Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: The Story of One of the Only Artists at the Stonewall Uprising

“Reasons for Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s art not reaching a wider audience totally elude me. This is major, major work…Many artists, including a generation of Lanigan-Schmidt’s students, have been repeatedly amazed, inspired and guided by its panache, rapier-sharp wit, subversiveness and opulent beauty.”

— Robert Kushner, Art in America

We are thrilled to be back with a new episode of the Hyperallergic podcast. 

For our 100th episode, we spoke with legendary collage and mixed-media artist Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt. His works, made from crinkly saran wrap and tin foil, emulate the gleam of precious metals and jewels in Catholic iconography. They reference his upbringing as a working-class kid and altar boy in a Catholic community in Linden, New Jersey, where tin foil was an expensive luxury they could rarely afford. But they also hold memories of where he found himself as a teenager: the LBGTQ+ street life and art community of New York City, which led to his participation in the 1969 Stonewall Uprising. 

Lanigan-Schmidt is as much a visual artist as he is a storyteller. We climbed up to his fourth-floor walk-up in Hell’s Kitchen, where, surrounded by teetering piles of books and artwork, he regaled us with tales about artists like Jack Smith and Andy Warhol, his decision to leave his hometown as a penniless teenager, his steadfast identity as a working-class artist, his conversion to Russian Orthodox Christianity, what changed for gay artists in New York between the 1960s and today, and of course, his recollection of that historic night at the Stonewall — all infused with that same “rapier-sharp wit” that painter Robert Kushner saw in his artwork.  

We know you’ll enjoy this artist’s sparkling humor and singular vision as he shares reflections on his life and this critical moment in history.

We also talked with Ann Bausum, author of Stonewall: Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights, about the significance of the uprising. She also shared some of her own first-hand recollections of segregation in 1960s America. 

A selection of Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s work will be on display at a show titled Open Hands: Crafting the Spiritual at Saint Louis University’s Museum of Contemporary Religious Art until May 19. 

Subscribe to Hyperallergic on Apple Podcasts, and anywhere else you listen to podcasts.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, “Lollipop Knick Knack (Let’s Talk About You),” (c. 1968-69), foil, printed material, linoleum, glitter, cellophane, plastic wrap, staples, wire, string, other media, 9 x 16 x 5 1/2 inches (image courtesy the artist and Pavel Zoubok Fine Art, NY)

A full transcript of the interview can be found below. This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, whenever I talk about the Stonewall Uprising, I have to talk about how and why it happens. 

In the Christopher Street area, in the Village area, we were more or less free to be ourselves. But people could still come along and jump out of the car with baseball bats and beat us up. And if we go to another part of New York, even the West Village, we could get beat up easily. Once you’re in the Stonewall, nothing bad would ever happen to you. And you could dance with each other. 

There was no social structures for gay people back then at all. Nothing. See, it’s hard for people to realize that now because there’s so many different places. The Stonewall was the only place where we could be ourselves without being beat up or anything.

Hrag Vartanian: Welcome back to the Hyperallergic Podcast, as we start up the show again after an 18 month hiatus. It just so happens that this is our 100th episode! So, thank you to everyone who’s listened to the previous 99, and welcome to all newcomers, as we’ll continue to explore the sometimes wonderful and always weird terrain of the art world together.

Today we’re going to be talking with Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, a revered collage and mixed media artist who makes fantastical sculptures out of saran wrap, glitter, and tinfoil. In his work, which blends worlds that span from his childhood in the working class Catholic world of Linden, New Jersey to his flowering in gay New York Street culture, he is often transforming plasticky materials, so often considered tacky, garish, or cheap, and makes them as precious as gold. He’s also one of a handful of people still alive today who are present and active in the 1969 Stonewall Uprising, often called the Stonewall Riots. We think you’re going to like what he has to share, and that young artists, especially young queer artists, can learn a lot from his story. But first, let’s ground ourselves in this point of time in history. Ann Bausum is the author of Stonewall, Breaking Out in the Fight for Gay Rights, a guide to Stonewall history specifically made for teens.

Both her and Tommy pointed out that Stonewall was one point in time in the enormous Civil Rights Movement, or more accurately perhaps “Civil Rights Movements,” that were taking place in this country as oppressed groups fought for equality all across the United States. We wanted to share a bit of Ann’s personal history to give context of what was happening here and what the 1960s in the United States was actually like.

I’m Hrag Vartanian, host of the Hyperallergic podcast and the Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Hyperallergic. Let’s get started.

Hrag Vartanian: Thank you so much for joining me. 

Ann Bausum: Absolutely, absolutely. So happy to see you and get to have this conversation. 

Hrag Vartanian: Awesome. Well, first of all, I just want to pronounce your name correctly. Ann Bausum [rhymes with “awesome.”] Is that correct? 

Ann Bausum: Exactly. My dad used to say, “rhymes with awesome.”

Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.] That’s actually really great. I love it. So can you tell me a little bit about your own personal experience? You talked a little bit about your schooling, and I wondered whether you could talk a little bit about that.

Ann Bausum: So I was born in Tennessee in the late 1950s, and my family moved to Virginia when I entered second grade. I received the rest of my education through high school in the state of Virginia. And the first two years of that were in segregated schools. By fourth grade, in 1966, Virginia had finally run out of excuses to fight the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling. So they’d managed to add 12 years to the implementation of that statewide. And…so I don’t always share this story, but my parents were college professors. They were educated people who had southern roots, but had gotten a lot of their education beyond the south and would have been considered very progressive, you know, not just by that standard, but by today’s standards.

And so in 1966, when schools were integrated in my hometown in Lexington, Virginia, I was later told by my parents that the word went around the parents circle that what you should do is, “You should put in a teacher request for Ann. And that way, she will end up in a classroom that has a White teacher.”

And my parents were like, “Well, that doesn’t sound like integration.” So they didn’t put in a teacher request. So I was one of three, as I understand, White kids in a classroom that had the only African American, Black teacher in fourth grade, Mrs. Warren. 

And I loved fourth grade! I loved Mrs. Warren. But I also only later learned that when my school district had set up those classrooms, the African American teachers had been segregated in a different part of the building. Those other classrooms also were predominantly Black for the same reason that mine was. And those classrooms ran on a different bell schedule for lunch and recess. So I was isolated from the friends that I had known from previous grades. And I’ve been told that my father, who is a very calm person, went to the school board and spoke sternly enough that that practice ended almost immediately. And our classroom was moved. I do remember that happening. Our bell schedules aligned so that I was with the other fourth graders.

I didn’t begin to understand all the background that was going on then, but I think it’s understandable that that was a decade that I would turn to, to want to understand better as an adult. 

Hrag Vartanian: Well, thank you, Anne. So could you tell us a little bit about what the actual significance of Stonewall was for the Civil Rights Movement and for the LGBTQ plus movement in general?

Ann Bausum: The events at Stonewall were not the first statement in support of LBGTQ rights in the United States, but it was a pivotal moment because it gathered together a critical mass of people all at once in common cause, expressing their absolute impatience with the pace of change in relation to queer people in America. They were determined to resist and assert their rights to be considered equally along with other civil rights that were being looked at at that era.

