Gay New York: An Interview with Artist Nicholas Buffon
This year, Poets House honors the 200th birthday of Walt Whitman—one of New York’s great gay poets—and celebrates the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, widely considered to have inaugurated the modern LGBTQ liberation movements, with Gay New York: Walt Whitman to the Present, an exhibition of artwork by Nicholas Buffon, on view through November 30. In sculptures and paintings, Buffon depicts landmarks, venues, and bars as vital sites of community-building.
This body of work, begun in 2015 with a model of the Stonewall Inn, responds to our current political moment by framing LGBTQ contributions to art and culture as central to American literary history. Buffon memorializes over 30 historic and contemporary locations in New York City and elsewhere—including Pfaff’s Beer Cellar (Whitman’s favorite bar), an HIV testing van in Cleveland, and the High Line’s monumental installation of Zoe Leonard’s poem “I want a President”—placing Whitman’s legacy in conversation with contemporary queer voices of resistance. The following is an interview with Buffon conducted by Valentine Conaty of Poets House.
VC: Walt Whitman’s epic “Song of Myself” resonates with transcendental philosophies of his time, but from a distinctly queer and urban perspective. Where Emerson imagines the role of the artist as a “transparent eyeball” through which “the currents of the Universal Being circulate” in nature, Whitman turns his eye toward New York City’s corridors and crowds (“I contain multitudes”). How did you imagine Whitman’s role as a wanderer and observer informing your own when making these works and then collecting them?
NB: Whitman is a figure I was briefly obsessed with when first looking for gay role models as a young teenager. Even 18 years ago there were way fewer pop-culture figures that were out, so I looked through history and glommed onto his obsession with flesh. Whitman is such a viewer, such a watcher. He fantasized about bodies and about the multitudes that would come after him. He was a voyeur and liked to get into the thick of things, right in the center of the action. His voice is casual and unpretentious: you get a sense he is sitting by your side talking—maybe rubbing your back.
He loved walking the city, he walked and walked and walked. I love doing this! You become an anonymous viewer to a thousand little dramas and so many cute guys. I take a lot of casual cell phone photos on these walks, many of which become paintings. I will revisit a location I have become interested in and amalgamate the figures from multiple visits. I usually fixate on handsome strangers as hidden little gems in my paintings—not giving them extra significance but letting them coexist in the little world.
VC: Walt Whitman’s presence in this exhibition—much like your own—is represented by locations that he frequented while living in New York. You include a picture of Whitman’s last surviving residence at 99 Ryerson Street, as well as two contemporary paintings of Han’s Deli, which is on the former site of Whitman’s favorite bar, Pfaff’s Beer Cellar. Why did you choose to showcase these sites from Whitman’s New York as they are now, rather than as they were in Whitman’s time?
NB: I am more interested in capturing the decayed and changing present than a fictional period drama. Plus, when everything is torn down 50 years from now for shiny new condos, people can look at these paintings and see how quaint New York used to be. New York is really good at taking an important place and shoving some random thing into it, like a deli or shoe store or a condo building. The whole city is constantly shifting and changing in minor ways. There are certain storefronts in the East Village that are filled with a different business each season.
I look for ways to avoid having to make too much up narratively—like a costume drama with Whitman and mysterious figures—and botching the history and accuracy. Karen Karbiener, Whitman scholar extraordinaire, took Paolo and me on a tour of the Han’s/Pfaff’s cellar in all its faded glory, and I found that experience so illuminating. Documenting mundane reality and unfulfilled expectations is my jam. The bricked-over doorway in the vault, partially hidden by a rack of water bottles, is so enigmatic. New York and its history are partially remodeled remnants to us as present occupants.
VC: Especially in the Village, so many gay landmarks have been demolished; surviving establishments, such as the Stonewall Inn and Julius’, have become community centers specifically because of their longevity—but they’re the exception to the rule. By painting present-day Han’s Deli and 99 Ryerson Street, are you also reclaiming these spaces’ gay history? What do you hope your documentation of Nicholas Buffon’s New York will mean as the city continues to change?
