Despite the suffocating amount of luxury stores, there are still some small pockets of Soho that retain the neighborhood’s old gritty art spirit. As you pass The Performing Garage, where experimental troupe The Wooster Group and others still rehearse and perform, you’ll now encounter an new and improved iteration of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. After lengthy renovations, the museum has reopened and nearly doubled in size with Expanded Visions: Fifty Years of Collecting, an exhibition rich in the history and scope of queerness and the artistic expression surrounding it.
A curatorial statement indicates that museum co-founders Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman have spent the past 50+ years “amassing artworks that speak directly to their experience as gay men.” Given that the words used refer specifically to the gay male experience, the exhibit could very well only have work by and/or about gay men, or perhaps just include a small corner of other identities for courtesy’s sake.
However, Expanded Visions reveals queerness through the years in a much more, well, expansive way. Walking into the left-side exhibition room, nearly the first thing you’re greeted with is a large and gleaming photo print depicting two queer femmes embracing. Even today, it still feels like a bold and important move to prioritize queer women by placing them next to the description of the entire exhibition. Just a few train stops away, at Bushwick’s Disclaimer Gallery, there is a show on view all about the isolating nature of a queer woman’s existence.
It’s notable that the exhibition does not separate itself into clean categories, for the most part. If it did, perhaps attendees would only choose to glance at the sections they thought were most relevant to their interests or identities. Instead, works featuring or created by black lesbians, trans men, drag queens, and more are placed alongside white gay male bodies, which still do remain the majority here.
The works are also not sectioned by time period, making every image multifaceted at first glance. A photographed nude created recently may not raise too many eyebrows now, but decades ago the notion of someone getting intimate with a lens and someone of the same gender could have caused quite a fuss. It’s never entirely clear which image came from which moment in time until you take a look at the placards, and it can be a treat to discover just how wide their collection stretches.
Especially quaint are the older works, often more ambiguous in their queerness. They’re scattered everywhere: 1943-era black-and-white tintypes portraying same-sex pairings scribbled with “My best bud,” Jacques Callot’s etchings of the “queer fringe” dating back to the 1600s, Wilhelm von Plüschow’s pastoral nudes of lithe Sicilian boys, snapped in the 1890s and yellowed with age.
It’s highly possible that works like these may not have been considered LGBTQ at the time of their creation, but this exhibit focuses on “re-evaluating work from a queer critical perspective,” casting new eyes on the way a bare chest might have been rendered in ink or just why an illustration of a bath house was made.
History is also a big part of the museum itself. While a space just for queer art doesn’t seem particularly radical nowadays (though we’ll see, the future may change that) it’s important to note the struggles they had to face in order to gain support or even acknowledgment by institutions. The museum’s director Gonzalo Casals told Vice that it took nearly half a decade for Leslie and Lohman’s work to be recognized as a foundation by the IRS, simply due to the word “gay” being in the title.
Some parts of the two-room exhibition are more categorized, like a sizable back wall portion containing predominantly works related to the AIDS epidemic, placed next to a corner of pieces that deal in the sexual and sordid, cleverly located behind an installation of Trojan condom boxes. Visible are works that recreate hospital restraints used in early treatment days and mix HIV antiviral medication Zerit (now considered excessively toxic) into a traditional still life. Edward A. Hochschild’s sizable cross studded with vials of blood, pills, and sand makes quite an impression even before considering its painful context. A closer look at some of the vials reveals a staggering amount of detail, including a poignant typewritten message inside one: “safer sex is for everyone.”
The fact that Leslie and Lohman have gathered a triumphant 30,000 artworks speaks to the significance of queer artistic archives as a form of remembrance. They did begin their increased focus on preservation when they saw countless likeminded collectors and artists claimed by the AIDS virus. They also saw these artists’s families discarding their work because they did not want to acknowledge its queerness, as to do so would be to acknowledge the queerness of the one who created it.
Even recently, we have seen queer celebrities like George Michael, Prince, and David Bowie, and more underground artists like Ren Hang and Walt Cessna pass away but leave their vibrant body of work behind to be loved and cherished forever by friends, lovers, and strangers alike. Spaces like the Leslie-Lohman can help preserve legacies like these. Sure, the museum does not necessarily cover every inch and subtlety of the queer experience, but there is always more artwork (and existence) to be unearthed, displayed, treasured.
“It makes me weep to feel the history of you of your flesh beneath my hands at a time of so much loss,” proclaims a print from David Wojnarowicz’s autobiographical graphic novel Seven Miles A Second, illustrated in vibrant color by James Romberger, depicting his battle with AIDS on the streets of New York. “All these moments will be lost in time like tears in the rain.”
While it’s true we cannot preserve moments, we can do our best to hold onto their expressions.
Expanded Visions: Fifty Years of Collecting is on view through May 21 at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, 26 Wooster Street, Soho.