juliana Huxtable‘s provocative multi-media work and Wu Tsang’s video and performance art, to say nothing of J.D. Samson, K8 Hardy (still goin’ strong), A.L. Steiner… the list goes on. Just last year, Petra Collins shot a beautiful Vogue feature about the Fire Island lesbian community—hard to imagine representation more mainstream than that.
To find out more about the hidden history of queerness in art, Queer Art History and @lgbt_history are great resource to start plugging the holes. In the meantime, we’re taking you on a big gay art history tour through bohemian cafes, funky studios and dusty museum basements to reintroduce you to some well-known names that you might not have known were queer.
Herbert Singleton, Love That Not Love (1990)
“Why does it matter?”, you might ask. Arguably, an artist’s sexual preference shouldn’t skew the interpretation of their work. To a certain extent, that’s very true—no need to start seeing vaginas in all of Hannah Höch’s collages—but sexual orientation like any other aspect of identity, undoubtedly plays some role in an artist’s work, which proceeds so directly from the most intimate corners of the subconscious.
Plus, we need to fight against the still-pervasive hesitation to reveal even the most famous artists—and perhaps especially them—as not straight, no matter how out and proud they might be. Even today, professors and media writers often brush aside these details as “inappropriate” or “beside the point.” A seemingly harmless omission, but imagine what difference it could make to a teenager struggling with their identity to know that their favorite artist was queer.
As long as “straight until proven otherwise” remains the default, we’ll keep hammering away at that very false assumption. Today, our weapon of choice is the listicle. Let’s dive in.
Donatello lived, worked and frolicked in Florence during the early days of the Renaissance. His David is arguably the first piece of true Renaissance sculpture, and unarguably the first freestanding nude sculpture since ancient times.
Although there’s no way to know for sure (no one was around to Snap Donatello in the act), David is also one of the biggest hints we have about Donatello’s sexuality. While there were rumors—let’s just say skill was the last thing Donatello considered when choosing his assistants—David is literally a clue set in stone.
Michelangelo, David (1501-1504)
David might not be homosexual, but he’s definitely not heteronormative. His super-sensual pose and androgynous body clearly stands out next to other sculptures of David, all rock-hard abs and rigid, hyper-masculine lines. To each their own, but it’s worth noting that Donatello’s interpretation of the mythical hero presents a fluid view of masculinity that was alternative at the time and remains so to this day—just look at Hedi Slimane’s work. Throw a leather jacket on him and you’re looking at a young Jim Morrison.
Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528)
You’ve surely seen this German Renaissance painter and printmaker’s work in your art history classes, but I doubt your professor showed you his portrait of Pirckheimer, captioned “with the cock in your asshole.” That little detail might have perked you up and helped you stay awake in lecture.
Pirckheimer, Willibald (1503)
As with many pre-modern artists, we don’t know much for certain about his intimate life, but we’re going to go out on a limb (you know which one 😉 and support the theory that Dürer and his lifelong buddy Pirckheimer were more than just friends. There’s murky homoeroticism in the background of an artist’s work, and then there’s “with the cock in your asshole.”
If you need more proof, there are also intimate letters between the two where Dürer lets slip that he has the hots for German girls, but also German soldiers. Who says you have to pick?
The first international art star, Dürer was prolific and talented, and his work enjoyed widespread acclaim throughout the whole European continent during his life. The Bath House showcases his mastery of woodcut technique, especially when applied to sexy, buff German men. Feast your eyes—you know Dürer did.
The Bath House (1496)
Charles Demuth (1883-1935)
Charles Demuth is best known for the most beautiful watercolors in American art history—although, to be fair, I can’t think of that many watercolor artists in American art history other than Henry Miller’s, which are great, by the way.
But for someone whose medium of choice is usually associated with kittens and corny tourist paraphernalia, Demuth had major balls. While he was in Paris, he fell in with Marsden Hartley and Alfred Stieglitz after literally walking up to a table of artists and asking if he could sit with them. Luckily, the bold move went over better than in Mean Girls—Demuth’s witty sense of humor got him a permanent seat at the table.
Dancing Sailors (1918)
Demuth painted figures, landscapes and still lives in his signature style, clearly influenced by Cubism but still distinctly his own. But he was also bold enough to paint homoerotic and homosocial scenes, like Dancing Sailors. Although it was common for sailors to dance with each other when there were no ladies to be found, Demuth left no room for ambiguity when he painted in two straight couples to either side of the pair of sailors. Just look at how tenderly they’re holding each other (and while you’re already there, just look at dat ass).
