The Air is Electric – David McDiarmid in America exhibition

Photos courtesy of Waverley Council and Silversalt Photography


Bondi Pavilion Gallery
12 February – 26 March 2023
As part of Sydney WorldPride 2023 and supported by Waverley Council

In 1977, fresh from his Sydney solo exhibition Secret Love (Dec 1976), the first explicitly gay art exhibition in Australia, David McDiarmid travelled to the United States.  Having experienced the joy of belonging to an identifiable gay community in Sydney and buoyed by the potential that could be unleashed by the gay community, McDiarmid wanted to experience gay life, community, and art in the USA.

McDiarmid travelled across the USA, from San Francisco and Los Angeles to New York, experiencing the pleasures and protests of the burgeoning gay scene. However, it was New York that made the most impact on the artist. In a letter back to Linda Jackson in Sydney, he observed that “The air is electric, the sidewalks are magic, and the people are crazy crazy crazy.” McDiarmid “absorbed everything he could of Manhattan’s bustling art, fashion, and music scenes. McDiarmid returned to Sydney in August 1977, wiser, more enlightened and liberated, but also, as the Australian photographer William Yang recalls, with ‘quite a radical sensibility’. It was only a few months before McDiarmid would himself be involved in the 1978 Mardi Gras protest on the streets of Sydney.

McDiarmid’s American photographs highlight his early interest in composition, colour, typography and symmetry that becomes evident in his later designs and artworks for which he became internationally recognised.

During his travels in the United States, McDiarmid was constantly documenting his experiences in correspondence and photographs, and through these we can start to understand the excitement of the liberatory activism and emergent gay community of the late 1970s – ‘the air was electric’ with new possibilities and freedom.

Soundtrack by Stephen Allkins

A Day Without Human Rights is Like a Day Without Sunshine, Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, New York 1977. Photograph by David McDiarmid

New York in 1970s

To introduce the photographs particular to New York we invited Joan Nestle and Dennis Altman, patrons of the Australian Queer Archives, to share some thoughts on the images and the memories they evoke of this time. Both Joan and Dennis experienced New York at this seminal time in queer history.

David was in New York at both the best and worst of times. The late seventies were a golden age for gay men, hovering between the emergence of a vigorous political activism at the beginning of the decade and the onset of AIDS in the early 1980s.

Meanwhile New York City was experiencing what seemed an inexorable decline into crime and poverty. Two years earlier, when the city was facing bankruptcy, the Daily News carried the famous headline: [President] Ford to City: Drop Dead in 1975. 

David and I knew each other from the early days of Sydney gay liberation, and for a brief time had been in a consciousness raising group together. But while he was spending time in New York, I was immersed in Paris, in love with both the language      and the men. I wish we had crossed paths in the US, perhaps watched one of the Pride parades together, oogling the beefcake and making sardonic comments about the growth of corporate pinkwashing.

Dennis Altman

Dennis Altman AM FASSA is a writer and activist who has been researching and    writing in the fields of gay history, HIV/AIDS and US politics for 50 years.

I write in the glow of McDiarmid’s captured lesbian and gay street scenes, when New York was filled with queer voyagers coming to Christopher Street to march out of the Village along Fifth Avenue into Central Park. To flaunt bodies, tenderness, comradeship, the queer children of the boroughs joining with pilgrims who had travelled far to join this day of resistance and celebration. New York on this day in a dangerous time when Anita Bryant’s “Save the Children Campaign” fueled such national slogans as “Kill a Queer for Christ.” In the following year, 1978, Harvey White, San Francisco’s first openly gay supervisor would be assassinated. The decade would end with the First March on Washington for Gay Rights. The 70s for me and many other New York community activists was a time of grassroots organizing. Ironically, because of the depression of the power of wealth, we could find spaces with low rents to create lesbian books stores, women centers, small theaters, gay health clinics,  even a lesbian archive in a rent controlled 1970s New York apartment. Here on these pensive tender faces, joining in the thousands on New York streets, the artist has captured both the decade’s achievements in solidarity of purpose and the worry of what was to come.

Joan Nestle

Joan Nestle is a historian, a writer and a founder of the Lesbian Herstory Archives in New York. She describes her work of archiving history as critical to her identity as ‘a woman, as a lesbian, and as a Jew’.