In Conversation with Gallery 293

I walked into Gallery 293 of the Art Institute looking for this Martin Wong painting, Sweet Oblivion. 

Martin Wong, Sweet Oblivion (1983)
Art Institute of Chicago, Estate of Martin Wong
and P.P.O.W. Gallery, NY

An art buddy, Jasper Goodrich, had suggested I go see it at the Art Institute when I told him about the book of Martin Wong's poems I'd just received from Primary Information. The on-line collection search at the Art Institute confirmed that the painting was on display and that it was in Gallery 293, which I visited on February 5, 2024.

I went in search of the painting, choosing not to read much in advance, thinking through where it was, on the second floor in the modern wing, then wandering through the galleries, searching for the painting.

When I entered Gallery 293, in the far east side of the second floor, I was surprised and delighted by the very camp sculpture in the middle of the gallery. 

Larry Wolf (photo 2024), Greer Lankton - Rachel (1986) with
Martin Wong - Sweet Oblivion (1983) and
Arch Connelly - Chip (1982)

What is this? Who is this artist? Across from a pair of David Wojnarowicz's works which I knew well.

Larry Wolf (photo 2024), Greer Lankton - Rachel (1986) with
David Wojnarowicz - Queer Basher/Icarus Falling (1986) and
David Wojnarowicz - Untitled (Buffalos) (1988-89)

There must be a connection. I wonder... in the room are works from 1982, 1983, 1986, 1988/89, ... Were these artists all in New York? Did these artists know each other? 

I went to the wall text to give me more of the story.

The text for Sweet Oblivion begins: "Martin Wong's paintings combine painstaking documentary realism with highly charged symbols and decorative motifs. Wong moved from San Francisco to New York in 1978, joining a lively East Village scene filled with artists making political work inspired by their personal and cultural experiences." [the on-line text]

What constitutes the artist's "culturally diverse worldview"? In what way "political"? What "personal and cultural experiences"? !!

The wall text for Greer Lankton is a bit more specific (though when I first looked on-line, there was no explanatory text and now there is): "She was a transgender artist and self-described anorexic and addict who considered her work autobiographical. "It's all about ME," Lankton wrote in a powerful poem-statement that emphasizes not only "indulgence" and "vanity" but also the artist's sense of being "trapped in [her] own world.""

At least this text begins to name names, to be specific about the artist and their work: transgender, anorexic, addict creating autobiographical work. Where is the full "powerful poem-statement"? [It's here at the Mattress Factory in Pittsburgh: full text of Lankton's artist statement]

What the heck? I guess I'll have to dive deeper myself to learn about these artists and their connections beyond what I already know about David Wojnarowicz (about whom I have a major fixation).

Of Course Zoe Leonard and the Loss of a Friend

On a tour later in February, I mentioned to the curator my interest in the works in Gallery 293 and we talked briefly about the artists and their work as well as the process of curation. When I rattled off the artists I knew, she added: "Of course, Zoe Leonard." Zoe Leonard? The dried banana skins? ??? I knew nothing about the artist or their work.

I did know Zoe Leonard

I did some searching on-line and discovered I knew of Zoe Leonard's work, specifically "I want a president", though I didn't remember who had written that. Wow. Queer herstory smack in my face. Of course. fierce pussy. Of course Zoe would be friends with David.

Zoe Leonard, I want a president (1992)

David Wojnarowicz,
In the Shadow
of the American
Dream, page 188

I did some more searching, which got me to Cynthia Carr's biography of David Wojnarowicz (Fire in the Belly 2012) and that led to David's diaries (In the Shadow of the American Dream 1999) -- both books on the shelf at home. 

David and Zoe were friends, pretty intimate friends, as described in 1981, and into the ACT UP years. 

There's a photobooth strip of David with a bunch of bananas adjacent to the entry about Zoe from 1981. A simpler time when they were artists living their lives, making their work, trying to make enough money to survive, working at the clubs.

And then, a decade later, David dies, one of oh so many who have died of AIDS. 

... Strange Fruit (for David), 1992–1997, created by New York-based artist Zoe Leonard. Hauntingly beautiful in its simplicity, this work was begun in 1992 as a process of mourning for the loss of a friend and developed into a five-year-long project. Strange Fruit (for David) is composed of over 300 banana, orange, grapefruit, lemon, and avocado peels with thread, zippers, buttons, sinew, needles, plastic, wire, stickers, fabric trim, and wax.