Hrag Vartanian: And what do you think is sanitized or oversimplified about Stonewall? 

Ann Bausum: How much time do you have? 

Hrag Vartanian: (Laughs.) How much do you want to give me? 

Ann Bausum: So the context of the Stonewall riots is often mischaracterized as a reaction to a police raid on a gay bar, because you weren’t allowed to have gay bars in 1969. And that’s actually not accurate. The right of queer people together in bars had already been established by 1969. The right of them to dance together in public settings like a gay bar had already been established by 1969. 

And so the Stonewall riots followed a police raid that actually had nothing whatsoever to do with gay rights directly. It was in response to a criminal bribery scheme that was taking place at places like the Stonewall and other gay bars, almost all of which were being run by the mob. They realized that they could take advantage of patrons who were comfortable going to the Stonewall and other gay bars but who were closeted in other aspects of their life, particularly professionally. Some of those people included traders on Wall Street who were being blackmailed and forced to maintain their anonymity by turning over securities that were then being traded illegally in the European market, which were being traced back to these bars in lower Manhattan. So the police raid was tied into this. I think I used the word “bribery” before, but it was the blackmail scheme that was going on at the time. So, I don’t know if that relates exactly to your question of how we oversimplify things. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh no, I think it’s the perfect example of how we oversimplify things, actually, because I think that’s not something that people often talk about. It being a blackmail scheme changes it, right?

Ann Bausum: Well, yeah. But the fact that you could be blackmailed because you were gay then helps to bring it back again to center. And the fact that the raid triggered this response among patrons and other passersby to protest so vehemently also takes it back to the center of the matter, which is that LGBTQ people in America were being oppressed everywhere they turned.

Hrag Vartanian: So, what was the police’s official reasoning to raid the bar? 

Ann Bausum: Okay, so the Stonewall fell within what was known as the 16th Precinct in New York cop world. But the raid wasn’t conducted by those officers. In fact, they didn’t even know the raid was going to happen. It was an extra plan that was executed by the “public morals” section of the police department that operated independently. And this was under the request, or the order, that these bars shut down so that these illegal securities would no longer be being passed around. Seymour Pine, who was the deputy inspector for that NYPD public morals office, organized the raid.

The Stonewall Inn had opened with a different kind of liquor license than your basic bar. It was called a “bottle club.” To Seymour Pine, it was pretty clear that their liquor license was being violated.

And so an easy way to shut down a bar like the Stonewall Inn was to raid the bar and collect evidence that they really weren’t running it like a bottle club. A bottle club was basically a private club where, you know, Ann Bausum and Hrag would have their bottles behind the counter. We would be members, and we would pay fees so we could go in and get a pour if we wanted to be with our buddies.

So they planned to raid the Stonewall Inn and collect evidence that proved that it was violating its liquor license. And that would allow them to close it down. It didn’t really matter how they got that outcome. They just wanted to shut it down. 

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. So now, who were some of the significant figures that were at the Stonewall Riot?

One of the people who did find himself at the Stonewall was a musician, Dave Van Ronk. He’s the historical figure that is said to have been the inspiration for the Inside Llewellyn film that came out, I don’t know, 10 years ago, maybe.

Dave Van Ronk happened to walk in front of the Stonewall Inn at a pivotal moment, when it was clear that the crowd that was gathering at the Inn was not going to disperse on its own, and that indeed it was becoming more violent. Seymour Pine, the inspector who had led the raid, had by then emptied most of the patrons out of the bar and chose to retreat into it to try to remain safe while they waited for reinforcements to come—which, by the way, did not really want to show up, because they would have been coming from the 16th precinct, which was pretty ticked off that this raid had happened. Oh, and also, by the way, the mob would pay bribes to the 16th precinct officers and other officers to leave these bars alone. 

So in any case, help was not arriving. Things were getting out of hand. And at one point, Van Ronk happens to be standing there as the door opens to try to respond to some of this chaos that’s going on outside. And they just grabbed him and brought him inside. He ended up getting beaten and handcuffed to a radiator, as I recall. So he was one of the unwilling or unwitting participants of the riots from the inside of the club. 

Hrag Vartanian: That’s incredible. I mean, I can only imagine what kind of experience that would have been.

Ann Bausum: And of course, also among those witnessing the Stonewall Riots and then participating in them was Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt, who was just a teen still at that time, a young man who had come to New York as a runaway, as so many queer people did, looking to find his adopted family and looking to find places to feel at home, of which the Stonewall Inn was absolutely one.

And so he was not in the bar when it was raided, but he became aware of the raid very early on and was an active participant in the mob response to the raid. 

Hrag Vartanian: We’re so in it. Thank you, Ann. 

Ann Bausum: You bet! Appreciated talking, and good to meet you. 

[Music by Garen Gueyikian]

Hrag Vartanian: And now, come with us to Hell’s Kitchen as we talk to the artist himself. Come up the stairs with me as we go to his fifth floor walk up, where he’s been living for decades.

We sat together among his floor-to-ceiling stacks of books, albums, journals, newspapers, and, of course, his glittery artwork. It was like walking through a portal into another world. He talked about growing up in New Jersey, running away from home as a teen, gay street life in New York in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and his contact with artists including Jack Smith, Charles Ludlam, and Andy Warhol.

And of course, we talk about Stonewall.

[Excerpts from Gay and Proud, from the Library of Congress, which contains interviews of participants at the 1970 Christopher Street Liberation Day Parade, which observed the first anniversary of the Stonewall Riots.]

Voice 1: Having to lie, I feel, is the saddest and the ugliest part of being a homosexual. When you have your first bad love experience, for instance, and you can’t go to your brother or your sister and say, “I’m hurting.” 

Voice 2: At first, I was very guilty. And then I realized that all the things that are taught to you not only by society, but by psychiatrists, just to fit you in a mold. And I’ve just rejected the mold. And when I rejected the mold, I was happier.

Interviewer: What is the worst incident that has ever happened to you, as far as being gay? 

Voice 3: Uh, I guess my parents, you know, them finding out was the worst.

Voice 4: If nothing else, we’re good for the population explosion!

Interviewer: Can you tell me what you feel about the homophile movement? 

Voice 5: I think it’s great. I think it’s really dynamite. And I think the only way to achieve it is through force and marches like this.

Interviewer: Can you tell me what you thought about Charlie Brown, the Sodom and Gomorrah guy carrying the American flag?

Voice 6: He’s a closet queen and you can find him in Howard Johnson any night. 

Interviewer: And what color underwear does he wear? 

Voice 6: Pink.

Interviewer: Thank you.  


Hrag Vartanian: So I’m here with Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt and his apartment here in the theater district. Hi, Tommy. 

Tommy Lanigan-Schmidt (TLS): Hell’s Kitchen. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, is this Hell’s Kitchen? Is that technically where we are? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, right on the border between the two. 

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. Okay and you’ve been here since 1975.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: ‘75, yeah. 

