Like Stonewall, the art revolution of the 1980s was a coming out as explosive as the times required. Many of the artists who broke out were gay: Mapplethorpe, David Wojnarowicz, Peter Hujur, Catherine Opie and Keith Haring marched into our consciousness with forceful works that expressed an era’s glittery insouciance .
This age of visual ascendance was also an age of grief: AIDS ended the party, claiming casualties that would leave a hole in the creative world. One of these was Mark Morrisroe, a young Boston photographer whose shadowy works were both personal diary and a chronicle of the way we lived then. By turns sordid and raffish, the homemade aspect of his work (especially his use of handwritten text and photo collage) emphasizes, rather than obscures, his obsessions with post-punk, identity, sexuality and the disease that would claim him at the age of 30. The Artist Space has mounted a revelatory show that will make you ponder the 80s anew, while leaving you with the poignant question: what if he’d lived?
Another explorer of selfhood and sexuality, the still very-much-alive Glenn Ligon holds forth at the Whitney in a mid-career retrospective. Ligon: America goes beyond a gay aesthetic: in paintings, video, sound installations, he explores the politics of his times. A gay/black man, Ligon deftly parses out those life-long messages sent by a society laughably—haplessly—ill-equipped to cope with, let alone understand any paradigms veering from the norm. In exploring everything from slavery to Mapplethorpe (his Notes on the Margin of the Black Book installation is a magnificent distillation of text and image, two seemingly disparate souls in sync) Ligon transcends the usual labels, but what’s revealed is an elegant, questioning artist who tips his hat to the masters of yore, but is indebted to no one. A week later, my head is still at the Whitney, and yours will be too. Go get haunted.
Mark Morrisroe: From This Moment On, March 9-May 1, 2011 at the Artists Space, 38 Greene Street, 3rd Floor (www.artistsspace.org)
Glenn Ligon: America, March 10-June 5, 2011 at the Whitney Museum, Madison @75th Street (whitney.org)