George Segal, Gay Liberation Monument, 1980
When, on June 24 of last year, the New York state legislature finally voted to legalize same-sex marriage, I did not need to be told where to go. As soon as it was clear that the votes were there, I bounded out of my apartment and went down to Christopher Street, and outside the Stonewall you could barely move among the thousands of revelers crushed together in the road. Even the police were having a good time. I pulled myself onto a brownstone railing on the south side of Christopher to get a better view, but one kid on the other side of the street had an even better vantage than I did. He was just a teenager, and he balanced himself on the heads of the two men in George Segal’s Gay Liberation Monument, right there in Christopher Park. You couldn’t invent a finer symbol for the night.
In the works of Segal we know best, he generally combines his white-painted bronzes with readymade objects or puts them into settings: a bar, a bedroom. But the Gay Liberation Monument – quite unlike Segal’s Holocaust memorial in San Francisco, which I have never liked – uses no props; it’s just two men standing, two women sitting. (One of the models for the monument, Leslie Cohen, wrote a beautiful reminiscence last October of how she came to pose for the work.) The setting is the Village itself. The work is not just in situ; the park, its benches, and the Stonewall behind are the work as well. During the years of wrangling required to get city approval, Segal installed the sculpture first at Stanford, then in Madison, Wisconsin; it was, in an important way, incomplete for all that time.
Segal was not gay, and though he had already depicted a lesbian couple with great tenderness in The Girl Friends (1969), he took a risk when accepting the commission. He wasn’t the first choice for the project: that was Louise Nevelson, but she backed out, fearing that creating a monument would be tantamount to coming out of the closet. (Supposedly multiple gay artists turned the project down, though Nevelson is the only one I know by name.) Not only did Segal have to fight for years to install the work in its rightful place, but he also had to repair and recast it multiple times – less than a month after its installation at Stanford someone took a hammer to it. David Dinkins, our most underappreciated mayor, finally inaugurated the monument in 1992. But by then the homophobic opponents remaining in the Village could not really protest: time had transformed the Gay Liberation Monument into a memento mori.
AIDS has made the silence of Segal’s figures more piercing, yes, but also more diachronic. We should all commemorate 1969, but the Segal now seems to capture not only the joy of liberation but the fragility of gay life. And of life itself. As Peter Eleey acknowledged last year at PS1, figures covered in white have taken on a new resonance since 2001, and Segal’s work, for all its importance to me and to gay New Yorkers, may now also commemorate another epochal moment of death downtown.
The Gay Liberation Monument is in Christopher Park, on Christopher Street just east of 7th Avenue. There’s another Segal, The Commuters, inside Port Authority.