Hrag Vartanian: So tell me a little bit about how the neighborhoods’ changed?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, this part was always part of Hell’s Kitchen and not part of Hell’s Kitchen because it borders on Hell’s Kitchen. So when I moved here, it was still mostly like Irish Catholic Democrat and a gang called the Westies that ran the neighborhood more or less. I was a member of the Mcmanus Democratic Club. My grandmother taught me to join the local political party club, so, I don’t know how to explain that, but that’s like as close to a gang as I could get. 

Hrag Vartanian: And you grew up in Linden, New Jersey, is that correct? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Linden, New Jersey, yes.

Hrag Vartanian: Tell me about that experience in terms of how it influenced you politically. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Linden, New Jersey is probably one of the most amazing places on earth, because it’s a place that is more liberal than most places and less liberal at the same time. I don’t even know how to explain that. It’s nothing like most other places.

Right now in Linden, there’s a big Coptic church that was built, probably within the past 20 years for Egyptian Coptic Christians. And when it got dedicated, the Pope of the Coptic church for the whole world came to dedicate it in Linden, New Jersey. That’s someone that gets to visit The Pope in Rome by just snapping his fingers.

So that kind of gives you a sense of something about Linden. Linden is always all these different ethnic groups. And it’s always just when these ethnic groups are starting to get their feet on the ground, so to speak. In other words, they’re just starting to buy houses. And most of their children probably will move out and get bigger houses, in other cities and things like that. 

Hrag Vartanian: I remember you talking about it as kind of a buffer zone between different kinds of neighborhoods. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, the neighborhood I lived in was the buffer zone between the Black and the White neighborhood. Because back then, the United States had a kind of real estate apartheid. So if you went to buy a house, the real estate people would kind of harangue you about not moving into a Black neighborhood if you were White. And my father didn’t like that, so we lived in a mixed neighborhood. 

Hrag Vartanian: Then you moved to New York. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, moving to New York is a very special time for me, because first I went one semester to Pratt after high school. I went to Pratt in Brooklyn. But I didn’t really have the money to go back or anything. So when I went back home, my father got me a job on a ditch digging crew. Now that’s considered, like, working class aristocratic. 

Hrag Vartanian: It could be union…

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yeah, it could be union, any of those things. But when I got there, I was so freaked out, I was so petrified with fright or something when I went to the place where the job was going to start, that I just came home to see my father. He said, “How did it go?” I said, “Okay.” But I was lying. And he said, “Here’s 7 cents, go get the paper.” So I said, “Okay.” And then I went out and I walked down the corner, and a friend of my brother’s stopped in his car and said, “Are you going anywhere?” I said, “Yeah, I’m going Elizabeth.”

I went to Elizabeth and got the train to New York. I only had 55 cents in my pocket. And I don’t know how I did any of this, when I think back on it. I just had very good luck or something. 

Hrag Vartanian: But, did you just feel it? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: The thing was, I felt everything. Most people get this feeling, like, not very many times in your life, where you feel absolutely nothing and absolutely everything at the same time. It’s the most focused, unfocused thought and feeling bunch you can have. And that’s what I had when I left Linden, New Jersey. I went into this kind of narrow focus that I knew where I had to go. 

I didn’t know what I was going to do, and I was just lucky I was so young because I didn’t know anything about life. If I would have known more about life I might have thought more about it. But I didn’t, and when I got here, somehow I managed to survive. I would go back and forth to see my parents occasionally. They could never deal with the gay part at all. 

Hrag Vartanian: But how did you survive? How did you decide to cobble a life together, and why was art the career path you chose?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, art was always what I built everything around, ever since I was a little boy. People always liked my art more than they liked me. So my art would always lead me, more or less. It’s a thing that I survived through. In Catholic school, I did the bulletin boards all the way from the 5th grade through the 8th grade. And I was never in class, because I was always outside doing these bulletin boards. So in a sense, I got used to being treated in, I guess what would be called, kind of a privileged way. 

Hrag Vartanian: And it seems like art kind of led to that, it sounds like. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, that was art already.

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Because my art is just a natural continuity of those bulletin boards. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right, right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: And Pratt was very important too, because at Pratt, they recommended books to read that I didn’t know about at all, like Heinrich Wölfflin and people like that.

But anyway, when I came to New York, I ran into people that knew—this is so crazy—that knew people that I knew, but I didn’t really know them very well. And that was how I got places to stay for a night here and there. It was such good luck. Because from June all the way to the end of September, I didn’t have any place to live. I would live here and there, here and there, here and there. A lot of people were doing that back then. 

Hrag Vartanian: Are you nostalgic for that time? Or, idealize it, I should say? Or do you look back at it as sort of a difficult time? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, it’s all those things, but it’s a unique time because it’s the end of the ‘60s. I come to New York in ‘66. So it’s the mid ‘60s going toward the end of the ‘60s. The ‘60s is something that was like no other era. It’s like all the best things about what goes on now came out of the ‘60s and all the best things that came out of the ‘60s came out of the ‘30s in the United States. So in the ‘60s, when I came, Christopher Street was there, and that was the gay hangout. And I’d never seen gay culture before. I just knew I was gay, but I didn’t know anything about a culture that was gay. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: And so when I went to Christopher Street, there were all these people my own age hanging out there, interweaving in and out with people from all over the country. So it was the best place in the world to get a very good education.

Hrag Vartanian: You’ve talked about the fact that during that era you were hanging out with a lot of other kids that didn’t seem to fit in. Would that be an accurate way of characterizing it?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, it would depend on what you mean by “didn’t fit in.” It depends on where they didn’t fit in. They wouldn’t have fit in where I grew up. They wouldn’t have fit in where they grew up. They fit in with each other.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. I mean, how did you all find each other, and were they artists as well? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I would say they were all artists, but not all of them would say they were artists. Street life for gay people back then, especially gay teenagers, was wall-to-wall art. Because everyone was on their own, and everyone had been a reject from the world they came from. And the reason they were a reject was because they stood out, because they molded a world, and presented a world about themselves that everyone couldn’t stand, for the most part. So that’s a form of art. 

Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: And then they come to New York, and we all meet each other, and we support each other. We come into New York, where, say, Jack Smith is already here. Charles Ludlam is already here. And those people were in the streets, hanging out, so we could meet them. 

Warhol had nothing to do with anything. See, people don’t know, but Warhol back then was telling everyone he was asexual. See, there’s this crazy historical revision that goes on, talking about Warhol being so gay and everything. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: He would never admit he was gay back then. 

Hrag Vartanian: Well, I mean, he also had all that weird stuff during the ‘80s, too, during AIDS. He wasn’t being very supportive of the gay community, it sounded like.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, he was always like that. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, okay. So that’s not new. So there is kind of a little bit of historical revisionism about his queerness. But did you all know he was queer? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yes, we all knew. That’s why we couldn’t stand that he was playing this game, where he was telling everyone he was asexual. Because I knew lots of people that had sex with him. 

Hrag Vartanian: How about Jasper Johns? And Rauschenberg?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I never met them. I just went to a party at Rauschenberg’s place. 