[Philadelphia Museum of Art, Exhibition -
New Work by Contemporary Artist Zoe Leonard,
April 1–September 6, 1998

It seems the single clump of five bananas at the Art Institute is part of this larger work, a work specifically dedicated "for David". This larger work deals with impermanence and the fragility of life, perhaps a work that challenges the role of museums as treasure houses for the preservation of art. This article from 2019 provides background on the work, the artist's changing intentions and how the work has been experienced over the years.

Leonard determined the meaning of the piece: that it was made to decompose and that the organic process of decay should be allowed to unfold in public view. Promising to embrace Strange Fruit’s ephemeral nature, the Philadelphia Museum of Art (PMA) acquired the piece in 1998. Yet a work of art meant to change and ultimately disappear challenges the traditional paradigm of museums, which is centred around safeguarding physical objects that are largely perceived as static. 

[Burlington Contemporary,
Intent in the making: the life of Zoe Leonard’s ‘Strange Fruit’
by Nina Quabeck (May 2019)

Zoe Lenard, Bananas with Red Thread (1996)
Larry Wolf (Photo 2024)

The Wall Text and What the Artists Said About Their Work

These artist statements are from the time period of the works at the Art Institute but not specifically about the particular pieces. All of the artists in Gallery 293 are included here though I don't necessarily know much about them or how all of them were or weren't connected at the time.

Martin Wong (1946-1999)

Martin Wong, Artist Statement, 
Semaphore Gallery (1984/5)
Wikimedia Commons


Taking it down to street level this time, I wanted to focus in close on some of the endless layers of conflict and confinement that has us all bound together in this life without possibility of parole. By whatever chains of desire be they financial, chemical or karmic … Satan runs all the rackets in New York City in this year zero (AB-BD) when over the cities of the earth it was understood this was a domain he had clear title to, and whether or not he actually went for the deal still remains to be seen. Always locked in, winners and losers all, it is only when we are down for the final count, that the twin firemen (sleep and death) come silently to reclaim their own, for only then within their peaceful realm, are we all truly equal. 

Art Institute Wall Text (February 2024)

American, 1946-1999
Sweet Oblivion

Acrylic on canvas

Martin Wong's paintings combine painstaking documentary realism with highly charged symbols and decorative motifs. Wong moved from San Francisco to New York in 1978, joining a lively East Village scene filled with artists making political work inspired by their personal and cultural experiences. Illustrating a modern-day ruin in the epic scale of traditional history painting, Sweet Oblivion depicts a decaying tenement near the artist's home and studio. Wong's trademark hands in the upper left alight on the surface of a fiery, apocalyptic sky, reiterating the caption at the bottom of the composition in American Sign Language finger spelling. These delicately gilded characters-which pay homage to graffiti art, Persian script, and hieroglyphics-stand in stark contrast to the otherwise bleak scene.

Gift of Society for Contemporary Art, 2012.485

Greer Lankton (1958-1996)

ARTIST STATEMENT - It's All About ME Not You

I’ve been in therapy since 18 months old, started drugs at 12 was diagnosed as schizophrenic at 19, started hormones the week after I quit Thorazine got my dick inverted at 21, kicked Heroin 6 years ago. Have been Anorexic since 19 and plan to continue and you know what I say FUCK Recovery, FUCK PSYCHIATRY Fuck it all because I’m over it. Over the roof. I’m so sick I’m dead, so from now on I take no responsibility for my actions. Oh and I was fucked up the ass by my grandfather since age 5, been brutally raped twice and have had almost every major organ in my body fail at some point. Life support is no picnic for Rhoda so don’t EVEN take me there. By the way I’m an artist and Andy Warhol was the dullest person I ever met in my life. But he’s got a museum so what do I know. Hans Bellmer is my favorite artist.

Love always,

Artificial Nature
Total Indulgence
Dolls engrossed in glamour and self abuse
The vanity
The junkie
The anorexic
The chronic masturbator
“Its all about ME”
Not you
Trapped in my own world in my
Hhead in my tiny tiny

[at Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh PA]

Art Institute Wall Text (February 2024)

American, 1958-1996

Papier-mâché, metal plates, wire, acrylic paint, and matte medium

Greer Lankton made lifelike doll sculptures modeled on friends and celebrities often staged in theatrical settings. Meticulously constructed and featuring extravagant costumes and makeup, the portraits are at once glamorous and grotesque, reflecting Lankton's lifelong obsession with body image. She was a transgender artist and self-described anorexic and addict who considered her work autobiographical. "It's all about ME," Lankton wrote in a powerful poem-statement that emphasizes not only "indulgence" and "vanity" but also the artist's sense of being "trapped in [her] own world." Here the artist depicted performance artist Rachel Rosenthal with a haggard visage yet fiercely confident stance. The sculpture once served as a mannequin in the window of Einstein's, a boutique in New York's East Village.

