Q&A with Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt on Art, the Stonewall Era, and Meeting the Obamas

February 26, 2013

Since the 1960s, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt has been making his opulent and celebratory art—eye-catching assemblages of cutouts, tinsel, cellophane, and other household materials, inspired equally by Catholic iconography, home decoration, and his own private vocabulary. Last November, MoMA PS1 opened “Tender Love Among the Junk,” its retrospective of the longtime MFA Fine Arts Department faculty member’s pioneering work, which The New York Times praised for its “transcending beauty” and “eroticized religiosity.” The exhibition runs through April 1.

Lanigan-Schmidt recently spoke to SVA Close Up about his art, gay culture during the Stonewall era, and what it’s like to meet the president.

In a video interview promoting your PS1 show, you mention your mother’s “knickknacks” and say that you think of your own work as knickknacks. Can you explain what, if any, influence your upbringing had on your art?
Well, I was a kid back in the 1950s and went to Catholic school in a factory town in New Jersey, and there were a lot of old traditions. I was an altar boy and I liked it a lot, because you got to see everything up close. On feast days and things like that, the decorations [in church and at home] were made with everyday materials, and it always looked nice.

My whole aesthetic is based on the house I grew up in. My mother was a tremendous influence. She had Virgin Mary statues and Jesus statues and pixie knickknacks and plastic tablecloths and plastic doilies and plastic flowers. She would Scotch-tape things on the kitchen wall so it became almost like a big collage. She was an artist in her own right.

I honestly consider my art to be the same type of thing. Except when I left home, in 1966, it started to incorporate more of a New York, street thing and become very eclectic.

Why do you prefer to use everyday materials? What attracted you to them growing up?
It’s the quality of the materials—the way they reflect and catch the light—and it’s the magic of the materials. These are things that people throw out. Like cling wrap—people throw that away, that’s gone. Not in my family, we used wax paper, but when I was an altar kid, the other kids would bring their sandwiches in Saran Wrap, and I’d take it and make little pearls. To me, right away, it’s a precious material.

After you moved to Manhattan, you started making art in your apartment and inviting people over to see it. What were those experiences like?
Some people would leave right away, some would stay for hours. I would open and close the curtains so light would fall on the work. I would play records—Tchaikovsky, Strauss waltzes, things like “Johnny Angel”—and sometimes play them at 78 rpm, so it would sound like munchkin voices….I wanted it to be ridiculous and crazy and meaningful at the same time.

I also used to dress in drag. I would say I was an art collector named Ethel Dull, who I based on [minimalist-art collector] Ethel Scull, and cut out little images of Frank Stella paintings and make earrings out of them. I was pretty pissed off at the time and connected [the art world’s exclusivity] to a kind of homophobia. There was a very rebellious side in the beginnings of my art.

Now your work is seen in galleries and museums, as opposed to your home. Do you think anything has been lost in this transition?
Not at all. If something was made for a cathedral in the Middle Ages and ends up in a museum.…

Back then I thought, in my teenage brain, that I was just making knickknacks to furnish some great life to come with my future boyfriend. So I’m very happy now that it’s collected. It’s a piece of my past that I take very seriously. It’s part of a narrative of the gay movement, but done in my own way.

You’re a veteran of the Stonewall riots. What was life like for a gay man in New York City in that time?
It was a very tough world—everything was against the law, and you lived in places where it was

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very easy to get killed—but at the same time it was a very culturally rich world. My life has been kind of like a storybook. When I ran away to New York, I really had nothing, and I met a bunch of other gay runaways and felt lucky to be a street kid because I got to be who I am. “Gay” was nowhere in the aboveground culture.

You could meet all kinds of people just by being at Stonewall, like Jack Smith, Charles Ludlam, Henry Geldzahler. Look them up, they’re really important. Someone coming from my background today would have a much harder time [making connections like those]. That world was a ghetto where all types of people connected together.

In 2009, Frank Rich wrote a column, “40 Years Later, Still Second-Class Americans,” partly based on a paper I wrote [“Mother Stonewall and the Golden Rats”] about being a teenage runaway at the Stonewall riots. I still consider that my greatest work of art, even though it’s a written piece. It met with a wider audience and is about such a unique situation, not about art being in a gallery or anything.

Also in 2009, you went to a White House event commemorating Stonewall’s 40th anniversary. How was that experience?
It was crazy. Have you ever been in there? They keep it lit so that anyone can take a picture, almost like a movie set. There are very few cast shadows. And you stand in line with all these different kinds of people, waiting for a picture with the president and the first lady.

[Once you get to the front,] you’re twirled around, like a toy ballerina on a jewel box, and it’s “Congratulations, you helped change the world” and click-click, your picture’s taken. The president is very big—tall, tall, and has big, long hands—and so is she. It was an experience I’ll never forget. I’d do it again tomorrow.

You developed your aesthetic and theories independent of the mainstream art world, but you’re also a faculty member in the MFA Fine Arts Department at SVA. What’s your approach as a teacher?
My main concern is that students try to find out who they are through their art. If they’re going to make mainstream, art-world art, that’s fine, maybe that’s what they’re best at. But hopefully it’s not.

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