Hrag Vartanian: Did people know they were gay, or did they have a role as well? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: We knew they were gay, but they were never talked about with like, hate or dislike toward them. They weren’t even regarded in how they talked about it because they weren’t public like Warhol. They were part of the art world. Warhol was part of the world and the art world. 

Hrag Vartanian: So now, the Stonewall Uprising is one of the things people often talk to you about because you were very much part of that. Looking back, how would you describe the Stonewall Uprising for people?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, whenever I talk about the Stonewall Uprising, I have to talk about how and why it happens. 

In the Christopher Street area, in the Village area, we were more or less free to be ourselves. But people could still come along and jump out of the car with baseball bats and beat us up. And if we go to another part of New York, even the West Village, we could get beat up easily. Once you’re in the Stonewall, nothing bad would ever happen to you. And you could dance with each other. 

You know, there’s a lot of people that love to look down on the Stonewall and talk about how sleazy it was. But I loved the Stonewall, just because I could dance with my friends the same way I did at CYO, the Catholic Youth Organization. It was an era in the world where people asked each other to dance. You didn’t just jump up and start dancing. You could ask someone to dance and then you got to know people that way.

There was no social structures for gay people back then at all. Nothing. See, it’s hard for people to realize that now because there’s so many different places. The Stonewall was the only place where we could be ourselves without being beat up or anything.

Hrag Vartanian: I mean, there was an old saying: “The three B’s for gay people: bars, baths, and bookstores?” Was that kind of true then? 

TLS I think that’s ‘70s. 

Hrag Vartanian: ‘70s, okay. So that’s a little bit later than this. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: That’s a little later, yeah. That’s once the sexual revolution gets its feet on the ground. That’s what happens.

Hrag Vartanian: Until then, it was still just the bars? A couple of bars that people would socialize in?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well back then, gay people in New York had sex at a place called “the trucks.” 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, right, in the Meatpacking District. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: That was just a bunch of trucks that during the day had transported different kinds of things. And at night they were parked there empty. They’d be all parked under the West Side Highway, and you’d just go there. You walk in—it’s so crazy—because you walk in, and it’s dark, and it’s very easy to have sex in there. See, I didn’t like having sex in there, because you couldn’t see the other person. Sex for me is a very visual thing.

But the funniest thing about the trucks was, you’re there, and you see, like, two people, three people, four people. One, two, going in the trucks. Then the cops come along, with the sirens going, and like, a thousand people run out of those trucks. 

Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.] Clown cars! 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: It was more like when you spray roaches. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen bugs when you spray them? 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: And, and like, it’s a crazy metaphor, but—

[Both laugh.]

Hrag Vartanian: It’s a very intense metaphor, I have to say. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: But it was crazy to see so many people come out of those trucks when you thought there was maybe like, ten people in there. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right, right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: And there was maybe a hundred and fifty people in there. 

Hrag Vartanian: So that would start after those companies closed?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, after dark.

Hrag Vartanian: So now, were you at Stonewall when the police came and raided? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I was outside. 

Hrag Vartanian: And so, what was your first reaction?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, my first reaction was that it was a raid, but that they were trying to close a place that we could dance. So everyone fought back. 

Hrag Vartanian: What was it about that day that people fought back? Or more importantly, why did you fight back? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Because they were going to close the place where we could dance together. It was like the center of our lives was being tramped on. 

Hrag Vartanian: But there were other times that it was raided, so why was it that specific time?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: That was a Friday night, I think. That was a very populous night. It was also…something about that night had a lot of things coming together.

Hrag Vartanian: You know, there’s the folklore about it being Judy Garland’s funeral. That’s not true, correct?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I’m one of those people who say that has nothing to do with anything. I couldn’t stand that. I mean, I like Judy Garland singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” but, Judy Garland…

Hrag Vartanian: That has nothing to do with it?


Hrag Vartanian: Was there anything else in the air at the time that may have influenced that?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: The Civil Rights Movement in general. It’s part of the whole thing. Of a whole decade of people getting their rights. 

Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely. So now, about that night, what do you remember now, in retrospect, the most? What stands out the most? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Okay, the way I remember it…the strongest memory will happen if someone is using lighter fluid. I smell the lighter fluid, and then without even thinking, I’ll remember the Stonewall. Because there were a lot of people using lighter fluid, putting it on newspapers and throwing them and things like that. 

At the time, I knew it was a big event, but no one knew it was going to change history. 

Hrag Vartanian: And so now, is there something about that night that you think you still can’t figure out?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, that is a lot like…the same feeling, similar to the feeling I had when I left home. It’s one of those things that you can’t—I can’t, I don’t know what other people can do—but I can’t put it into any category of thinking.

It’s the fullest and the emptiest at the same time. I mean, I don’t even know how to talk about that. Something that is so, so enormous that…it’s probably similar to people who lived during a war or something. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right, right. So, a similar mood? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, I would say people that lived during a war probably have it worse.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I’m sure they have it worse. But, like, those jolts and jars of not having life be like the coziness of when you were a little kid, tied together in me and the Stonewall because…again, I don’t know how to talk about that. It changes everything so much. But first of all, just going to the Stonewall to dance changed everything. That’s the most important thing to me. That we could dance with each other. And we couldn’t dance with each other any other place. In other words, heterosexuals, they could go any place and dance, but we couldn’t hold on to each other and dance any place. But we could do it there. It was the only place that made us feel normal.

Hrag Vartanian: That makes sense. So now, were there other artists at Stonewall during that night? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, from that whole era. I don’t remember that night, because that night is like thousands of people. So everyone’s going to see it differently. But the Stonewall was like the center of gay life back then.

I would go there a lot with Chris Scott. Chris Scott was the boyfriend of Henry Geldzahler, who was the curator at the Metropolitan Museum. And then there was someone named Eddie Shostak, who was an artist, too. And editors of like, Artforum would be there. Like, Charlie Coles would go there. Is he still alive? 

Hrag Vartanian: I have no idea. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Oh. Well, he would go there. He was one of the older people who I think paid for sex. So there are always a lot of art people there. And then there were boxers there, like, a boxer named Emile Griffith would go there. He was very famous, but I didn’t know who he was back then.

He was famous because…and this should be in gay history, but it’s never talked about. I think it was in the mid, or earliest part of the ‘60s. He was a very important boxer, Emile Griffith. He was way up there. And another boxer, who was called Benny Perrette, I think, called Emile Griffith “faggot.” And Emile Griffith, that night, was to box him. And he beat him to death. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wow.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: So, I mean, I think that’s very significant. But like, you know, middle class White gay people, (which I don’t consider myself to be, I consider myself from a different class), I think they’re ashamed of that. 

Hrag Vartanian: I’m glad you brought that up, because one of the things that I think is so unique about your voice in this conversation is that you do embrace your working class background.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yes, yes. 

Hrag Vartanian: And you incorporate it in your work. You don’t hide it. Tell me a little bit about that night at Stonewall. How much of it was working class? How much of it was middle class? Could you give people a little bit of a sense? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Stonewall was an enormously diverse crowd. That’s what was so great about it. Most of my friends that I went there with were from poor or working class backgrounds. But when you go there, you could meet people from a million different backgrounds. I mean, gay life in general is still like that. But in the Stonewall, it was more concentrated. Someone could connect to someone. You didn’t know anything about this person, and they could be like, a curator at the Metropolitan Museum or something like that.