Promised gift of Eric Ceputis and David W. Williams

Arch  Connelly (1950-1993)

Artist Statement (1980)


lamp shades, side chairs, OCCASIONAL TABLES, END TABLES,,,,,,
coffee, 45 record cases, pole Iamps, polish boys, Muscle Men
PEN AND PENCIL SETS, TV trays, TV Iamps, TV stands, home
entertainment centers, BRUCE LEE, brenda Lee, Drift Wood, 
COCKTAILS, frames, ROCCOCO, vacations, hate (in fact, 


is also owned, loaned, enthroaned, and WELL HONED, A HONEY, 
AND HAD MONEY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! 
IT WILL implicate, try, kill and honor, NEVER DIE, point, 
thrill, and fill SPACE, D E C O R A T E, I M P L I C A T E,
 be loose, be uptight, win the fight, move, prove, GROOVE, 
VISUALIZE, cover and be your lover, IT WAS denounced and has
NOT YET POUNCED, pranced, danced BAD, is GOOD und WOULDI!!!!!

Art Institute Wall Text

American, 1950-1993


Gift of Jimmy Wright

Felix Gonzalez-Torres (1957-1996)

The text of Untitled as configured at the Art Institute from 2011 to 2015

Red Canoe 1987  Madrid 1971  Mariel Boatlift 1980  An Easy Death 1991  VCR 1978  Supreme Court 1986  Venice 1985  Paris 1985  Watercolors 1964  CDC 1981  Our Own Apartment 1976  Rosa 1977  Great Society 1964  Blue Flowers 1984  Silver Ocean 1990  Ross 1983  Civil Rights Act 1964  MTV 1981  Proposition 8 2008  Berlin Wall 1989  L.A. 1990  New York City 1979  Election Night Grant Park 2008  CNN 1980  Lover Boys 1990  Interferon 1989  Soft Pillow 1990  March on Washington  1987  Sloan-Kettering 1995  Julie 1987  Black Monday 1987  Placebo  1991  Güaimaro 1957  Myriam 1990  Bay of Pigs 1961  H-Bomb 1954 

Art Institute Wall Text

American, born Cuba, 1957-1996

Enamel paint on wall

The self-portrait "Untitled" is composed of words and dates that are installed as a frieze-like text near the ceiling of this gallery. This uncommon and deceptively simple approach exemplifies the quiet, conceptual nature of Felix Gonzalez- Torres's work. "Untitled" interweaves personal milestones with communal events of our historical era. The artist did not limit the inscriptions to events that occurred between his birth and death. In fact, as the co-owner of the work, the Art Institute must add and subtract events, thereby granting the installation-and the artist himself-a form of renewable life. This piece reminds us that all human identity is mutable and open-ended.

The Art Institute of Chicago: bequest of Carolyn Spiegel; Watson F. Blair Prize, Muriel Kallis Newman, Sara Szold, and Modern and Contemporary Discretionary funds; Samuel and Sarah Deson and Oscar L. Gerber Memorial endowments; and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Accessions Committee Fund Purchase: gift of Jean and James E. Douglas Jr., Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein, Collectors Forum, Doris and Don Fisher, Niko and Steve Mayer, Elaine McKeon, and Danielle and Brooks Walker Jr., 2002.80

David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992)

Art Institute Wall Text

American, 1954-1992
Queer Basher/Icarus Falling

Spray paint and acrylic on board

Gift of Stuart and Susan Handler, 2004.761


Untitled (Buffalos)

Zoe Leonard (1961- )

Artist Statement (1997)

Zoe Leonard,
Museum of Contemporary Art, 
North Miami, 1997
I began sewing fruit because I was tired of throwing things out all the time. I had been on a trip to India and was impressed with how each scrap of paper, each bit of wire, was used to its maximum, to the very end of its possible useful life. So, absentmindedly one day, I stitched up the skins of two oranges I had eaten.

A few months later, I moved out of New York. I thought about a beautiful sculpture that a friend who died that summer had made--a loaf of bread broken in half and stitched back together with brilliant red embroidery thread. The piece was beautiful, the thread hanging, thick and shiny, almost like blood pouring from the bread.

I began sewing up banana skins and orange peels most mornings after breakfast. This act of repairing was helpful to me. The quiet, repetitive act of sewing was satisfying to me in some way I didn't really understand. I didn't think of this as making art at all.

