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Lost and Found: The Lesbian and Gay Presence at the Archives of American Art

What happens when one looks for what has been previously suppressed or overlooked: in this case the existence of lesbian and gay relationships and representations in the Archive?

Lesbian and gay artists have made a strong imprint on American art for at least two centuries. No matter how they identified themselves—straight, gay, bisexual, or queer—many of the artists in this exhibit belonged to creative communities that were unusually welcoming to nonconformist gender roles. In these circles, artists felt free to represent homoerotic images. Indeed, lesbian and gay visual, literary, and performing artists were the first in American history to live openly in same-sex relationships and express their sexuality, well before the modern lesbian and gay civil rights movement.

And yet into the late 20th century, many artists did not feel safe to talk and write about same-sex desire, except with lovers and other intimates, if at all. The guarded way these artists refer to love and personal relationships is in sharp contrast to a new generation of lesbian and gay artists, for whom the imperative to come out of the closet is essential to their creativity and to their politics.

The Archives of American Art contains numerous letters, photographs, unpublished writings and rare printed material that document the lives of gay American artists. This exhibition presents glimpses into their sometimes private, sometimes “out” lives, careers and communities.

This exhibition is curated by Jonathan Weinberg and funded by the Lawrence A. Fleischman Endowment.