Hrag Vartanian: Were trans people part of that world? And if so, were they called crossdressers? I mean there were all these terms they would be called before. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I mean, the way we use “trans” today was not used back then. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Back then, street talk would have just said “drag queens.” But—okay, everyone was called “queen,” whether you acted like a queen or not. Like, “Oh, shut that queen up over there,” or something like that. But if someone wore women’s clothes occasionally, or all the time, they were a “drag queen.” 

Hrag Vartanian: I see. So that was kind of the generic term that was kind of used as a catch-all for all these.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: But what’s interesting is that in the street, it was the drag queens—this is back in the mid ‘60s—that said, when the cops would bother them or something, they would say, “I’m a woman trapped in a man’s body.” Today, therapists say that. It’s amazing to think that this was pioneered in the street before it was pioneered in academia.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. And so now, the people at Stonewall, you’re saying it was across different classes, across different cultures, communities. Do you think that that was threatening the police? Was that unique, or was that sort of how New York was? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, the police represented mainstream heterosexual society, which was threatened by everything gay. When the police came in, as far as they were concerned, they were going to arrest a bunch of criminals and deviants. They wouldn’t have looked at anyone there as a normal person.

Hrag Vartanian: So now, for you, what was your art like before Stonewall? And what was your art like after Stonewall? And was there a significant influence on your work? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Stonewall influenced my art, but my art always was on a steady course. It was always the same basic thing. It was always the same materials, like Reynolds wrap, Saran wrap, stuff like that.

The rats had something to do with Stonewall. But they also had to do with a lot of things. They had to do with street life before Stonewall. 

Hrag Vartanian: You talk about transfiguration, you talk about how the Catholicism of your background plays a big part in your work.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Oh sure. I’m culturally from a very different world that most people don’t have any idea what it is. I mean, it’s amazing that I could actually learn to communicate with people from other backgrounds. But I think I owe that to the gay world of the Stonewall back then, that I could meet all these different people. Because, the way I grew up, we talked about first communions, confirmations, mendicant monks. That was normal conversation. Most people don’t talk about that stuff.

Hrag Vartanian: Totally. So now, is there a work that you’ve created that you feel like was specifically influenced by Stonewall? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Not exactly. I can never say that.

Hrag Vartanian: Then why do you think that is? Because you’d think somebody that had been through such a big event, that might be—

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I can tie it in with Stonewall, but it wasn’t influenced directly by Stonewall. Like there’s a piece I wrote called “Mother Stonewall and the Golden Rats.” I was already making those golden rats. I started making them in like, ‘66, ‘67 maybe. So that’s before Stonewall. Then as time goes by, they can connect to Stonewall, but they weren’t inspired by Stonewall. 

Hrag Vartanian: So here we are, Tommy, 55 years later. The world has changed a lot. I mean, you agree, correct? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, the world has changed a lot, but it still has to keep changing. Because, when we think of those laws, like the laws in Florida…see, it’s funny, those people that make those laws, I don’t think they think about how they’re actually supporting the thing they think they’re against. Because this way, all their kids leave home, all their gay sons and daughters will come to the big cities. And, if they had any interest in education, and were taught to respect education and culture, they’re gonna pursue that in big cities. So it solidifies the gay world in a way. 

Hrag Vartanian: That’s an interesting way of looking at it. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, back when Anita Bryant was around—

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, of course, Anita Bryant.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, there was a big lull. There was a time when people were thinking that gay people were getting too lackadaisical or lazy. And then along comes Anita Bryant. And everyone gets together. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. So you’re saying that these are opportunities for the community.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: See, a lot of these really dumb parents and dumb preachers…they’re funny, because some of them are closet cases, some of them are just totally repressed and don’t even know anything about what they are sexually. But they also have kids that go to school. And their kids talk to other kids, who talk to other kids, and hang out with other kids.

And that’s where their kids learn who they are. Because if a kid is gay, he starts to know they’re gay pretty soon in life. Probably 12, 13-ish is when I start to realize it full force. And it’s the same, I think, with most of them. So if their parents hate them for that, they’re just going to not tell their parents anything.

Hrag Vartanian: How do you feel like your art has transformed since the ‘60s? And how have you helped sustain yourself to make art through all these years? Because that, of course, is sometimes the biggest trick: artists need to learn how to sustain themselves. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, I’m very lucky to come from a working class background, because I learned to live on practically nothing. And I’m also very lucky because I came to New York when rent stabilization still existed. I also came to New York when there was a thing called the War on Poverty. See, back then if you had a nervous breakdown, you were put on welfare. 

Hrag Vartanian: So how would that work? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, you had a nervous breakdown, you went to the nuthouse for a month. That could be Bellevue or any hospital that had a mental section. They gave you food stamps, if you needed them, and money to live on every month. So that was welfare, more or less. For a few times in that part of the ‘60s, I was able to get that. That helped a lot. 

See my art is very much like…when Karl Marx said, art is unalienated culture, and he always talked about the connection to economics. My whole life is directly connected to money, always—and not having it. 

Hrag Vartanian: Ooh, okay. I want to get into that a little bit, because I think this is a really interesting question. One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is because you lived in New York at an incredible period where the professionalization of the art world happened. Part of it is this concern I have is that I hear a lot of young artists obsessing over having a gallery, or this vision of success that has to do with showing these very luxury art objects. Do you see a problem with that kind of thinking? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I see a big problem with that. People like Charles Ludlam and Jack Smith were my main art teachers. One time I was saying to Charles, “I made some art I think Henry Geldzahler would like.” And this was at Henry’s house. And so he pulls me in the other room, he says, “What the hell is wrong with you?”

I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “You’re not supposed to make art for them to like. You’re supposed to teach them what art is coming from you.” 

Hrag Vartanian: Ooh!

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: And he was right. 

Hrag Vartanian: That’s good. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: And I more or less knew that. But I had sidestepped for a few minutes, so to speak, into thinking, “I have to please a curator.” I was glad that Charles Ludlam was able to connect me more to who I really was anyway.

Hrag Vartanian: Can you tell us a little bit about Charles and Jack? For those people who may not know, especially for younger artists, I wonder if you could just describe a little bit about why they were important to you and who they were. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, first of all, we’ll go to Jack Smith. Now, everyone gay, (and not gay), should also see a movie called Flaming Creatures. 

Hrag Vartanian: Of course. Classic!

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, they’ll see it, but they might think it’s boring. And it might be boring to them. But it’s very important. 

[Music from Flaming Creatures.]

Because contained in Flaming Creatures is the whole era that is going to come about within the next 50 years. It’s all about trans people, without knowing the word. It’s all about people being different sexualities, and not conforming to the way people are told to dress and all these things. 

And so, Jack Smith brings that to New York, makes that in New York. Okay. Charles Ludlam comes to New York a little bit later and meets him. And then there’s John Ficarra too. They all meet each other. They’re all genius—I was always taught to say “genii” as the plural. 

Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.]

But people say “geniuses” today. So I’ll just say they’re all “geniuses.” But I was taught the right word is “genii.” ‘Cause in Catholic school we had to pray in Latin. 

Hrag Vartanian: That sounds like a very Catholic school word.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: “Genii.” Yes. Well, it’s the correct plural. But no one uses it. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: But…and, they all disagreed with each other. 

Hrag Vartanian: Tell me more, I like this.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: In ‘67, they were all working together on a play called, Big Hotel, I think it was, that was written by Charles Ludlam. And this was when I had just met Chris Scott. Chris Scott, again, was Henry Geldzahler’s boyfriend, but he had been Charles Ludlam’s boyfriend in high school. And Chris Scott was producing Big Hotel. They were all working together on that. And then they all started to have their input. They all disagreed with each other. 

Jack Smith was robbing equipment from other people. He’d come in the middle of the night. I think this was at the Bowery Lane Theater. And he would rob the lights or something like that. Chris Scott would go and complain to him, and then he’d throw Chris Scott down a flight of stairs, or something like that. There was a lot of violence that was happening. Like, not serious “death” violence, but scary violence, just the same. 

Then Charles Ludlam wrote a play called When Queens Collide, that was all about these different queens disagreeing with each other, basically. And it was also called Conquest. It had like 20 different names. It’s still around. People in colleges play it once in a while.

But anyway, they all split apart. And each one was a great producer of culture. So I was very lucky to just be in that. And in that too, was Mario Montez, Agosto Machado, all these different people. I mean, if you’ve never seen Mario Montez, go to YouTube, see “Mario Banana.” That’s a Warhol movie. But Mario’s what makes it happen. 

Hrag Vartanian: So it sounds like you were part of these different scenes, some of which didn’t get along.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, I ended up being more part of the Charles Ludlam people, even though I got along…Jack Smith never did anything wrong to me. But when I’d go to visit Jack Smith, I’d be very quiet, and just kind of, like, be there. Because Jack Smith could get very angry and, like, throw kitty litter at you or something. Because that’s what he would do. Jack Smith was famous for saying, “Yeah, I think you should leave.” Then you go outside, and he dumps the kitty litter on your head or something. But he never did that to me. I know he did that to people. 

Hrag Vartanian: How catty. 

[Both laugh.]

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Or like saying, “Would you like a piece of cake?” And then when they go to grab it, he pushes it in their face. That kind of thing.

Hrag Vartanian: Ah, so he was that guy. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Jack Smith could be very nasty to people he didn’t like. 

Hrag Vartanian: So now, what was their influence on your work? It sounds like this was a really rich environment where they were producing culture. But how did it influence the way you saw culture?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: It did and it didn’t. It more or less confirmed what I already thought. I was doing a piece at my apartment called “Summer Palace of Zorina Tatlina,” and that was really before I knew them very well. So Mario Montez brings Jack Smith there, and Jack Smith was very kind to me actually. He said, “Oh, the whole thing looks like it’s a Technicolor movie.” And I didn’t even know that he was doing something very similar to it.

Hrag Vartanian: Wow.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: There was the “art world art” back then, which was people like Donald Judd. I knew I could appreciate a Donald Judd, but I didn’t like it as art. 

Hrag Vartanian: As a gay person though, did you feel like the art world was open? Was it more “gay friendly,” let’s say, than other fields? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: It’s so crazy. There were always a lot of gay curators, but in the art world, most of the artists were straight back then. And the art they showed in the art world had all these strict limits on what shouldn’t be done. Even though, if anyone knows anything about art, they look at art history and see Van Gogh in relation to the 19th century French academics. Well, how does that break with that? And so, I figured, art… you’re supposed to make art that breaks with what’s going on.

Hrag Vartanian: Now, do you remember the first artist that made a big impression on you? Or the first artwork? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, when I was a little kid, I would look at art in the library. And the first…oh, what’s his name? He was a big Dutch genre painter. He painted scenes of bar life and stuff like that. Look up “Eve of St. Nicholas.” 

Hrag Vartanian: “Eve of St. Nicholas…”

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Dutch painting. It’s probably 16th century…Jan Steen! 

Hrag Vartanian: What is it? Oh, Jan Steen, of course! 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Jan Steen, yes.

Hrag Vartanian: Yes, Jan Steen, “Feast of St. Nicholas.” 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: That’s it, that’s it. Okay. What I liked about that was, like…see, when I was a little boy, that was back when…who was the illustrator? Norman Rockwell. White people were always loving Norman Rockwell. I never understood that. I remember I was at the library, and I was looking at a Norman Rockwell, and I was looking at a Jan Steen, and somehow I just knew the difference. The Jan Steen just had more going on in it. 

People would look at the Norman Rockwell, the one with the little kid running away from home. He’s sitting on a chrome seat in a luncheonette. And you look at it and say, “How could Norman Rockwell paint that chrome to look so real?” And that’s admirable, of course. But Jan Steen did it better by making it more complex. He was able to get metallic surfaces to look real. But within the context of the whole painting, they just had more depth and more layers of things going on. I mean, the Rockwell stuff never got past “the actor’s acting.” Rockwell is like a strange American conceptual artist, actually. Even though conceptual people would never think that.

Hrag Vartanian: He was also very involved in the Civil Rights Movement at the time. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, he was. He did a lot of good things, but that doesn’t mean we have to like him.

Hrag Vartanian: We don’t have to like anyone, actually! [Laughs.] So now, I have to say, I feel like you’re very unusual in that you still retain a sort of working class consciousness in your own life and in your work.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: It’s the only way I can survive. 

Hrag Vartanian: I understand, but a lot of people, especially when they get into the art world, they often shed that.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, with growing up working class, it’s very highly unlikely that you’ll be supported as an artist that can make a living off of your art. So, if you’re going to hold on to being working class, you just do or you don’t. What some people do from working class backgrounds is they start to make what I would call the “mainstream bourgeois art,” and then they just become that because they’re making a lot of money from it. And then they just fit in with that, because fitting in with that is wearing a mask of signifiers and always conforming to that. 

Hrag Vartanian: I guess I’m trying to understand why you didn’t do that.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Because of economics, basically. I was never spoiled enough to do that. I mean, if Holly Solomon had been nicer to me, I might have…

Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.]

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Really! 

Hrag Vartanian: So, tell us a little bit about that, if you don’t mind. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Holly Solomon—I know a lot of geniuses—Holly Solomon was another genius, and I think a movie should be made about her.

Oh, I could want to strangle her, believe me, at some times. She could be like Ivan the Terrible, but she was a genius just the same. But anyway, okay. I make my art where I live. I give it away to people. Now, there was a—

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, you gave it away a lot?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I always gave it away at the beginning. I wouldn’t even sell it, because I was on welfare.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: So I could afford to do that. Holly Solomon goes to see art at Eddie Shostak’s. Eddie Shostak has some of my art. 