The sewing was an obsessive act. It gave me great pleasure. I almost always sew alone. It gave me time to think. Time to mourn and time to mull over many parts of my life that I'd look away from before.

This act of fixing something broken, repairing the skin of something after the fruit of it is gone, strikes me as both pathetic and beautiful. At any rate, as intensely human.

We need eulogies, and relics; monuments and mementos. This act of sewing guides my thoughts. Whenever my thoughts drift, I'm drawn back to what is in my hands. An orange peel. The fruit eaten. I sew it close, restore its form. Using pretty thread, buttons, and old zippers, I'm also decorating it. This mending cannot possibly mend the real wounds, but it provides a symbolic place for me.

Like memory, these skins are not the substance itself, but a form reminiscent of the original. In some ways, the fruit are like photographs. It's not the fruit itself, but it looks a little like it.

The skins themselves decompose quickly. They are fading and cracking and turning to dust as I write this. It's an absurd act of repair. The very essence of the piece is to decompose. The absurdity, irony, pain, and humor of it is that we attempt to hang on to memory, but we forget.

I've decided to keep this group of sewn fruit together, as one piece, to decompose on its own time. I will continue to add to it. My wish is to find a place somewhere, a room where the fruit can be installed, and stay, undisturbed, until it's all dust.

Zoe Loenard

Museum of Contemporary Art
North Miami
March 8 to April 20, 1997

Courtesy Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
With much appreciation to Knight Landesman,
Tony Feher, Patrick Seguin, Serge Aboukrat,
Christian M. Scheidemann, and Jennifer Flay

Art Institute Wall Text

American, born 1961
Bananas with Red Thread 

5 banana skins, sticker, and thread

Anonymous gift, 2010.578

Learning More

Some of these artists were outside the mainstream of the art world, living in the East Village and more generally the Lower East Side/Alphabet City. Fringe. Rebels. Some crossing into the established galleries and museums, for a while, and now, here in the Art Institute. This gallery has become an invitation to learn more about the artists, their work, their time.

The Artists Knew Each Other

Danceteria and the Galleries (1983)

Celebration of Lower East Side Galleries at Danceteria (1983)

David and Zoe met while they were working at Danceteria in 1980 (C Carr??)

Greer, David and Martin in Milan (1984)

New York New 26 Artists, Group Show at Studio of Corrado Levi Corso, Milan, Italy  (1984)

Primary Information (publications by these artists)

Primary Information is a non-profit organization founded in 2006 to publish artists’ books and artists’ writings. The organization’s programming advances the often-intertwined relationship between artists’ books and arts’ activism, creating a platform for historically marginalized artistic communities and practices. Primary Information facilitates intergenerational dialogue through the simultaneous publication of new and archival books, providing a new audience for out-of-print works and historical context for contemporary artists.

David Wojnarowicz

Dear Jean Pierre

In the Shadow of Forward Motion 

Martin Wong

Footprints, Poems, and Leaves

Das Puke Book 

Greer Lankton

Sketchbook, September 1977

Their Gallerists and Foundations

David Wojnarowicz

David Wojnarowicz Foundation 

Martin Wong

Stanford University - Martin Wong Catalogue Raisonné 

Zoe Leonard

Felix Gonzalez-Torres 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres Foundation

Queer Typography - Nat Pyper - Martin Wong Font

Nat Pyper is an alphabet artist.

Nat Pyper - Martin Wong Font (I Really Like The Way Firemen Smell) (2018)

Additional Information from the Art Institute and on Queer Art in Museums

From the Art Institute

There is an irregular stream of posts headlining queer artists on the Art Institute's main page. Quite wonderful.

Here are the deep links since that page turns over frequently plus some other pages where the artists reveal more of who they are.

Greer Lankton and Peter Hujar: Being Themselves by Sheridyn Villarreal (May 2, 2024)

Queer Artists and Art

About the Rose: Igshaan Adams and Hendrik Folkerts in Conversation (July 19, 2022) and this video of the talk

And More

Inclusion or Something Else? Acknowledgement? Visibility?

Recollections of My Nonexistence by Rebecca Solnit (March 10, 2020

 ~ ~ I may have found my voice, but is anyone listening? Am I making a difference?

NYTimes: These Gay Figure Artists Are Reimagining the Male Gaze by Antwaun Sargent (Sept. 17, 2018) 

NYTimes: At Museums, a Revolution Gains Momentum by Ted Loos (June 3, 2024)

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