As a young gay runaway in the 1960s, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt landed in New York City, looked at the trash littering the East Village streets where he roamed, and felt a strange attraction to the cellophane wrappers, fabric, and other dumpster treasures he retrieved. This is the jumping off point for the glittery art retrospective at MoMA PS1, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Tender Love Among the Junk.
From his years of Catholic schooling and altar-boy duty, it wasn’t a stretch for Lanigan-Schmidt to use his street stuff to create glimmering duplicates of chalices, patents, and other altar accouterments. Or to work in the occasional high-school or East Village gay-life reference.
Soon, dozens of precious tin-foil creations were filling his walls. Why not go for an entire transformation? He hung diaphanous painted veils, dressed in drag as a “Czarina Tatlina” (an art-world reference to Russian Constructivism), and began to offer tours of his Gilded Summer Palace to friends. Word of this trash-to-fantasy performance spread, and he soon had a group of fans, including downtown theater innovator Charles Ludlam and famed Metropolitan Museum curator Henry Geldzahler.
Get out to PS1 for this trip. The installation photo here gives you an idea of his brilliance. The area is decorated as a chapel with icons, pilgrims, brownstones, and 1950s school posters. The devotional ledges are packed with tennis figures, aerosol-can consumer products (Secret, Wizard), and Perrier bottles. The walls are filled with Smurf and Miss Piggy plates with bugs in between. And there’s a sort-of East Village Gregorian chant playing in the room.
You’ll enter the recreation of his Czarina’s Gilded Summer Palace and Sacristy of the Hamptons (1969), see many gold-foil Rats (yes, there was a time before gentrification on Ave B/C!), and read through his actual Catholic school workbooks. You’ll love the vibe of experiencing this in an old public school building, too.
As soon as you walk in the door, you’ll find a piece of paper with a copy of his 1989 essay “1969 Mother Stonewall and the Golden Rats”, his first-hand recollection of the night that made history. So, take a walk back in time by seeing this important, unforgettable retrospective. In the meantime, enjoy a virtual visit with this former altar-boy/chronicler of the East Village past in his studio today: