Stanley Stellar's photos are an intimate queer time capsule of New York’s West Village before AIDS, human connection, and an Edenic era of LGBTQ+ history
On May 18 1981, the New York Native, the only gay newspaper in the city, published the first story on a new disease later identified as AIDS. After hearing rumours of a “gay cancer,” the paper’s medical writer Lawrence D. Mass contacted the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC claimed that word of a deadly threat descending upon the gay community largely unfounded – a pernicious start to what would become a longstanding pattern of malignant neglect by the federal government.
The advent of AIDS marked the end of a brief but shining chapter of LGBTQ+ history that began with the Stonewall uprising in 1969. As a new generation came of age during the Gay Liberation Movement, they transformed the street of New York into a garden of earthly delights, reveling in the bountiful pleasures of existence itself. No longer driven into the shadows, forced to deny their true selves, the community could openly partake in sex, love, friendship, and camaraderie.
Although the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) would not extend Constitutional rights to the LGBTQ+ community until 2003, change was in the air. After 20 years of pathologising homosexuality as a form of mental illness, the American Psychiatry Association removed it from the DSM-II in 1973 – the very same year that SCOTUS modified its definition of “obscenity” to finally legalise the depiction of male frontal nudity.
While established artists like Andy Warhol began experimenting with homoerotic photography in his series Sex Parts and Torsos, he struggled to call a spade a space, writing in The Andy Warhol Diaries: “I shouldn’t call them nudes. It should be something more artistic. Like ‘Landscapes’.” But a new crop of emerging artists including Antonio Lopez (1943-1987), Peter Hujar (1934-1987), Alvin Baltrop (1947-2004), Robert Mapplethorpe (1946-1989), and Peter Berlin were more inclined to embrace the spirit of the times, centring LGBTQ+ life in their work.
Although the contemporary art world largely excluded photography at this time, many artists could still afford to live and work in New York without undue financial stress. After the Nixon White House implemented a policy of “benign neglect”, systemically denying services to Black and Latino communities nationwide, New York’s infrastructure began to collapse. Landlords hired arsonists to set fire to their buildings in order to collect insurance payouts, while the middle class hightailed it to the suburbs in a mass migration known as “white flight”.
Teetering along the brink of bankruptcy, New York became the Mecca for art, culture, and creativity. From the ashes, a phoenix rose – introducing the world to new styles and sounds. Hip hop, punk, and disco filled the parks and the clubs, while graffiti writers, working under the cover of night, transformed whole cars into rolling masterpieces. Art collectives like Colab took over abandoned buildings and turned them into galleries, while artists could create whatever they desired without having to worry about forging a career in order to make rent.
But by the time the 1980s rolled around and Ronald Reagan was elected President, the seeds of neoliberalism began to take root, creating seismic shifts in art, real estate, and policing – the likes of which had transformed the world as we know it. Recognising the end of an era has come, in 1981 cultural historian Steven Watson and artist Carol Huebner Venezia organised Artifacts at the End of a Decade, a limited edition artist book featuring the work of 44 artists including Laurie Anderson, Robert Wilson, Sol Lewitt, Fab Five Freddy, R. Crumb, Stanley Stellar, and Lucinda Childs – of which just 100 copies were printed and can now be find in collections like the Museum of Modern Art.
“Artifacts was conceived as a time capsule,” says Watson. “We now see the ways in which identity and cultural politics were shaping the landscape of art. There was a greater awareness of sexual and gender identity in the artists’ work. It was very inclusive and open, in terms of both form and content.”
“At the end of the 70s, what seemed to characterise the era was a radically inclusive spirit” – Steven Watson
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Artifacts at the End of a Decade, Watson has teamed up with British/Belgian filmmaker William Markarian-Martin to produce a film series spotlighting the artists who contributed to the project, as well as an exhibition opening September 25 at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
“At the time, there was no prevailing school that dominated the New York art scene,” Watson says. “At the end of the 70s, what seemed to characterise the era was a radically inclusive spirit. Painting was no longer the main thing. There was a broad array of people operating under the very loose umbrella of art. Laurie Anderson was doing performance art, Luncinda Childs was a dancer, and Fab 5 Freddy painted Warhol soup cans on the side of a subway car. Art had moved out of the white galleries into a broader world. We realised that this disparate group of art objects collected in Artifacts would look different at a future time.”
