From Well-Behaved to Fucked-Up: the Year in Gay Flashbacks

A private show in Stuttgart to neo-Nazi demos in Berlin, queer lessons in times of change

BY Kristian Vistrup Madsen in Opinion | 19 DEC 18

Gay is a word that doesn’t have to mean anything, but sometimes does. It swells into significance on occasions when the difference it implies becomes either the target of dispute or the cause of particular celebration. I’m lucky enough to rarely experience dispute and, for that reason, also see little reason to celebrate. Gay’s the air I breathe: it’s perfectly whatever.

Patrick Angus, who died in 1992 aged 38, suffered another kind of atmosphere. His eyes, as they gazed out of a 1980s self-portrait at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart earlier this year, are pensive but unmistakably on guard. Some 200 of Angus’s works made up the exhibition: ‘Private Show’, the first major survey of the American painter in Europe. Angus documented a scene that is no more; people, including himself, whose absence, even 30 years on, continues to feel stark: New York’s gay saunas and strip clubs, friends and lovers in bright interiors, suburban landscapes, all wrought through his brush into democratic fields of colour. Far from overwhelmed by identity, there is something particularly gay about his pictures, if such a thing can even be said to exist. No, of course, there’s no ‘gay look’, except for a look in the eye: Angus’s, in that self-portrait, sensitive, serious, alert. Someone who knows that their peace rests on permission that may be revoked at any time.

Patrick Angus, Self Portrait, oil on canvas. Courtesy: Museum der Stadt Bensheim

In November, I was trapped in the middle of a street crossing at Berlin’s Potsdamer Platz as a neo-Nazi demonstration passed me on either side. It was suddenly tumultuous. People moving erratically, police everywhere: the boundaries of the march were porous. I have never felt unsafe on the streets of Berlin, no matter how late an hour or how strange a place I might have found myself in. I have never had to run away. I have never, ever, in my adult life, called my dad in a frightened panic. ‘What’s going on?’, he asked. 

As I walked off my fluster, past Peter Eisenman’s holocaust memorial, through the Brandenburg Gate to the Nivea flagship store on Unter den Linden and, finally, home, I asked myself this question: what the hell is going on? Looking back on this event, it strikes me that what will eventually stand out as remarkable will not be the fact that it took place, nor that the demonstrators carried among their flags the Stars and Stripes, but how severely it affected me. This was my first encounter with a sort of occurrence that is soon to become commonplace. Indeed, in other places and for other people, it has already become so.

In September, the queer artist and activist Zak Kostopoulos was murdered in Athens in what has since been described as a lynching. In October, in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro was elected president. Beto de Jesus, the founder of São Paulo’s gay pride parade told The Guardian: ‘It’s as if the gates of hell have been opened – as if hunting season had been declared.’ I’m not saying we should all be scared. I’m just saying I shouldn’t have been surprised.

In her essay, ‘A Nice Well-Behaved Fucked-Up Person’ (1973), Jill Johnston recalls coming to her ‘lesbian senses’ upon arriving in New York in the 1950s, ‘as an exercise in violence interrupted by short periods of violence’: rape, clandestine abortions, rampant misogyny. ‘That I survived to ever think the thought was one of the minor social miracles of the day. I should’ve won the lavender heart for survival’, she writes in her relentless, snarky and barely punctuated prose. ‘By the time I was through I had experienced all new york [sic] had to offer short of jail.’

Counter demonstration to the right-wing extremist march on the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, 9 November 2018. Courtesy: Berlin Gegen Nazis; photograph: F.Boillot

Like Angus, this year, Johnston served as a vivid reminder of the ever-changing air quality that surrounds us gays. Her essay, originally published in 1973, was reprinted last year by SIG Verlag, a publishing initiative founded by the artist Megan Francis Sullivan that distributes limited edition, print-only copies of new and old writing designed by Sara De Bondt. Johnston was an art critic, a prolific columnist for The Village Voice and a self-proclaimed revolutionary lesbian who stirred the shit at panel discussions about feminism in the 1970s. Her writing, partially collected under the title Lesbian Nation: The Feminist Solution (1973), has been out of print for years, and the SIG pamphlet is the initial push to relaunch Johnston for the 21st century.