Hrag Vartanian: And that’s a dealer? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: No, no. Eddie Shostak is an artist.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, ok.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: He never became very famous, but he was very well liked. And I’ll tell you this crazy story about him before Holly Solomon. He got a Guggenheim grant from Henry Geldzahler, because Henry Geldzahler robbed his boyfriend, and Eddie Shostak was gonna kill Henry Geldzahler, and Eddie Shostak said, “You give me a Guggenheim and I won’t murder you.”

Hrag Vartanian: Wait, what? Really? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Mm-hmm. 

Hrag Vartanian: That’s one way to get a Guggenheim. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: He got it. 

Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.] Okay, now on to Holly. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Okay. So we go to…

Hrag Vartanian: That was a good story, I have to say, Tommy. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: It’s true. Yeah, so Eddie Shostak was another artist. Eddie Shostak was the artist who didn’t murder Henry Geldzahler, but who had been boyfriends with Christopher Scott.

Hrag Vartanian: Wait, by the way, was Henry a nice person? Because I’ve heard mixed things. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Henry could be both things. 

Hrag Vartanian: Ok. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Henry was another genius. I met Henry through Chris. I met Chris in ‘66 or ‘67. I met him the first time I was going to the Museum of Modern Art. I thought—this is because I’m very…I was very Rooseveltian. I thought the Museum of Modern Art was a public service. I didn’t know you had to pay admission. So I didn’t go. I walked around the back. And I’m walking around the back, to the sculpture garden. And then this guy is walking along in a bomber jacket, another gay gu. And he’s giving me the look of sex, right? And so we became friends. And he lived on 7th Avenue and 56th Street, I think. 

Hrag Vartanian: Did you have sex at least? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Sort of. We ended up talking more. It was crazy. I would meet a lot of people and we’d just talk, talk, talk, and then we’d hardly ever have sex. And I would end up becoming friends with them. 

Hrag Vartanian: And he was one of those?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, like I said, it started out with sex. And he was, like, sex famous because he had a double beer can two hander. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wow. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yes. 

Hrag Vartanian: That’s… 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Hung like a horse. 

Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.] That’s interesting! Ok. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: But I knew that if you met someone with a double beer can two hander, you didn’t touch their dick, all you’d do is kiss them, and then they’d become your friend. That was the rule I followed. 

Hrag Vartanian: I’m really liking this art history lesson. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, that was, that was the way I met people. I mean, ‘cause like, if they had a dick like that, everyone wanted to have sex with them. 

Hrag Vartanian: Gotcha. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: But nobody wanted to kiss them afterwards. And I liked kissing. But anyway…

Hrag Vartanian: Okay, but you mentioned that Henry had robbed Eddie’s boyfriend. What’s that about? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: The boyfriend is Chris with the double beer can two hander. That’s Chris Scott. Okay, now—

Hrag Vartanian: Wait, wait, I’m confused. Wait, who’s who? I thought that was Henry, you were saying. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Henry Geldzahler is the person who befriends Chris Scott and makes Chris Scott his boyfriend. Chris Scott had been Eddie Shostak’s boyfriend.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh! 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: But Henry went to a party…

Hrag Vartanian: So Chris is the one with—who was well hung.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yeah. Henry went to a party, some art party Eddie and Chris had gone to. Some kind art party. And Eddie Shostak was there with his boyfriend, Chris Scott. 

Hrag Vartanian: Ok.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: And Henry Geldzahler says to Chris, “Oh, why don’t we go outside and get a drink or something?” And Chris says, “Well, let me go see Eddie.” “Should I go with Henry and get a drink?” “Sure, you go with Eddie and get a drink.” Okay, so that night, Chris doesn’t come back home to Eddie. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh…

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: And then, then he gets a call the next day. “Hi! I’m in like, some place like the Bahamas. I’m in Jamaica, the Bahamas, whatever, with Henry. I’m not coming back, ever.”

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, so he stole his boyfriend. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: He stole his boyfriend. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh…

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: That’s more clear now. 

Hrag Vartanian: Yes. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: So Eddie Shostak decided he wanted to murder Henry Geldzahler. Because he liked the double beer can two hander. 

Hrag Vartanian: So Henry was a bit of a size queen.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Very much so, yes. Okay. So, when I met Chris, I’m at his house, and Henry—I didn’t know anything, I didn’t even know what a curator was. I go to this apartment with Chris. There’s like, a lot of Warhols there. I thought it was fake art made by art students. But it was all the real thing. It was Brillo boxes, all this stuff. And Henry was out doing some lecture tour or something. When he comes home, that’s where I meet Henry. Henry hated me at first. But then, slowly, he just started to like me, like my art, whatever. 

Hrag Vartanian: So what did he say about your art? Did he encourage you?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Not at first. Later on…like after it got a few reviews that had nothing to do with him, I said, “What do you think of my art?” And he said, “It’s too avant garde.”

Hrag Vartanian: Interesting! 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: And I said, “What does that mean?” He said, “You’ll find out as time goes by.” I think he was right. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wow, okay, that’s…

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: He was a genius at diplomacy. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: So that’s one of those statements that is on a seesaw, or whatever. 

Hrag Vartanian: That’s funny. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: So, I’m friends with Chris, I’m friends with Henry, I’m friends with Chris. Okay, so they’re part of that…that’s Charles Ludlam too. That’s all these people I’m friends with. And I’m 18 years old, right? Okay, now we’re going to go to Holly Solomon. Okay. Holly had had her portrait done by Warhol. It’s one of the best things Warhol ever did, you gotta see it. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh I have, it’s great. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: It’s probably the best portrait he ever did. And everything you want to know about Holly is in that portrait. She could be a genius at interaction. She could also be Satan Incarnate, but she could also be a beloved saint at the same time. She was that crazy and that fascinating. 

So now we’re in the ‘70s. She goes to Eddie Shostak’s loft to see his art. Because she’s a collector. 

Hrag Vartanian: Sure. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: She didn’t have a gallery yet. 

Hrag Vartanian: So what year is this we’re talking about? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I would say early ‘70s, maybe ‘71. Something like that. Eddie Shostak didn’t want her to see my art when she was there. So he threw it all in the bathroom. So Holly Solomon goes to his house and she has to make a number two. So she has to use the bathroom. So she comes out of the bathroom and she says, “Ed, who made that rat? Those rats in there?”

And Eddie was nice enough to call me up and ask if I wanted to meet her. Now, he could have cut the whole thing off then. He just could have been a bitch and said, “Oh, that’s some dead queen or something.”

Hrag Vartanian: Right, right, right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: But, no, he didn’t. So Holly Solomon calls me up. I didn’t know anything about her. She sounded very affected, I thought. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: She was very grand and crazy in her talking. She would do stage whispers all the time. You know, so she was…And her husband’s name was Horace. And I’m on the phone with her and all of a sudden she goes, [he whispers] “Horace is quite a guy.” And I said, “Why are you whispering? And who’s Horace? Who’s Horace?: And she said, [he whispers:] “Horace is quite a guy.” She wouldn’t tell me. And I said, “Why are you whispering?” And she said, “I’m not whispering.” But she was. And I said, “I think this person is crazy.”

