This past summer I organized queer abstraction at the Des Moines Art Center — a landmark exhibition that featured the work of 15 contemporary artists which addressed sexuality and gender identity. queer abstraction was the first exhibition in the Art Center’s 70-year history to focus on queer subject matter, as well as the first major exhibition on the topic. Before the show opened in June, it had already received attention from both the Sotheby’s Prize — a grant-making organization that recognizes exhibitions for their groundbreaking research — and the widely read magazine Artforum.
One of the major challenges in mounting this exhibition is that queer abstraction eludes any type of definition. Not quite a trend or style, queer abstraction is more a strategy that many Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer artists have deployed since the turn of the 20th century in order to visualize sexualities or gender identities that combat conventional ideas of such. In contrast to art that features recognizable imagery — especially the human figure — abstraction offers these artists a blank slate for realizing these themes. Many of the artists are thinking of “queer” as a verb, too, in such a way that they are “queering” abstract art; that is upending a style that has for decades been associated with heterosexual male artists.
Bruce Hartman, executive director and chief curator at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, reached out to me at the beginning of 2019, expressing interest in presenting the exhibition at the Nerman in the fall. I was thrilled! Not only would the exhibition live on after its debut in Des Moines, but I was pleased to learn that the Nerman — just like the Art Center — offers free admission for all.
Visitors to the Nerman’s presentation of queer abstraction will find all of the pieces that visitors in Des Moines were able to experience, such as the vibrant, sassy canvas Jolly Hydra: Unexplainably Juicy by Carrie Moyer, which to her is the “ultimate genderqueer painting.” Also presented will be Killing the Goodbye by Mark Bradford, a 10-by-10-foot painting that serves as a monument to those who have suffered or died from the ongoing AIDS epidemic. Installed inside the Nerman’s glass lobby space will be Deep Purple, an 80-foot-long tilted wall by Tom Burr that criticizes masculine, large-scale sculpture by (mostly) straight male artists within the latter half of the 20th century.
Exciting additions to the exhibition not shown in Des Moines are works by Kansas City Art Institute graduates Matthew Willie Garcia and Bo Hubbard. Garcia’s Reorienting Space-Time intelligently synthesizes quantum mechanics with queerness, while Hubbard’s Moonflower beautifully showcases the artist’s talent for working in fiber, all the while suggesting the safe space and promise nightlife offers queer folk. Other new additions will be paintings by longtime abstract artist Linda Besemer, two large-scale geometric works by Keltie Ferris and recent textile pieces by Brooklyn-based Paolo Arao, who perverts the typical grid-like structure of abstract painting with asymmetrical patterns.
A positive criticism that queer abstraction received constantly was that it was a bold exhibition to be mounted in the middle of the United States. That it’s traveling to the Nerman Museum in Overland Park, Kansas, only furthers this tenacity, and proves that the Midwest is not only eager for this type of dialogue, but is more than willing to participate in it.
–Jared Ledesma, Assistant Curator, Des Moines Art Center