Luckily, Demuth’s circle was supportive of his sexuality at a time when mainstream society was not. In 1919, he got together with art deco decorator and stage designer Robert Evans Locher, and the relationship lasted for the rest of Demuth’s life.
Hannah Höch (1889-1978)
Untitled (From an Ethnographic Museum) (1930)
Famous for being the only female member of Dada, Höch made waves by openly questioning gender roles. Just read “The Painter,” a short story she wrote to smite an obnoxious lover; it’s about an artist who has an existential crisis when his wife asks him to do the dishes.
Höch loved both men and women, although she refused to label her relationship with Mathilda Brugman as lesbian—they called it a “private love relationship.” So Gen Z of them, right?
Höch was famous for her collages and her photomontages—in fact, she was the first artist to use photomontage, images made of cut and pasted photographs. Many incorporated feminist themes: Höch cut up women’s body parts and rearranged them in unsettling ways, seemingly to emphasize the way mainstream social norms dismembered women’s identities.
Hannah Gluckstein (Gluck) (1895-1978)
Medallion (You/We) (1937)
Gluck wasn’t too big on titles, commercialism or skirts. This gender-bending English artist confused the hell out of her family and her society by refusing to be called anything but “Gluck” (you wouldn’t want to accidentally slip a “Miss” in there, trust), wearing men’s clothing and painting only when and what she pleased, regardless of commercial demands. Luckily, coming from a wealthy family, she could afford it.
Gluck had many relationships with women throughout her life, including American socialite Nesta Obermer, whose face is the blonde doppelgänger to Gluck’s own in her work Medallion, or You/We. One night at the opera with Obermer, Gluck felt the music and their love fuse the two people into one, and the painting shows just that. An investigation into gender and sexuality at the same time, Medallion is undoubtedly one of the most important works of queer art of the last century.
Fearless and apologetic about her “eccentric” appearance and habits, Gluck was meticulous about constructing an exterior image that would match her interior world. While today, with mainstream brands putting out genderless clothing collections and gender-fluidity entering mainstream youth culture, we almost take it for granted that anyone gets to wear whatever they damn well please. Next time you shop in the boys’ section of the thrift store, take a little moment to thank Gluck for her pioneering ways.
Tamara de Lempicka (1898-1980)
Group of Four Nudes (1925)
Tamara de Lempicka was a painter and a Baroness with an impressive sex drive, and she had the long list of lovers to prove it. She married twice, both to men, but while living in Paris she became close with the circle of famous creative lesbians, like Colette, Violet Trefusis, Vita Sackville-West and Suzy Solidor.
In her work as in her personal life, her style was anything but demure—just look at Group of Four Nudes. And yet, in a time when both her paintings and her affairs scandalized polite society, de Lempicka didn’t let that get in the way of her success—she exhibited internationally and was well known throughout her life. Madonna is also a known fan of her work; you know you’ve made it when your painting appears in the Vogue music video.
Frida Kahlo (1907-1954)
The love of Frida’s life might have been Diego, but that didn’t stop her from having various affairs, some with men, some with women.
Two Nudes in the Forest (The Earth Itself) (1939)
She didn’t try too hard to hide it, either. This picture was originally a gift for her lover at the time, Mexican film star Delores del Rio. Although the painting shows two Fridas, not Frida and Delores, the overtones of female sexuality aren’t exactly hard to discern. And if you know anything about Kahlo’s work, you know it would’ve been way weirder if she hadn’t painted herself as both women—Kahlo was her own favorite subject, a choice that upended centuries of women subjected to the male gaze in art. Her fluid sexual preference surely informed the way she depicted herself; Kahlo appears at times strong and rooted, at times hurting and vulnerable, but always radiating an earth-goddess-like sensuality and sexuality that stands alone and doesn’t ask for anyone’s validation.
This painting, like so much of Kahlo work, contains layers of meaning. The two figures symbolize her two ethnicities—European and Mestiza—one comforting the other, but the tenderness between them also alludes to her relationship with Delores. It’s a potent and necessary reminder that gay love is just about sex, especially considering how lesbian couples have appeared throughout Western art history: eroticized, fallen, impure, witchy and debauched. Here, the love between the women is deep and mutable, just like any heterosexual relationship. As it is, and as it should be.
Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008)
When Robert Rauschenberg died in 2008, both the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times “forgot” to mention one minor detail of his life in their obituaries: he was gay. Even just 10 years ago, it was strikingly easy to push queer artists back into the closet, even if they’ve been out for the majority of their lives like Rauschenberg.
Rauschenberg grew up in a Fundamentalist Christian family in Texas in the 50s—suffice it to say, not the most welcoming conditions for any young queer person to live their truth. He married painter Susan Weil, but they divorced just a couple years later—his affair with Cy Twombly might have had something to do with it. Rauschenberg also had a relationship with fellow artist Jasper Johns, and he spent the last 25 years of his life with artist Darryl Pottorf.
Paving the way for Pop, Rauschenberg’s work might not openly reference his sexuality like some other artists’, but critic Robert Hughes called Monogram “one of the few great icons of male homosexual love in modern culture.” Can’t say I see it myself, but I guess that’s what the PhD is for.
Andy Warhol (1928-1987)
Warhol and his Superstar and lover BillyBoy at a Fiorucci event in New York in 1985.
I don’t need to tell you who Andy Warhol is—the whole world and probably most of the population of Mars could identify the Marilyn and the Campbell soup can.
From The Factory to his Superstars and 15 minutes of fame, Warhol defined, or at least put his stamp on, several decades of New York society. But he was also notoriously aloof, a deadpan expression concealing deep vulnerability.
Even though he told an interviewer in 1980 that he was still a virgin, the evidence suggests otherwise: in 1960 Warhol was treated for a sexually transmitted disease. His known lovers include BillyBoy, John Giorno, Billy Name, Charles Lisanby and John Goud, and dated interior designer Jed Johnson for 12 years.
At the same time, he came from a Polish immigrant background and remained devoutly religious for his entire life, which could partly explain why he was less than explicit about his sexcapades.
Rejected from Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns’ circle, the haute monde of the 1950s New York art scene, for being “too swish,” Warhol went on to explore complex or divergent sexuality in some of his lesser-known work, like his underground films Blow Job, My Hustler and Lonesome Cowboys, and the album cover he designed for the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers.
He also took sexy photos, published in 2003 in Ladies and Gentlemen, Sex Parts, Torsos, Polaroids.
From Ladies and Gentlemen, Sex Parts, Torsos, Polaroids (2003)
Annie Leibovitz (b. 1949)
You could argue that Annie Leibovitz is to modern portrait photography what Donatello was to early Renaissance sculpture. If you follow any celebrity nostalgia accounts, or Rolling Stone or Vanity Fair for that matter, you’ve definitely seen more Leibovitz shots than you even know. I mean, the woman photographed John Lennon the day he was shot.
John Lennon and Yoko Ono for Rolling Stone Jan 1981 cover (1980)
Less known is her long-term relationship with famous feminist writer and thinker Susan Sontag, which lasted until Sontag’s death in 2004. While the two never explicitly came out as “together,” Leibovitz has described their relationship as both “friends” and “lovers.” What’s sweeter than having a lifelong friend that you love?
Susan Sontag, Critic (1991)
Catherine Opie (b. 1961)
To be fair, if there’s one artist you knew was queer, it’s probably Catherine Opie. But as one of the premier art photographers of our day, she’s impossible to leave out.
A fixture on the L.A. leather dyke scene in her younger years, Catherine Opie has seen it all (and has the pictures to prove it). After producing a shocking series in the 90s, she’s moved on to tamer but no less evocative subjects. Recently, she shot wedding portraits of lesbian couples, showing the public a more domesticated version of queer love.
The pictures are stark in their contrast and simplicity—they seem to borrow as much from Caravaggio as Robert Mapplethorpe.
Kate & Laura (2012)
And with that, we’re rounding up our big, gay art world tour. Hopefully, at least a few of these were news to you and gave you pause.
But before you mechanically log onto Facebook, you have a bit of homework: spent at least 15 minutes reading about a queer artist you’ve never heard of before (I trust you’re all super Internet sleuths, or can at least Google “queer artist”). Obviously, this list is just a tiny snowflake on the tip of the queer artist iceberg, so we encourage you to keep exploring. Happy hunting!
Photos via AnOther Mag, Queer Art History, Wikipedia, Pinterest, The Spectator, WikiArt, Fondation Tanagara, Catawiki, Hake’s Americana, National Galleries of Scotland, Guggenheim, NPR