NB: I’m pretty lax and maybe a little eager about what I would consider gay history. A gay bar used to be located there? Gay history! An LGBT person lived there, or it was their favorite place? Gay history! A queer person made it? Gay history! Take it all! Already some of the places I’ve painted have permanently closed or moved or been renovated. I also think of the Pyramid Club in the East Village, which turned from a groundbreaking experimental queer performance space to a rundown venue for dance and hip-hop club nights. I don’t think of my New York as particularly special, just current. The more landmarks I paint, the longer my list of to-dos gets. W. H. Auden and Allen Ginsberg both had apartments in my neighborhood, and I’m working on a painting of Audre Lorde’s beautiful Staten Island home right now.
There’s a huge push to get 99 Ryerson Street on the historic landmark registry, which I think would be really cool. It is way ugly in its current neglected state, but a two-bedroom apartment there currently rents for like $3200 a month. It would be so our-current-moment if they ripped down the last building still standing that Whitman lived in to put up some butt-ugly condos. I put a Pete Buttigieg poster in the window to really tie the painting to 2019, and while he’s not perfect, I think Whitman would have been fascinated that a gay man is running for president. In person the poster is smaller than a pinkie nail.
VC: I’m interested in the recurrence of self-portraits in this exhibition. Widely divergent works including performance sketches (Flowers at the Pyramid Club, Time Curtain, Time Drain, Sitting in a Room), vignettes (Walkin’ Past Julius’, Watering the Garden, Hailing a Cab at Happy Fun Hideaway, and Walk of Shame at the Pyramid Club), and even paintings and sculptures of favorite bars and restaurants (B&H Dairy and Julius’) seem to come together under the banner of self-portraiture. How in your work do you examine the foundations of gay community through your position within it?
NB: The LGBT community is so broad a spectrum with so many pockets that I feel uncomfortable taking ownership of it. Putting myself in relation to landmarks and bars and chunks of the community signals my affiliation with these places like I’m on a cartoon pilgrimage. This helps parse the enormity of the community and the estrangement I often feel with our culture: really there are a hundred mini cultures/communities under one banner—a coalition as community. While I have a wide circle of friends, I am not always at gay bars nor am I on cruising apps. I watch all the gay movies but I’m not a big consumer of gay pop culture. I’m kind of a boring workaholic.
I started the gay bar project by depicting the bars I do frequent, then expanded my net to include any gay bar with an interesting exterior. I quickly realized I could visit anywhere, virtually. I use Google Maps to augment my experience of these locations. My painting practice takes long, isolated hours of monotonous labor to the point where my little cartoon self needs to take the walk for me.
I often use myself as a fill-in for when I want a figure but don’t want to use a stranger or generic person. I made some site-specific gay bars for a show in Akron, Ohio, using photos from the internet, then visited them when I went to the show. It became an actual pilgrimage.
VC: Your project of walking and depicting New York’s streets follows in the footsteps of literary and artistic flâneurs such as Eduoard Manet, Gustave Caillebotte, Charles Baudelaire, Oscar Wilde, and of course Whitman. These poets and artists documented the dual estrangement/connectivity of the modern city on the streets of Paris, Dublin, and New York. But you actually mention another dimension of estrangement/connectivity in modern technologies such as mobile phones, cameras, and the internet. Could you talk more about how these technologies enabled you to expand your voyeuristic walking beyond the frame of present-day New York City?
NB: Our phones are the most perfect illustration of this duality. I use the internet to mine source imagery constantly for the interiors of miniatures—Yelp or the establishment’s Facebook page, user photos on Google Maps or Instagram, etc. We are flooded with little windows into people’s lives constantly, and we consume them for fun. I love the small glimpses into people’s lives as I walk down the street, but I get a much more intimate glimpse online. Museums are complaining about the amount of visitors rolling through taking pictures and not actually experiencing the art—illustrating the hilarious problem of everyone taking all these photos of art that are already widely available online. More and more institutions are digitizing their collections and making these amazing resources available. NYPL, the Met, and the ONE Archives are all resources I’m just now learning to tap into. The next body of work I’m planning is LGBT art mediated through screens—personal experiences that happen in public.
VC: “Song of Myself” is also featured at the New York City AIDS Memorial, designed by Jenny Holzer near the former site of St. Vincent’s Hospital—the first hospital in the country to open a dedicated ward for the treatment of AIDS patients. What is it about Whitman’s legacy that speaks so strongly both to gay experience and to a uniquely American identity, that he’s still widely read by those who might otherwise find poetry inaccessible?
