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Revisiting queer artist Jimmy de Sana’s groundbreaking 70s archive

“We moved to New York to make a name for ourselves,” artist Laurie Simmons says. Looking back at her formative years in downtown Manhattan during the 1970s, she remembers the challenges and rewards of making art long before it was a career, let alone a way to pay the bills.“ Part of what we all did was figure out how we were going to support ourselves so we could make our work. Are you going to do copy editing? Model? Get a full time job?” Or photograph other people’s art shows — something Laurie’s roommate, mentor, and best friend Jimmy DeSana (1949-1990) did. 

Hailing from suburban Atlanta, Jimmy arrived in New York in 1972 at age 23, shortly after publishing his first mature work, 101 Nudes. Subverting taboo and titillation alike, Jimmy created a series of grainy black and white pictures that were decidedly unerotic. In place of desire and seduction, Jimmy crafted something more compelling and complex: the body as physical manifestation for our enigmatic inner lives.

It was a prescient series, one that set the stage for his later work while also signaling the arrival of the iconoclastic young artist. “Jimmy had an air of mystery that he developed and maintained,” Laurie remembers. “He was very disciplined and structured. Jimmy was very precise in the way he dressed, the food he are, his workout regiment, his work routine, his party regimen. He was very compartmentalized and had lots of different groups of friends who oftentimes didn’t know each other.”

But among each group, everyone clicked — as evidenced by Laurie and Jimmy’s first meeting on a train out to Far Rockaway, Queens, with friends in fall 1973. New in town, they decided to team up on their search for a place to live and work. Soon thereafter they moved into Jane Kaplowitz’s 547 Broadway studio back when Soho was still no-man’s land. “The neighborhood was dark and scary,” Laurie remembers of area, which had been abandoned en masse when manufacturers fled Manhattan during the 1960s. 

The massive 19th-century industrial buildings stood empty and crumbling, while the few wholesale shops that remained in business promptly closed at day’s end. There were no storefronts, let alone restaurants, bodegas, or supermarkets except for a lone pizza shop. Street-lamps burned out, the bulbs never replaced. Building facades tumbled to the ground, the rubble lying on the sidewalks for months, if not years, on end. Although white flight was in full swing, a new generation of youth came from all around the world and brought new life to this formidable ghost town. 

Although the loft space was raw and not yet converted for housing, artists made do, seizing upon the vast open spaces, high ceilings, and massive windows that were priced to move. “Loft living mimicked the inside of the gallery,” Laurie remembers. “We wanted thing to feel like white walls, wooden floors, places where we could pin things up. The more your house was like a gallery, the better because you could make something and get a feel for how it might look, should you be lucky enough to get an exhibition.”

New York in the ‘70s was primed for reinvention. Although the city was the  capital of the art world, it had gone stale as modernism had reached its logical conclusion with Pop Art and Minimalism. From the void, contemporary artists emerged, and with them came the long overdue take down of the “high/low” dichotomy. Working across disciplines and pushing new media to the fore, photographers seized the moment and charged the gates of the historically exclusionary art world. 

Liberated from the constructs of “fact,” artists abandoned the notion of documentary truth in favor of the liminal space where the photograph was as much a construction as the canvas. It was here that Jimmy DeSana excelled, creating work so radical and innovative, that it was decades ahead of the curve, and largely overlooked until now. With the new book and exhibition, Submission at the Brooklyn Museum, a solo presentation from the “101 Nudes” (1972) and “Suburban” (1979–1985) series during Art Basel Miami Beach in the Kabinett section, and solo exhibition from the “Dungeon” series at PPOW Gallery opening in February, the moment as come for a proper look back at Jimmy’s oeuvre

Jimmy’s work is remarkable in its ability to be of its era and to transcend it, laying the foundation for the current moment. Whether performing queer identities for the camera and distributing the work through mail art and zines, crafting raw portraits of downtown luminaries in the burgeoning No Wave scene, exploring BDSM in a collaborative project with William S. Burroughs, or deconstructing the semiotics of sexuality and suburbia — Jimmy’s singular vision was so forward thinking it feels au courant. “There were so many different kinds of photography — documentation, portraiture, art, music, personal work — and we were trying to make sense out of what was relevant,” Laurie says. “Jimmy had a number of different paths he was exploring at the same time, and it felt in the moment when he was working.”

