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Special Issue: The 50th Anniversary of Stonewall

Queer Abstraction, Then and Now

Visualizing the complexities of desire and sexuality

Desire, sexuality, and gender identity have been embraced through the language of abstraction by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer artists since the turn of the 20th-century. Here, Edie Fake's work Potential Donor (2018). Des Moines Art Center Permanent Collections. Photo Credit: Rich Sanders, Des Moines

BY Jared Ledesma
assistant curator, Des Moines Art Center, Iowa

In Other Insights

Desire, sexuality, and gender identity have been embraced through the language of abstraction by lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer artists since the turn of the 20th-century, yet their specific contributions are only now being recognized by art historians, critics, curators and galleries—who are increasingly referring to the work as “queer abstraction.” It is in abstraction that the complexities of sexuality and gender identity can be visualized (though there is, of course, no single definition of queer abstraction: any attempt to do so would be counterintuitive to its open-ended ethos).  

Queer abstraction can be thought of as a strategy deployed by queer artists who refuse to create work that is representational, instead manipulating a style of art that has already been accepted into the canon of art history. Take the vibrant forms created by Carrie Moyer: to me, they are reminiscent of work by Forrest Bess, the Texan artist who was given his first exhibition by legendary New York dealer Betty Parsons in 1949. Bess’s biomorphic pictures were part of his lifelong attempts to merge masculine and feminine energies.

A self-described “peculiar homosexual”, Bess felt like an “oddity” because of his rough nature in comparison to more effeminate gay men he knew. Bess struggled with his identity while living on a remote strip of land in Texas and, in works like The Hermaphrodite (1957), his intimate, dark palette communicates a sense of isolation. It also attempts to visualize a body that defies gender norms through a central organic form.

Slipperiness of gender

Carrie Moyer, Jolly Hydra: Unexplainably Juicy (2017). Collection of Sid and Shirley Singer, New York. Photo courtesy of the artist and D.C. Moore Gallery, New York

In the vein of the biomorphic forms Bess uses in works like The Hermaphrodite to refer to gender fluidity, Moyer’s work has a slipperiness. She riffs off gender norms while suggesting their ambivalence: she has called the tangerine-hued shape towards the lower portion of Jolly Hydra: Unexplainably Juicy (2017) a “funny-looking, flat pair of breasts,” and the forms erupting from them as “rubbery phalluses.” Her bright, matte colors are reminiscent of Henri Matisse’s paper cut-outs, or the stains in Helen Frankenthaler’s color field paintings, and her work appears to fluctuate between two-and-three-dimensional space.

Meanwhile, the Californian artist Edie Fake is compelled to use the intricacies of architecture—nooks and crannies, hallways, stairways—as a metaphor for the complexities of bodies that do not neatly fit into the male-female binary. In The Keep (2018), Fake’s zigzags and recurring motifs allude to bodies that cohabit one space. In the foreground a gate guards this space, which is similar to the artist’s earlier works reimagining the façades of gay bars which no longer exist. The artist’s pictorial assertion of a safe environment for queer individuals is important, as dedicated bars—and especially spaces for lesbians, trans, and genderqueer people—are gradually being destroyed as part of gentrification in major metropolitan cities and surrounding suburbs.

Secret Codes

The sense of secret codes reminds me of the works of American artist Marsden Hartley who, between 1913 and 1915, when he lived in Berlin, produced a series of dynamic works referred to as the “German Paintings”, illustrating the pageantry and musculature of the German military through icons and symbols. He executed Portrait of a German Officer (1914) for his lover Karl von Freyburg after the soldier’s death in battle at the beginning of the First World War. Hartley depicts von Freyburg’s likeness through a combination of cubist flat planes and German expressionist marks. The work is filled with Hartley’s own visual lexicon in commemoration of von Freyburg: the initials K. v.F. for Freyburg’s name; the number 24 for Freyburg’s age at death; and the epaulet shaped like an E for Marsden Hartley’s given name, “Edmund.” Hartley’s coding in the work masks his desire for the younger soldier: which he was required to hide in fear of criminal sentencing, social isolation or physical harm.

Edie Fake uses the intricacies of architecture as a metaphor for the complexities of bodies that do not neatly fit into the male-female binary, as in her work The Keep (2018). Des Moines Art Center Permanent Collections. Photo Credit: Rich Sanders, Des Moines

For other artists, generosity becomes the meaningful gesture. The sculptures and installations produced by Félix González-Torres between the late 1980s up until his death from an AIDS-related illness in 1996 are synonymous with Minimalism and Conceptualism.  His works of art, however, are imbued with emotional subtexts that address love, loss, and the politics of the queer body.

An openly gay man living during a tumultuous period of right-wing conservatism in the United States and at the height of the AIDS crisis, he strategically found a way to visually express queerness through work that would appear non-threatening to heterosexual audiences at the time. “Untitled” (1995) for example, features two brass rings hanging side-by-side. The rings may allude to wedding bands or, because they slightly touch and form the figure eight, a symbol of eternal love. This motif is found elsewhere in González-Torres’s work, including “Untitled” (Perfect Lovers) (1991) where two clocks hang side-by-side, and “Untitled” (Double Portrait) (1991), a paper stack with two rings printed upon the sheets.

The titles of these objects expand and solidify the ring motif’s importance, making them more synonymous with two bodies or, more importantly, two identical lovers. In many instances, González-Torres’s work allows viewers to take pieces of the art with them. For “Untitled” (Double Portrait), viewers can remove sheets of paper from the sculpture. This act is two-fold: it subverts the longstanding policy that forbids interaction with fine art, but more importantly, as the sculpture slowly disappears it suggests the artist’s experience of witnessing his partner, Ross Laycock, and his community succumb to the ravages of AIDS.

Purity in Geometry

Prem Sahib, Roots (2018). Courtesy of the artist and Southard Reid. Photos courtesy of Lewis Ronald and Southard Reid, London. © Prem Sahib

Inspired by the discreet work of Félix González-Torres, London-based Prem Sahib manipulates the quietude of Minimal forms to communicate his own experience as a gay man. In Roots (2018), he embraces the search for purity in the geometry that many of the Minimalists explored in the 1960s. Distinct from those works, however, Sahib’s stealth object is loaded with visceral narrative. The drinking fountain the artist has encased in resin came from the now closed Shoreditch branch of Chariot’s, a gay bathhouse chain in London now reduced to a single site in Vauxhall.

Work by these artists—and 12 others—are included in the exhibition “Queer Abstraction” at the Des Moines Art Center (until 8 September), which I curated. The show marks a major milestone for the museum as the first exhibition in the institution’s history to focus on queer subject matter. The exhibition hopes to expand the capability of abstract art to express queer experience. These artists have intelligently capitalized on abstract art’s limitless possibilities to circumvent structured binaries. During this current unsettling era, where marginalized communities—especially the Transgender community—have increasingly become the subject of attack, abstraction ultimately promises safety for queer expression—just as it has for more than a century and will, hopefully, continue to do so into the future.

“Queer Abstraction” at the Des Moines Art Center was commended by the 2018 Sotheby’s Prize.

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