‘I didn’t care about fitting in’: the LGBTQ+ artists in our collection

Over the years, art has been a safe forum for many LGBTQ+ artists to express their identity by exhibiting a glimpse into the lives and struggles of their community. Contemporary art provides a platform and showcases the sexual, political and heart wrenching moments that most, if not all, members of the gay community have experienced. 

This year, due to COVID-19, we are participating in the Queer Heritage Forum celebrations of PrideOnline2020 by bringing you an insight into the stories of some of the LGBTQ+ artists in our collection. At GoMA, we believe we hold a space that promotes diversity, equality and acceptance and we are very proud of our work and connection with the gay community. 

Andy Warhol 

Oyster Stew Soup is currently on display in TASTE! (Gallery 2)

Andy Warhol (1928-1987) lived openly as gay man before the gay liberation movement of the late 1960s to the mid 1980s. The influence of Warhol’s sexuality on his relationship with the art world features heavily in the scholarly discourse surrounding the artist; Michael Daytomn Hermann reflects on Warhol as an artist ‘who put sexuality at the centre of his work from day one’ and that he was ‘challenging the world to see things differently’ (Alberge, 2020). Warhol himself would often address his sexuality during interviews and in his publications, such as Popism: The Warhol 1960s. Many of his most famous works – portraits of Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland and Elizabeth Taylor and films such as Blow Job, My Hustler and Lonesome Cowboys – are shaped by gay underground culture and wilfully explore the intricate layers of sexuality and desire (Waugh, 1996). 

Warhol Andy, Oyster Stew Soup, © 2020 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc. / Licensed by DACS, London. 2020.

 Throughout his career, Warhol produced erotic photography and drawings of male nudes. Just recently in February, it was announced that dozens of previously unpublished Warhol drawings on the theme of love, sex and desire are to be seen for the first time at the Tate Modern. When Warhol had attempted to to exhibit these drawings in 1950s New York, he was met with homophobic rejections from the gallery owners, during a time when homosexuality was a harshly punished felony in every US state (Alberge, 2020). Even in the face of societal discrimination, Andy Warhol embraced the role of the nonconformist.

David Hockney

Photography is Dead Long Live Painting is currently on display in TASTE! (Gallery 2)

In the 1960s, David Hockney (1937-)  was creating artworks that were openly exploring themes of gay love and desire and were very much based on his own experiences as a gay man. From 1964 he lived in California, where he was able to enjoy the gay underground scene of Los Angeles. He would also often spend many of his days at Santa Monica pier, where he would admire the men at the beach. This new environment greatly influenced him; in his California paintings, such as Man in Shower in Beverly Hills (1964), Hockney featured mainly wet, athletic men amongst typically colourful Californian architecture. Even before California, some of his earlier works almost propagandise homosexuality, such as We Two Boys Clinging Together (1961), inspired by a work by the 19th-century poet Walt Whitman (Brown, 2013). 

David Hockney, Photography is Dead Long Live Painting, 1995

Back in 2013, there was an exhibition at Liverpool’s Walker Art Gallery that displayed almost forty early works that explored the sexuality of the Bradford-born artist. The show included a series of etchings from 1966 that were heavily influenced by the poetry of Constantine P Cavafy. Hockney adored Cavafy’s honest and intimate poems about doomed homosexual love, and even went to Alexandria and Buruit where they were set, to gain inspiration (Brown, 2013).

Throughout his career, David Hockney has broadened his practice to incorporate a range of different mediums, including photography, full-scale opera designs, prints and even iPad drawings. By experimenting with different techniques and technologies, Hockney has made his art accessible to people everywhere, thereby openly expressing his love of others. His work displays a personal honesty about his sexuality, and even Hockney himself admits that he ‘didn’t care about fitting in’ (Hattenstone, 2015).

Hal Fischer 

Hal Fischer: Gay Semiotics and other major works is currently on display until September 2020 although this may change due to the current COVID-19 situation. 

Hal Fischer (1950-) is an American artist who produced his most significant work in San Francisco in the late 1970s and was one of the first artists to apply a conceptual approach to gay-themed photographs. His photography during this time present an intimate and groundbreaking documentation of gay men in San Fransisco openly celebrating gay liberation, at a time when homosexuality was still illegal in many US states. The AIDS epidemic of the 1980s would bring this era to an end. 

Fischer’s iconic Gay Semiotics (1977)  is a collection of twenty-four photographs which can be described as ‘a photographic study of visual coding among homosexual men’. Taken directly from the artist’s own experience of living within the bustling gay communities of San Francisco’s Castro and Haight Ashbury districts, the pioneering photographs combine text and imagery to explore and celebrate gay urban culture.

Hal Fischer, Earring, from the series Gay Semiotics, 1977, Gallery of Modern Art

Following Gay Semiotics, is 18th near Castro St x 24 (1978), a work of 24 photographs of a bus stop bench in the centre of Castro, that Fischer shot over a 24-hour period. The outcome is an immersive journey for the viewer into this gay haven that the artist depicts. Throughout the day, various groups form, engaging with one another before casually disappearing, creating a last impression that this community is in perpetual motion (Stewart, 2020).