NB: Whitman was a broad writer: wide distances, long time frames, and role-play of lots of different perspectives. Weirdly, Whitman wasn’t cynical. I think he viewed the city and observing men as free entertainment. He was openly talking about flesh and the body and male bodies at a time when everyone was so buttoned up. He was a man of young America, an early celebrity covered in the gossip pages who was rough and rugged. He was obsessed with the working man and tradesmen; I think all his boyfriends were working-class men. His language is extremely accessible, conversational, and optimistic. He was a city boy in a time when the city was still half-wild country.
He genuinely cared about people and caregiving. If he lived in the 1980s I have no doubt he would’ve been right in the thick of things taking care of patients like he did for the soldiers during the Civil War. I took a really pathetic picture of the AIDS Memorial that I want to turn into a painting during Pride this year. It stood completely deserted just a few blocks from the vibrant, joyous insanity that is Pride with one measly bouquet, a flag, and a candle.
VC: One of the exciting things about this exhibition at Poets House is not just the breadth of ideas addressed in the span of several years, but the many mediums that you use to illuminate them—at times sculpture, painting, sketches, performance. Where did you begin as an artist, how did you begin experimenting with various different media? Can you talk a bit more about the mediums you used in this show, and what different mediums could do for you that others couldn’t?
NB: I started as a ridiculously messy abstract painter and abrasive performance artist. Everyone and their friends were painting huge, ambiguous paintings that didn’t mean anything to me. I began evolving my practice into partial representation by slipping jokes into my abstract paintings–frowning mouths, crying eyes, and butts. I gradually became more and more dissatisfied with the unspecificity of abstract painting. After college I didn’t have a large free studio to mess about in. The macho attitudes and the space requirements bored me. When you make a big painting, you are making a big statement, and then you have to move it around. It literally takes up a bunch of space, right in your way. I felt like making tiny, labor-intensive, precious things; I wanted subtle instead of bold. Performing became too stressful and the egotistical community made me roll my eyes. The performance maps, like Time Drain and Time Curtain, became a door to figuration and allowed me to stop doing performance while keeping a remnant of the fun body work.
Making miniatures was my transition into full representational art. I became a documentarian. When you reproduce a building, you feel ownership when you can hold it in your hand. There are so many buildings I want to reproduce in miniature, but they are so unpractical to make, taking months of fabrication, and most locations have large boring sections that made me expand to 2D depiction. Painting lets me capture figures and narratives. It’s not so conceptual or rigorous how I decide medium, more a practical consideration. My sculpture has a lot of painting in it and my paintings are very sculptural. I’ll usually work in one mode, burn out, and switch my brain to the other, then burn out and switch again.
VC: Can you talk about the experience of exhibiting and installing your work at Poets House, as opposed to a more traditional venue for contemporary art?
NB: Gay New York is the first institutional show I’ve done and was very exciting to put together. Usually when you put on a show you hang work you’ve made in the past year or so, but this show spans a decade, so it was freeing to gather work from so many years. Poets House is a special place. The staff, the patrons, are thoughtful and nice. The art world can be so cynical and stuck up that it was freeing to focus the show without any consideration for the market. I’ve never done wall labels before or given little tidbits away about the work; it felt healthy to open up a little about meanings or at least intentions to an audience that is not an art-going crowd.
I love the nooks and crannies at Poets House, the natural light. Installation is my favorite part of making a show: you plan a whole series of mini shows that don’t quite work while you decide where things go, and then all the hard work of painting and fabrication is done.
VC: What are you working on now, and where can interested readers find out more about your work?
NB: Since Gay New York opened at Poets House I’ve been working on a series of phone and tablet replicas on pine panel that have images by LGBT artists as backgrounds. I’m thinking about how our eyes are shifting from gallery walls to our screens and how you can take a tiny slice of ownership over others’ images in digital space. With these I will be mimicking and subverting iconic marketing campaigns for phones with backgrounds of queer art and depicting an art-viewing public obsessively documenting their experience. I’ve been showing with Callicoon Fine Arts, here in Manhattan, for ten years now.