New York native Stanley Stellar, the first artist featured in the Artifacts film series, contributed a colour Xerox of his photograph Men Standing on the Street with me on Sunday, July 1, 1979 in Front of the Cock Ring Disco, NYC to the project. The image is particularly poignant in light of the passage of time; soon after the photograph was made the Cock Ring Disco would close and become an AIDS hospice. But all this was in a future no one working on Artifacts could imagine at that time, least of all Stellar himself.
Growing up in Brooklyn in the 1950s and 60s, Stellar remembers the way the mainstream media portrayed the LGBTQ+ community in the years before Stonewall, casting a dark shadow over his childhood. “As a 10-year-old, the media let me know that I was terrible and I would be lucky if I wasn’t killed when someone found out who I was,” he says. “We almost didn’t exist, but inside me I knew that there was a queer history in New York.”
“As soon as I started taking pictures, I know I was photographing a special time in the history of homosexuality” – Stanley Stellar
After Stellar came out, he began traveling to the West Village, then the city’s fabled bohemian quarter. “Back then, there was nowhere for us to sit. We’d sit on the steps of a building or lean against a parked car – the only other place for us was in a mob-run bar,” Stellar recalls. “There would always be two patrolmen on foot moving us along. On one of my trips around the block I found Christopher Street. It was a dark, one way street that led to the Hudson River. At the end of it there were a couple of seedy leather bars that scared the shit out of me. The police didn’t care what was happening down there.”
Stellar began to feel at home in this new world, knowing that he wasn’t going to be seen by his parents’ friends passing by in cars. One night in the early 1970s, he had a revelation while walking down Christopher Street with an older man. “This was our first date. I thought this was the world of love and romance,” he says, smiling back on his youthful naïveté. “He took me to an apartment to have sex. I remember he was carrying a chain full of keys to different buildings around the city and I suddenly realised, oh wow! There are all these gay lives going on behind closed doors. That stayed with me my whole life, even now in my old age: What does it mean to have a gay life?”
For Stellar, photography is a way to explore this question in depth, one that he never fails to carry when he steps out of the house ever since he purchased his first professional camera in 1976. “So many people who don’t fit in develop a place to go within themselves. Some go to sports, some to music, and I went to the image,” says Stellar, who went on to study graphic design in school. “I liked it because images could be reproduced and influence society. People could see themselves or things they didn’t see in ordinary life. This was always my impetus in my personal life and as an artist.”
Documenting the vibrant LGBTQ+ scene began when Stellar recognised he was living in truly extraordinary times. “Christopher Street was a haven,” he says. “I realised I was a part of history, that there was finally a place for us. I would go in the afternoon, sit by the river, and hang out with my friends. It made you feel like a human being, that being queer wasn’t based on having sex in dark corners. As soon as I started taking pictures, I know I was photographing a special time in the history of homosexuality.”
“I liked it because images could be reproduced and influence society. People could see themselves or things they didn’t see in ordinary life” – Stanley Stellar
Stellar’s photographs of the West Village before the advent of AIDS chronicle an Edenic era of LGBTQ+ history, documenting a revolutionary period when communities were free to shape themselves in their own image. “I had a friend who rented a parlor floor walk up in a brownstone on Christopher Street near Seventh Avenue. He opened a store and called it ‘Now.’ I asked him. ‘John, what are you selling? There’s nothing here.’ That didn’t concern him,” Stellar remembers with admiration.
“The store didn’t last long but he made a statement while it did. He made a poster of himself wrapped in the American flag, and that’s what he sold. It was the first time we could be proud of ourselves, we could have the lights on and say come in. I was lucky enough to be in this time of unimaginable freedom that had never been recorded in history. We’re not Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, or even Rock Hudson. We were ordinary kids from the boroughs taking the train to experience some kind of intimacy, friendship, and fun. Some human connections – that’s what we’re all here for, isn’t it?”
Artifacts at the End of a Decade is on view at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst from September 25 to December 5 2021. The full film series launches September 2021 via www.artifacts.movie