Much like the transgressive, anti-commercial ethos of punk that infused the downtown art scene at the time, Jimmy’s work confronts and subverts the post-war suburban upbringing that had defined his youth, a incarnation of the American Dream as artificial as the plastic slipcases, synthetic carpeting, and Jell-O delicacies that defined the era. Although Jimmy left Atlanta, there was no escaping the past, only reconciling it within the landscape of his photography. 

“I think that’s what happens to artists: they get imprinted and you don’t really transcend it, you just have to figure out of to integrate it in some way and not fight it,” says Laurie. “That was a big revelation for me: the information exists in service to your work so accepting and acknowledging it is very potent.”

Sharing a desire to shed the picture-perfect façade of suburbia in favor of deeper, darker truths, Laurie took Jimmy as her mentor during the mid-70s. Although their work is very different formally and conceptually, they share a fascination with gender and sexuality, using the construction and deconstruction of identity to explore the complex landscapes of the human psyche. 

Jimmy’s fearless exploration of queer identity reached its apotheosis in 1978 with the “Dungeon” series. The project took root when he teamed up with Terrence Sellers, a dominatrix, who invited him to photograph her clients for her book, The Correct Sadist: The Memoirs of Angel Stern, a S-M manual. Later that year, Jimmy showed some of the images to friend William S. Burroughs, who first connected with the young photographer after seeing his infamous nude self-portrait as a hanged man. He invited Bill to collaborate on a book, self-published as Submission in 1980 after mainstream publishers passed on the project. Although the Supreme Court of the United States had finally overturned the laws criminalizing male full frontal nudity, it would be decades before commercial entities openly LGBTQ artists and subject matter. 

Jimmy, however, found ways to make, exhibit, and distribute his work despite being overlooked by the establishment. At a time when print were the nexus for subcultures to travel through the underground, Jimmy contributed to New York RockerFileX, and Art-Rite magazines, helping to chronicle the radical DIY scenes. Whether creating portraits of the downtown icons like Debbie Harry, Richard Hell, Kathy Acker, Diego Cortez, Anya Phillips, and Laurie Anderson or photographing art world luminaries like Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Jack Smith, Ileana Sonnabend, and Tony Shafrazi, Jimmy could move through any social circle with the ease and fluidity.

After being diagnosed with HIV in 1985, Jimmy spent the remainder of his life working frenetically to sublimate every ounce of his being into his art. Before he died in 1990 at age 40, he made Laurie the executor of the Jimmy DeSana Trust — a position that puzzled her at the time. But the young mother and struggling artist never thought to say no, she simply created space, physically and emotionally, for the enormous wealth of prints, slides, negatives, transparencies, notebooks, keepsakes, and other ephemera stashed in cardboard boxes.

“We received the work in a complete and utter state of chaos. It took between 10 and 20 years to really make sense of the pictures. Being able to see a beautifully articulated chronology of Jimmy’s work helped me to understand his life,” Laurie says, pointing to the Brooklyn Museum exhibition, masterfully curated by Drew Sawyer. 

“Drew gathered so much information that it is reviving the memory of the person for me,” she says. “Walking through the galleries to the room at the very end with the very end with the last pictures Jimmy made was so moving, profound and tender for me because I understood. At the beginning the work was so vibrant and so much about his life in New York, an the last works are so ephemeral and spiritual, with one foot in this world and one foot God knows where, somewhere he thought he was going.”

Jimmy DeSana: Submission is on view through April 16, 2023, at the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Works from Jimmy DeSana’s “Dungeon” series will be on view February 3-March 11, 2023, at PPOW in New York. The gallery is also hosting a solo presentation of DeSana’s “101 Nudes” (1972) and “Suburban” (1979–1985) series during Art Basel Miami Beach in the Kabinett section, November 29-December 3, 2023.