It was also Sullivan who alerted me to a text published in the Oxford Art Journal in March by Jennifer Sichel, an academic based at the University of Chicago. In ‘Do you think Pop Art’s queer?’, Sichel discusses the recently recovered tape recording of the critic Gene Swenson’s seminal interview with Andy Warhol from 1963. Swenson’s interview was published in ARTnews as part of the series, ‘What is Pop Art?’. But the tape reveals that this was not the question that prompted Warhol’s now-famous lines: ‘I think everybody should like everybody’ and ‘I think everybody should be a machine’. That question was: ‘What do you say about homosexuals?’

‘I think that the whole interview on me should be just on homosexuality’, Warhol told Swenson, but such an interview never appeared. In fact, all of the context to those statements was edited out to establish the dominant reading of Warhol’s work – and, by extension, pop art and even postmodernism – as a flippant critique of capitalism and consumer culture.

Sichel’s paper invites us to view Warhol through the lens of sexuality, not necessarily the artist’s own, but sexuality as social and political structuring device and one of the most stubborn points of resistance to normativity in humans. His recently-restored epic film, The Chelsea Girls (1966), the subject of a new book edited by Geralyn Huxley and Greg Pierce and the focus of my attention for three hours at Moderna Museet in Stockholm this autumn, is a great entry-point to this aspect of Warhol’s work. Its slow slurredness lends it the temporal quality of a painting – duration as feeling. In a sequence of 30 minutes, the musician Eric Emerson sits bathed in pink light, leaking languorous nonsense from his acid trip. On the split screen, his fellow superstars seem to watch him, as he, too, watches himself. What David is to Florence and the renaissance, I will not hesitate to claim, Emerson’s wrecked and delicate portrait is to New York and the late 20th century: its own kind of fucked up perfection.

The exhibition at Moderna Museet, ‘Warhol 1968’, documented the artist’s first European institutional show, hosted by the very same museum in the titular year. Back then, one Swedish newspaper critic named Warhol an ‘intensive, disillusioned truth-seeker’, while another held that all that remains in his work after the total erosion of meaning is ‘superficiality’. Upstairs, at the time of my visit, was the quinquennial survey of Swedish art, ‘The Moderna Exhibition’, a sprawling display so thoroughly earnest it was hard to see the art for all its good intentions. In that context, the disillusioned superficiality of The Chelsea Girls gave me what I have always come to art for: showing, not telling; beauty as unravelling, not hypothesis.

Andy Warhol photographed at his exhibition‘Warhol 1968’, Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 1968. Photograph: Lasse Olsson/DN/SCANPIX 

In Sichel’s essay, Swenson and Warhol are presented as exemplar cases who deal with censorship in opposite ways. Warhol recorded everything – every interview, every conversation – and would not be edited again. It is well-known how Warhol hid in the detached proliferation of his (own) images. Swenson, on the other hand, became a martyr. For much of 1968 he would picket the MoMA with a sign bearing a question mark. Sichel writes:

His inscrutable displays of excessive emotion in response to a world that felt to him irredeemably cynical, complacent, and cruel rendered him lonely, and even landed him in the psychiatric ward of Bellevue Hospital on three occasions, rather than amid the humming whirl of film projectors at the Factory, where he could ‘misfit together’ with other queers.

When Swenson died in a car accident in 1969, at age of 35, Jill Johnston eulogized him in The Village Voice. It seems to me that, with this particular death, the cause lost a man to self-detonation. We see this all the time. What better proof that the violence was real all along than spectacular defeat?

On 9 November, Berlin observed the 80th anniversary of Kristallnacht, when Jewish-owned shops were vandalized, and synagogues set ablaze. Just a few days after my run-in with the neo-Nazis on Potsdamer Platz, the city’s decision to disallow another right-wing nationalist demo on this emblematic night was overturned by the court at the last minute. In the end, their gathering was small, I heard. Meanwhile, I stood and watched as ten thousand Antifas passed by my first-floor flat. ‘It’s so beautiful’, I texted a friend, ‘we should join them on the street’. Still, as the tug of war continued, I stayed by the window, looking.   

Main image: Andy Warhol and Paul Morrissey, The Chelsea Girls, 1966, film poster. Courtesy: Wikimedia

Kristian Vistrup Madsen is an arts and culture writer based in Berlin, Germany.