robert mapplethorpe and harvey milk come together in new exhibition exploring america’s queer 70s

A group show opening in New York today examines how the 1970s profoundly shaped the American queer experience.

by Emily Manning
08 April 2016, 6:30pm

Recently, there's been much renewed interest in Robert Mapplethorpe's iconoclastic body of work. The first-ever documentary about the photographer premiered this week on HBO, while his landmark LACMA retrospective continues to draw massive crowds. A recently published book, The Archive, spans Mapplethorpe's entire artistic oeuvre and bears the blessing of Patti Smith, whose memoir about their relationship, Just Kids, is now being adapted into a TV series AND a feature length biopic. Mapplethorpe's photographs remain both timelessly elegant and freshly provocative, but why do they matter so much today?

Francesco Scavullo, Robert Mapplethorpe and Samuel Wagstaff Jr., 1974. Gift of David Aden Gallery. Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum.

In 1978, Mapplethorpe produced his most controversial body of work, the X Portfolio -- a series of sadomasochistic scenes and still life photographs that was brought to a criminal trial after being exhibited in Cincinnati. That contested legal battle not only collided issues of censorship, sexual expression, artistic integrity, and race, but its fallout also directly shaped the Culture Wars that would dominate the 1980s. And its social, economic, and political ramifications still impacts our experience of American life today. A new group show opening today at New York's Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art will not only exhibit the entire X Portfolio, but explore the historical and cultural context in which it was produced.

Diana Davies, Gay rights demonstration, Albany, 1971/2013. Gift of Alexis Heller, ©NYPL. Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum.

The 1970s: The Blossoming of a Queer Enlightenment probes the liberating decade between the Stonewall Riots, in 1969, and 1980, just before the AIDS crisis permanently altered the nature of and discourse surrounding sexual relationships in America. "This was an amazing period in gay history. It was informed by the sexual revolution, anti-war efforts and the civil rights movement which fermented in the 1960s," Museum Director Hunter O'Hanian said in a press statement. "It was an age when gay men, lesbians, and trans folk began to look inward and saw they could possibly free themselves from the social repression that had been forced on them for decades."

Harvey Milk, San Francisco Gay Parade, 1974/2009. © The Estate of Harvey Milk. Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum.

In addition to Mapplethorpe's work, the exhibition draws from the museum's own permanent collection as well as the Lesbian Herstory Archives and the New York Public Library, to feature over 115 works. Some of the show's most compelling photographs were taken on the front lines of demonstrations, including Diana Davies' documentation of protests in New York and iconic activist Harvey Milk's dispatches from San Francisco Pride parades. "It was the awakening of a new period of enlightenment in human and social development," O'Hanian remarked of the monumental decade. "The scent of political and personal freedom was everywhere. One only had to stop and look for it."

Diana Davies, Stonewall Inn, 1969. Gift of Alexis Heller, ©NYPL. Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum.

Peter Hujar, Gay Liberation Front Poster Image, 1970. Gift of the Peter Hujar Archive, LLC. Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum


Text Emily Manning
Rink Foto, The first large group of lesbians in the San Francisco Gay Parade, invited by Harvey Milk, 1974/2016, Gift of the artist.

Harvey Milk
Robert Mapplethorpe
Leslie Lohman Museum
The 1970s: The Blossoming of a Queer Enlightenment