For Jonathan Katz, art history is more than history. It’s a living thing, being written and renewed every second — it’s never finished, never satisfied, and Katz’s learned hand is helping cultivate it. Katz gave a talk on Wednesday, Nov. 11 at Mills College, regarding the influence of AIDS in American Art.
Since becoming the first tenured faculty in the United States in gay and lesbian studies at the City College of San Francisco, Katz has been at the forefront of several important milestones in queer art history, a term he uses. Some of the milestones include curating innovative shows, and bringing queer art history to higher education for the first time.
However, Katz’s achievements aren’t limited to the art world. He founded the Harvey Milk Institute, a pioneering queer studies institute and co-founded Queer Nation, an activist organization.
His main focus is on the art world where he laments the negligent treatment of queer artists by art historians, who refuse to address sexuality.
“Their [art historian’s] understanding is that if the work doesn’t reference sexuality in particularly visible ways then it is inappropriate to address it,” Katz said.
Katz is re-assessing old art pieces, and re-creating their meanings.
“There are many ways and many places in which sexuality is readable from the surface of works, even in an abstract mode, and it doesn’t require representation in order to be framed and understood as queer,” Katz said.
One example is Agnes Martin, a lesbian abstract painter, who Katz studies. He argues that Martin uses abstraction to evoke the viewer to move either closer or farther away, so that her art is understood very physically.
“It evokes the body. And so this idea of evoking the body, bringing the body into play in a work, I’ve argued, is very queer,” Katz said.
Another queer artist who Katz studies is Jasper Johns, whose work projects queer values by appropriating cultural symbols and questioning their origins.
“Johns takes the forms of cultural abstractions, a letter or a number, to a target or a flag, because they are simply given their significance by a cultural agreement,” Katz said “And he raises questions about how that agreement came to be reached.”
Questioning is a key ethic of the LGBTQ+ community and its forbearers, and Katz affirms this connection. Those marked as queer, he argues, are implicitly at odds with the dominant culture and naturally driven to investigate the contextual mechanisms which mark naturalness and unnaturalness.
“The inquiry into how social and cultural norms is established, is at this historical moment, a very queer one,” Katz said.
Katz’s current project, a show titled “Art, Aids, America,” opened in Los Angeles in October. It is one of the first exhibitions to explore the impact of AIDS in American art.
“AIDS phobia and homophobia were twins,” Katz said. “[With this exhibit] I wanted to essentially re-characterize AIDS — not as something that was either past or containable, but was in fact the dominant motor for American art since the mid-’80s.”
In the lecture on the 11th, Katz revealed that over 100 museums had refused to host this exhibit — even many museums in the Bay Area. This shows that though homophobia and AIDS phobia may be regarded as things of the past, traces still remain.
“I’m frustrated that local galleries turned down this show,” studio art major Nicole Rose said. “The Bay Area art scene is regarded as very progressive, so why was this exhibit turned down so many times?”
Homophobia in the ’80s led Katz and others to change the terminology behind the LGBTQ+ movement.
“We’re starting to see a lot of work that plays with non-essentializing identity categories,” Katz said.
Katz mentioned George Steeves as an example of shifting terminology, as he is a white, straight, male artist who identifies as queer.
“He photographs himself in one well-known image, wearing a woman’s blouse, nude, in the shower. And that image of a woman with a wet top…he reverses this. And when I talked to George about whether he was queer, he had no problem naming himself as that,” Katz said.
Katz details Johns’ dazzling body of work in his upcoming book, “The Homosexualization of American Art: Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and the Collective Closet,” set to be published in 2016.