Art and sex

McDiarmid’s attraction to New York was first and foremost to the homosocial and sexual possibilities in a city that had a high population density, broad racial and cultural diversity and was inscribed with a subcultural map of gay male places of significance, some of which had been gay meeting places for decades and others of which had sprung into prominence post Stonewall. As George Chauncey showed, New York, as one of the major port cities of the world, had been a magnet for thousands of homosexual men from the armed services who had declined to go home to their provincial towns and farms after World War II demobilisation.[18] Stonewall—the events in and around the Stonewall Inn in Lower Manhattan in 1969—was subsequently a trigger for the burgeoning of an urban gay male scene that was reproduced and emulated by other large Western cities, including San Francisco, London and Sydney.

By the time McDiarmid finally moved to New York to take up settled residence there, in June of 1979, at the age of twenty-seven, he was a self-identified gay political artist. His first one-person show, Secret Love, had explored gay male sexuality and sociality inside and outside of the closet. The drawings and collage works of this exhibition asserted a centrality for homosexual desire and made political claims for social and legal equality. He also exhibited in, and designed the poster for, the first self-identified exhibition of Australian gay and lesbian artists at Watters Gallery, Sydney, in July 1978. Entitled Homosexual and Lesbian Artists, this exhibition was associated with the Fourth National Homosexual Conference held at Paddington Town Hall in August of that year. By the time of McDiarmid’s first visit to the United States, three months after the Secret Love exhibition, the enduring interconnection between his art practice, his political consciousness and his sexuality was established.

The work for the 1976 Secret Love exhibition was already inflected by ideas of ‘America’. McDiarmid used aspects of American popular culture, including Hollywood films and literature, in works with titles such as A Straight-Stud Named Desire (a collaged image of Marlon Brando from A Street Car Named Desire), Myra Lives (referencing Gore Vidal’s Myra Breckinridge) and Plato’s End (with collaged images of film star Sal Mineo in his role as the closeted gay love interest in Rebel Without A Cause). The title of the exhibition, Secret Love, quoted the words of the song, famously sung by Doris Day in the film Calamity Jane, about a ‘secret [in this case gay] love’, which need be ‘secret no more’. This camp appropriation of American popular culture was interspersed with other works that referenced more Australian concerns.

Influenced by America Pop Art collage in its content, method and politics, McDiarmid’s 1976 work expressed a personal idiolect, which was neither wholly Australian nor wholly American. By this I mean that his visual language and artistic conceptual concerns were refracted through the embrace of American culture in such a way as to form the kind of ‘hybrid’ and ‘dialogic’[19] language that arises from a nomadic ‘becoming’ subjectivity. After his first trip to the United States in 1977, McDiarmid’s work adopted an even more American visual and conceptual language in response to his intoxication with urban New York.

Firstly, every street is a beat!! If you walk around for an hour or so, just looking in shop windows, soon enough some number will look, and then look again, and then look again, and then say ‘Hi! How ya doin’? Wanna get it on?’ Honey it’s unbelievable. I went to Bloomingdale’s last week (the ultimate dept store…ultimate, ultimate) and was just wandering around, and sure enough, in 10 mins, there’s 2 sets of eyes following!! Found out yesterday it is a notorious beat, but at the time I was stunned.[20]

McDiarmid’s one-person show Trade Enquiries, held at Hogarth Galleries, Sydney, in 1978, explored the visuality and coded communication of gay male bars and street cruising in New York and San Francisco. Exhibited the year after his first visit to the United States, this work references the performative dress and image typologies of gay men in urban America. Materials for this series of collaged and offset printed works included graphics and text from the American gay press and hyper-masculine images of gay male visual identity: ‘clones’, lumberjacks, studs and cowboys.[21] The collaged appropriated fragments that made up the 1978 Trade Enquiries artworks included sexually coded ads from the ‘personal’ columns of gay newspapers, romantic popular song titles, published pornography and fetish imagery, portions of colour-coded bandanas denoting coded sexual practices and images of well-groomed moustached ‘clones’—‘juicy fruits’, who look identical but are given by the artist interchangeable names: Ralph, Joe, Frank, Jack, Tom, Steve, Rick and Charlie (Figure 16.2). These works, produced out of the beats, bars, backrooms and clubs of San Francisco and New York, embody pleasurable engagement and ironic detachment.

Figure 16.2: David McDiarmid, Juicy fruits: Ralph, Joe, Frank…, 1978.

Figure 16.2: David McDiarmid, Juicy fruits: Ralph, Joe, Frank…, 1978.

Offset lithograph from Trade Enquiries, series of nine prints with cover, 37.1 cm x 28.2 cm. Private Collection. Reproduced with permission of the McDiarmid Estate.

On his first visit to the United States from March to October of 1977, McDiarmid travelled extensively on the east and west coasts, focusing on the gay male urban communities of the Castro in San Francisco and the zones surrounding Christopher Street in Lower Manhattan. The America that McDiarmid was attracted to was not the world of official or dominant American culture but that of ‘America’s own rebellion’, as Janet Wolff put it[22] —not the world of what became known as Reaganomics, conservative family and religious values and what Wolff called America’s ‘institutionalised and pervasive racism’, but the world of sexual permissiveness, interracial mingling and urban cultural innovation and daring.[23] For a young man from the geographical and cultural periphery, the bright lights and cultural complexities of New York, the metropolitan centre, along with its abjections, provided a compelling magnetism that animated McDiarmid’s personal and creative life for the remainder of his career.

This city is breath-taking. I thought California was great but this is it! I never want to leave! The air is electric, the sidewalks are magic and the people are crazy crazy crazy.[24]

McDiarmid’s early interest in gay liberation politics and the idea of a potential ‘gay art’ were intensified by the experience of being in New York, the home of admired gay male artists Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe and David Wojnorowicz. This gay male art of the 1970s and 1980s, which Emmanuel Cooper called ‘virtually a new art’, was based on a ‘new homosexual eroticism’[25] that McDiarmid had explored since his earliest exhibited work, the Secret Love show in December 1976 just before his first trip to the United States.

[18] Chauncey, George 1996, ‘Privacy can only be had in public: gay uses of the streets’, in J. Sanders (ed.), Stud: Architectures of masculinity, Princeton Architectural Press, New York, p. 259.

[19] Thrift, Spatial Formations, p. 295.

[20] Letter, David McDiarmid (in New York) to Peter Tully (in Sydney), 12–13 May 1977, McDiarmid Estate Papers, State Library of New South Wales.

[21] Cole, Shaun 1997, ‘Macho man: clones and the development of a masculine stereotype’, Fashion Theory. Volume 3, Berg, Oxford, pp. 125–40.

[22] Wolff, Janet 1995, Resident Alien: Feminist cultural criticism, Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut, and London, p. 139.

[23] Ibid., p. 140.

[24] Letter, David McDiarmid (in New York) to Peter Tully (in Sydney), 4 May 1977, McDiarmid Estate Papers, State Library of New South Wales.

[25] Cooper, Emmanuel 1994, The Sexual Perspective: Homosexuality and art in the last 100 years, Routledge, London and New York, p. 303.