When Resistance Became Too Loud to Ignore

At times the fight for civil rights is a straight road pocked with speed bumps; at other times a maddening spiral of detours. It was a battlefield in the early hours of June 28, 1969, when a small group of gay, lesbian and transgender people, herded by police out of a Greenwich Village bar called the Stonewall Inn, just said no: shoved back; threw bricks, bottles, punches. As the police defensively barricaded themselves inside the bar, the fight — since variously termed a riot, an uprising, a rebellion — spread through the Village, then through the country, then through history.

It’s still spreading, expanding the way the term “gay” has expanded to include lesbian, bisexual, transgender, queer and other categories of identity. And for this summer’s half-century Stonewall anniversary, substantial displays of art produced in the long wake of the uprising are filling some New York City museums and public spaces.

The largest of them is the two-part “Art After Stonewall, 1969-1989” shared by Grey Art Gallery, New York University, and the Leslie-Lohman Museum in Soho. A trio of small archival shows at the New-York Historical Society adds background depth to the story. And at the Brooklyn Museum, “Nobody Promised You Tomorrow: Art 50 Years After Stonewall,” 28 young queer and transgender artists, most born after 1980, carry the buzz of resistance into the present.

Grey Art Gallery and Leslie-Lohman Museum

This survey, organized by the Columbus Museum of Art in Ohio, where it will later appear, is split into two rough chunks defined by decades, with material from the ’70s mostly at Leslie-Lohman and from the ’80s at Grey. Unsurprisingly, the Leslie-Lohman half is livelier. A lot of what’s in it was hot off the political burner when made, responsive to crisis conditions. The modest scale of the gallery spaces makes the hanging feel tight and combustible. And as a time of many “firsts,” the early years had a built-in excitement.

There was, of course, the thrill of the uprising itself, captured by the Village Voice beat photographer Fred W. McDarrah in an on-the-spot nighttime shot of protesters grinning and vamping outside the Stonewall. (One of them, the mixed-media artist Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt has sparkling, tabletop-size sculptures in both sections of the show.) Activist groups quickly formed, and a way of life that had once been discreetly underground pushed out into the open.

The Gay Liberation Front, aligning itself with antiwar and international human rights struggles, coalesced within days after Stonewall, soon followed by the Gay Activists Alliance, which focused specifically on gay and lesbian issues. It was clear pretty fast that both were predominantly male, white and middle class — misogyny, racism and classism have plagued L.G.B.T. politics from the start — and further groups splintered off: Radicalesbians, Street Transvestite Action Revolutionaries (STAR), and later, the Salsa Soul Sisters. All the energy produced, among other things, the first Christopher Street Liberation Day March (now the NYC Pride March).

Many of the Stonewall-era trailblazers, like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera — one black, the other Latinx, both self-identified drag queens — were longtime veterans of the West Village gay scene. But for many other people the event prompted a first full public coming out, which was no light matter.

In 1969, even mild affectional acts between same-sex couples were illegal in much of the United States, as was cross-dressing. An arrest — and there were many — could instantly end a career, destroy a family, shut down a future. Bullying gay men was considered normal; violence was acceptable.

As a gay person, you went through the world watching your movements, monitoring your speech, worrying about how much of yourself, just by being yourself, you were giving away. This could make for a lonely life. If, for some reason, you were heedless, or incapable, of acting straight, good luck to you.

Particularly strong among these images is Bettye Lane’s shot of a raging Sylvia Rivera confronting a jeering gay crowd — they had just been applauding an anti-trans speech by the lesbian feminist leader Jean O’Leary — at the 1973 New York march. But no picture can compare in gut-level impact with the short glitchy surviving video of Rivera in action that day. (You can find it on YouTube. I urge you to watch it.)

Women and transgender people are the heart of the Leslie-Lohman half of the show, not only in its documentary components but in the art chosen by the curator Jonathan Weinberg, working with Tyler Cann of the Columbus Museum of Art and Drew Sawyer of the Brooklyn Museum.

Standouts include a Tee A. Corinne-designed coloring book consisting of exquisite line drawings of vulvae; Harmony Hammond’s sculpture of two clothbound ladderlike forms leaning protectively together; and Louise Fishman’s 1973 “Angry Paintings,” acts of controlled gestural chaos that name heroic lesbian names (the critic Jill Johnston, the anthropologist Esther Newton, Ms. Fishman’s partner at the time) and speak of emotions once suppressed, now released.

The Grey Gallery half of the show, which brings us into the 1980s, makes a quieter impression. Partly this is because of a more spacious installation spread over two floors, and to the more polished-and-framed look of much of the work. Political content is, with vivid exceptions, subtle, indirect, which is not in itself a bad thing, though an earlier charge of communal energy is diminished. We’re basically now in a different, more market-conscious, canon-shaping art world, one closer to the museum than to the street.

And though we’re in the era of AIDS, the sense of urgency that absolutely defined that time is missing. This is not to say there’s a shortage of good work. The show would be valuable if it did nothing more than showcase artists like Laura Aguilar, Luis Cruz Azaceta, Jerome Caja, Lenore Chinn, Maxine Fine, Luis Frangella and Marc Lida, all seldom, if ever, seen in New York now.

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