Boy-Friends (1979) is another series of photographs that depict Fischer’s experience as a gay man. It consists of ten photo-text “portraits” of men that the artist interacted with over a four-year period in the mid- to late- ‘70s. Each photograph is accompanied by a narrative that tells an intimate story which personifies each relationship, and takes the viewer on an honest journey. 

The Salesman (1979/2015) is the last of Hal Fischer’s major works. Commissioned by the Eyes and Ears foundation, it was one of the seven billboards created by Bay Area photographers for a 1979 exhibition. It was originally sited on Market Street at the entrance of San Francisco’s Castro district. Fischer’s salesman references Burt Reynolds’ groundbreaking nude centrefold image that appeared in the April 1973 issue of Cosmopolitan. Installed at a time when naked men were not present in mass advertising, A Salesman provoked a great deal of public response and media attention. 

Hal Fischer, A Salesman, 1979/2019, Gallery of Modern Art

In 2015, A Salesman was presented again on an outdoor billboard in San Francisco. Fischer noted that there was very little public reaction, highlighting that the male nude is now perhaps more common in mass media and popular culture. 

Although Hal Fischer’s work focuses exclusively on the experience of young white gay men, it is comforting to reflect on how much progess has been made since the late 1970s in increasing represrentation of other facets of the LGBTQ+ community, although there is of course, so much more to be done (Stewart, 2020). 

Sharon Hayes 

Fingernails on a blackboard: Bella and May 1st are currently on display in TASTE! (Gallery 2)

Sharon Hayes (1970-) is an artist who primarily works with video, installation and performance as her medium. Born in 1970, she came into art and activism upon arriving in the East Village performance scene during the anxieties of the AIDs crisis in 1991. Entering the community, she befriended a diverse group of queer-identified, feminist cultural workers and found herself enthralled by active protests- enacted both in the streets and on the stages of the East Village clubs (Estefan, 2012).

Through her practice, Hayes ‘appropriates, rearranges and remixes in order to revitalise spirits of dissent’ (Estefan, 2012). She incorporates texts from found speeches, recordings, songs, letters and her own writing into her art that she describes as ‘a series of performatives rather than performance’. Yard (2009) is a compilation of campaign signs from across the US, installed in an East Village cemetery. On one of the walls, she curated an anachronistic grid of 600 rally posters advocating for gay rights, racial equality and peace. 

Sharon Hayes, May 1st, 2012, Gallery of Modern Art

For her piece Revolutionary Love 1 & 2 (2008), Hayes asked 100 gay volunteers to recite a text she wrote on queer power and liberation at the 2008 presidential conventions as part of a two-part commission for Creative Time’s public art initiative, ‘Democracy in America: The National Campaign’. ‘Using the charged atmosphere of the conventions as a backdrop for a more personal reflection on love and politics, the piece draws upon the history of the gay liberation movements of the 1970s’  (Joo et al., 2011).

Emmanuel Cooper 

Untitled is currently on display in Domestic Bliss (Gallery 4)

Emmanuel Cooper (1938-2012) was a British artist who was a key figure in ceramics in the last century. He was also a committed campaigner for LGBTQ+ rights, evident in his writing about gay histories in art and craft but less obvious in his ceramic work. 

In the early 1970s, Cooper became involved within the gay movement, helping to found the Gay Left Collective. This was a group of gay men who published an influential journal, with the same name, on sexual politics every six months between 1975 and 1980. After it was dissolved, Cooper established a gay artists group and a gay history group, and contributed widely to the gay press, predominantly on the arts and cultural issues (Weeks, 2012).

From the early 1980s, Cooper began researching and writing on gay art, producing many widely read studies, such as The Sexual Pespective (1986), on homosexuality and art; and Fully Exposed: The Male Nude in Photography (1990). 

This piece has provided just a wee glimpse into the LGBTQ+ collection here at GoMA and we are always looking for ways to amplify this representation through our acquisitions, exhibitions and outreach. Although we are seeing greater progress since the days of Warhol and Hockney for the LGBTQ+ community, there is still so much more to be done. Only days ago it was reported that Boris Johnson is set to scrap plans to allow people to change their legal gender by self-identifying as male or female. It is clear that homophobic and transphobic prejudice is still embedded within all levels of society; this is why, in the face of discrimination, we must stand up to show that love and acceptance is stronger and will always win.


Thomas Waugh, Hard to Imagine: Gay Male Eroticism in Photography and Film from the Beginnings to Stonewall (New York City: Columbia University Press, 1996)

Dayla Alberge, ‘Andy Warhol’s 1950s erotic drawings of men to be seen for the first time’, The Guardian (February, 2020)

Mark Brown, ‘David Hockney: a portrait of the artist as a gay man’, The Guardian (October, 2013)

Simon Hattenstone, ‘David Hockney: “Just because I’m cheeky, doesn’t mean I’m not serious’, The Guardian (May, 2015)

Riona Stewart, ‘Arts Review- Hal Fischer: Gay Semiotics and other works’, qmunicate, (January, 2020)

Kareen Estefan, ‘Sharon Hayes: There’s so much I want to say to you’, The Brooklyn Rail (November, 2012)

Eungie Joo; Joseph Keehn; Jenny Ham-Roberts, Rethinking Contemporary Art and Multicultural Education (New York, 2011)

Jeffrey Weeks,‘Emmanuel Cooper obituary’, The Guardian (January, 2012)

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