beatniks, crossdressers, and biker gangs: documenting american outsiders

Nonconformist American artists from Diane Arbus and Kenneth Anger to Nan Goldin and Gordon Parks come together in 'Outsiders,' a new exhibition that chronicles 30 years of life on the margin.

by Emily Manning
|
16 March 2016, 5:15pm

Sometimes, we need to leave America to better understand it. Outsiders: American Photography and Film -- a group exhibition now open at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, Canada -- presents a visual tour of life at the margins of the USA. Spanning from 1950 through the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the show brings together the work of photographers and filmmakers who confronted rigid cultural conventions by probing the politics of everyday life. Featuring works by Diane Arbus, Robert Frank, Nan Goldin, Kenneth Anger, Shirley Clarke, and more, Outsiders chronicles the ways these iconoclasts changed the image of American life. 

Diane Arbus, A young man and his pregnant wife in Washington Square Park, N.Y.C., 1965. Copyright © The Estate of Diane Arbus.

In addition to covering some of the nation's most formative decades, Outsiders documents a wildly diverse range of subjects and locations. Danny Lyon's travels with Chicago's outlaw biker gangs are presented alongside Gordon Parks' portraits of poverty in Harlem -- images photographed within a year of each other. The New York-based community depicted in Goldin's seminal 1985 monograph The Ballad of Sexual Dependency -- her tight-knit tribe of friends, lovers, drag queens, and drug addicts -- becomes an interesting counterpoint to the city's freaky Beatnik scene, celebrated in Robert Frank and Alfred Leslie's 1959 collaborative film Pull My Daisy, which features young poets Allen Ginsberg and Gregory Corso. Arbus' instantly-recognizable swordswallowers and tiny ballroom dancers pair with an anonymous trove of images from Casa Susanna, a community of crossdressers enjoying country life.

Unknown American, Susanna and three friends outside, 1964-1969.Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario Purchase, with funds generously donated by Martha LA McCain, 2015 © Art Gallery of Ontario

In addition to photographic projects, Outsiders features a wealth of experimental and documentary film projects. Shirley Clarke's controversial Portrait of Jason -- which marked the first time a gay African-American man appeared in a documentary feature -- answers the dark pop-homoeroticism of Anger's cult classic Scorpio Rising brilliantly. "Motivated by a sense that the status quo was untenable, and that current visual expressions of American life did not reflect what they knew and saw of the world, they deployed their chosen media to reflect a more complex, more authentic and more diverse view of the world in which they had grown up," reads the exhibition's release.

'Outsiders' runs until May 29 at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

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Gordon Parks, Rosie Fontenelle Cleans the Bathtub, Harlem, New York, 1967. Courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation and Nicholas Metivier Gallery © The Gordon Parks Foundation

Nan Goldin, Cookie at Tin Pan Alley, New York City 1983. Matthew Marks Gallery © Nan Goldin, 2016

Garry Winogrand Central Park Zoo, New York City 1967. Art Gallery of Ontario Purchase, with funds generously donated by Martha LA McCain, 2015. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Kenneth Anger, Scorpio Rising 1963. Courtesy of Anger Management

Garry Winogrand Kent State Demonstration, Washington, D.C. 1970. Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario Purchase, with funds generously donated by Martha LA McCain, 2015. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

Unknown American, Susanna in a pink, green and yellow dress, sitting with friends, 1960s. Collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario Purchase, with funds generously donated by Martha LA McCain, 2015 © Art Gallery of Ontario

Danny Lyon, Sparky and Cowboy (Gary Rogues), Schererville, Indiana, 1966. Art Gallery of Ontario Promised gift, James Lahey and Brian Lahey, in honor of our mother Ellen Lahey © 2015 Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos.

Nan Goldin, Picnic on the Esplanade, Boston 1973. Matthew Marks Gallery © Nan Goldin, 2016

Credits


Text Emily Manning
Danny Lyon Cal, Elkhorn, Wisconsin 1966. Promised gift, James Lahey and Brian Lahey, in honor of our mother Ellen Lahey © 2015 Danny Lyon/Magnum Photos.

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