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Many gay artists in the 1950s and ‘60s hid their sexuality behind macho appearances, fake girlfriends, and snide remarks about effeminate men.
Not Andy Warhol.
Pittsburgh’s native son openly expressed his sexuality through his drawings, paintings, and films, becoming one of the first notably gay artists to reach mass attention. His early commercial work—often punctuated by angels, cupids, butterflies, and flowers and accompanied by the swirly, handwritten script of his mother, Julia Warhola—defied the hyper-masculine sensibilities that defined Madison Avenue. Never mind that he got pushback from a society where homosexuality was criminalized in most states and a major social taboo.
“It was a different time, so he didn’t hold a press conference and come out to the world,” says Grace Marston, a gallery educator at The Andy Warhol Museum. “At the same time, he didn’t do anything to convince the world he was straight, which set him apart from other gay figures of the era,” including fellow American painters Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.
In some cases, artists seemingly picked on Warhol to insulate themselves from similar attacks. “They rejected Warhol because he was too so-called ‘swish’ and openly effeminate,” says Danielle Linzer, the museum’s director of learning and public engagement. “There was almost this fear that he would contaminate them.”
“Being gay was an important part of Warhol’s life, and we don’t want to shy away from that.”
– Danielle Linzer, the Warhol’s director of learning and public engagement
The practicing Byzantine Catholic appeared in public with various boyfriends throughout the decades, and he also used homoerotic images in his artwork—images that some galleries refused to exhibit. His 1956 Studies for a Boy Book was shown at the Bodley Gallery in New York. But the ballpoint pen drawings of young men, including male nudes, were rejected by galleries before and after. Reviewers criticized the drawings for their “doubtful taste” and “private meaning,” and referred to them as “highly sensitive.”
Today, The Warhol celebrates not only its namesake’s artwork—all of it—but also his role as a gay icon. “Being gay was an important part of Warhol’s life, and we don’t want to shy away from that,” says Linzer. “Queer and trans people in our community and around the world still face tremendous discrimination, and we have an important role to play as a cultural institution devoted to a gay artist.”
From serving as a platform for contemporary queer performance to hosting the region’s largest LGBTQ+ youth prom, The Warhol strives to be a safe and inspirational space for people of all gender identities and sexual orientations.
The weekend of June 28–29, the museum will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall uprising with programs that celebrate LGBTQ+ culture and community in Pittsburgh and beyond. In response to ongoing harassment and discrimination, and following a routine police raid of the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar in Greenwich Village, on June 28, 1969, the bar’s patrons and surrounding community erupted into violent, spontaneous demonstrations that spread through the area and dragged on for nearly a week. Today, the riots are credited with sparking the modern gay rights movement.
In partnership with Reel Q: Pittsburgh LGBTQ+ Film Festival, The Warhol will screen the documentary Before Stonewall, followed by a Q&A session with co-director and producer Robert Rosenberg and a late-night dance party with Jellyfish, a trio of local DJs. The next day, the museum will host a gender-inclusive celebration for families featuring drag queen story time with Akasha L Van-Cartier, short films for kids presented by Fairy Fantastic, the Dreams of Hope queer youth arts showcase, and more.
For Warhol, his art and his love life were often intertwined. His iconic Campbell’s Soup cans were based on photographs by Edward Wallowitch, his boyfriend in the late ‘50s. His most serious partner, Jed Johnson, was hired to sweep floors at The Factory; over time, he worked his way up to editing films and even directed the 1977 comedy Andy Warhol’s Bad.
“But society didn’t want to see the obvious,” Linzer says. Instead many falsely assumed that Edie Sedgwick, a Warhol Superstar who appeared in his films, was his girlfriend.
While Warhol was not outwardly political, he made a point of creating opportunities for gay youth in the art world.
“He wasn’t marching in the streets,” says Marston, who helped develop the museum’s monthly Dandy Andy: Warhol’s Queer History tour. “But he made changes within his own world. The Factory was a safe space for the whole queer avant-garde of New York. He provided employment and opportunities for many queer kids.”
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