So she said, “Can I come over and see your art?” So I said, “Okay lady, you can come over and see my art. But do not come over here wearing big jewelry and a fur coat, because I live in a very dangerous neighborhood.”

Hrag Vartanian: And where were you then?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: 4th Street, between B and C, which was solid junkies back then. It was like, you could get murdered any time of the day back then. It’s…New Yorkers, White people New Yorkers can’t imagine what that was like back then. It was just so unbelievable. 

So, we arrange a day for her. She comes over, she’s wearing a little skirt, and a woolen coat, and kind of simpering, like…[makes whimpering noise,] like that.

And I thought—because she’s an actress, right? She studied acting. She studied with Lee Strasberg. And there’s another story attached to that, that other people will tell you another time. But anyway. So, she dressed the right way, so she comes in, and she buys a few rats. And so that’s the first art I really sell, right?

Hrag Vartanian: Oh wow!

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: She opens her gallery in ‘75. Before that, she asked me if I wanted to be in a gallery she was going to open. Okay, so that’s how I got in her gallery. Well, I had talked to her on the phone, and I said, “Listen lady, don’t wear fur coats and don’t wear jewelry.” She didn’t let me know, but she didn’t like the way I said that. But she came over—she listened to it anyway. But then, many years passed. Many, many years. In the 1990s, she comes to visit me here. She’s walking in the door downstairs, where you came in. And she says, “I smell smoke.” And she’s making her little nose move in a certain way. And I said, “I don’t see smoke.” And she says, “Tom, there’s smoke over there. It’s coming out of the basement.”

And this crazy southern White woman on the first floor opens the door and says, “That’s nothin’. That’s just the Chinese people in the basement cooking food.” And Holly said, “Why are they locked in the basement?” Because there’s a padlock on the basement, right? So Holly said, “I’m sorry, I think there’s a fire down there.”

So she said, “Where’s the fire department?” I said, “It’s around the corner.” So we go running to the fire department. And Holly Solomon—I thought she was going to go up to the desk and say, “Excuse me, sir,” like working class people do. “Excuse me, sir. There’s a fire in the building around the corner. Can you help us?”

No, no. This time she was wearing a fur coat and jewelry. And she runs into where they’re playing like, you know, cards and making Irish stew. And she goes, “Men! Fire!” And they all stand up. 

Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.]

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Like she’s Queen fuckin’ Elizabeth! And then, and she holds her arm up in the air—I think she had an umbrella. She holds it up in the air. We’re crossing 8th Avenue, and they’re behind her, like she’s the queen of the world, with their fireman outfits on. And then in the middle of 8th Avenue, she turns to me and she says, “See, Tom?” And I said, “What?” She goes, “It pays to know women who wear fur coats and jewelry.” 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wow

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: How long has she waited? That’s, like 30 years? 

Hrag Vartanian: Wow. So she…she kept that in. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yes. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, that’s funny. That’s funny. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yeah, that’s the best example I can give of her personality.

Hrag Vartanian: One thing I loved you talking a little bit about was the gay community in the art community. I wonder what role that played in your life, in general? And in your work? Were there other characters within that milieu that really influenced you, maybe during the ‘80s? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, when I—Holly Solomon was homophobic.

Hrag Vartanian: Really? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Oh, yes. I mean, she was the kind of person…she was a White liberal who would have told her kids not to call gay people “fags.” But she wouldn’t want them to be around them. She didn’t want to have anything to do with gay art.

Hrag Vartanian: So, was that true generally in the art world then?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yeah. They would never say it publicly. It was done in that WASPy way: you just ignore something to death. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. So do you think that’s still true?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: It must be true, some places. Whenever I say she’s homophobic, there’s always people who say, “She said she wasn’t.” But she was. And then she didn’t stop being homophobic until the ‘90s, when there were more gay people who were, you know, high up people that she knew were gay and were proud of it. 

Hrag Vartanian: That’s interesting. But how about some other people, like in the ‘80s? Was there anybody influencing you then? Because I know there was a lot of activism and a lot of transformations in the gay world in the ‘80s. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: No, I was always on my own with my…just my own set of ideas and wherever I got them from. There were never any other people, except the people I knew from the ‘60s, basically. And then Holly’s gallery was practically all heterosexuals. 

Hrag Vartanian: Were there any curators at that time, or art writers that sort of were interested in gay art, or gay artists? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: No. They never would go near it. They would never go near it being talked about. They might go near it as a sensibility unnamed. In other words, they would like my art because of the prettiness and different things. 

Hrag Vartanian: So when did that change, do you think, at all? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: It starts to change in the ‘90s. 

Hrag Vartanian: Do you think there was an event, or there was an exhibition or something that may have…?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, I remember there was a show—I forget when it was—with Dan Cameron, and it was at the New Museum. This was earlier in the ‘90s I think. It was one of the first shows at the New Museum when it was on 14th Street. That was the first gay identity show.

Hrag Vartanian: And did that change things for gay artists?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: It started to change. It started to become a category, like “Black.” 

Hrag Vartanian: When you saw that show…did you ever think of yourself as a “gay artist” in that way? Or was that something that formed later?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I always thought of myself as a “gay artist” and an “artist” at the same time. But my art connects to gay street people the same way it connects to working class people. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: ‘Cause the gay street aesthetic is very similar to a working class aesthetic. 

Hrag Vartanian: And in the ‘80s after that show, did the audience understand your work better?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, in my art, there’s always…there’s many ways people enter into it. And as long as they enter into it, I’m happy. I mean, they don’t have to like what I make it for. If they like it, I’m happy. 

Hrag Vartanian: So now, fast forward to the 21st century. The last 23 years. How has it changed for you in making your work? I mean, the art world has become more professionalized. You had a major retrospective at MoMA PS1 about a decade ago. How has that transformed anything, or has it? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, it’s turned the art world into more of a…that thing you were talking about, with people going to school and saying they have to meet a gallery owner or something like that. You know, I won’t say it’s “academic.” There’s not a word for it. Because if we say it’s academic, then people start to say, “Well, it’s not academic the way the 19th century French academy was.” Which is true. But it is

Hrag Vartanian: It is, kind of. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: —in a sense that, like, there’s a lot of do’s and don’ts. And there’s a lot of signifier games that go on. There’s a lot of ways if a person, like a girl or a boy, walks into a gallery, if they’re dressed a certain way, they’ll get paid attention to. That’s all signifier games. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: And I think that’s disgusting. Because it will give entrée to people that are only looking the part.

Hrag Vartanian: Did your art change as a result of being aware of this? Or, how has your art changed in the last couple of decades? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: My art just keeps developing what it is. 

Hrag Vartanian: But how would you describe it for someone who doesn’t know your work? Because I have a feeling a number of people listening to this will discover your work for the first time. How would you describe your work having transformed over the years? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, actually, I would have to resort to the cliché that most people do, as, “You have to see it.” Because art is visual.

Hrag Vartanian: But this is a podcast. So it’s audio too. So how would you describe it to the people? Do you think it got bigger? Did it become more complicated? Were there images that have stayed forever, that you keep struggling with or maybe thinking through? I think it would be great for people to hear that. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Speaking in terms that would be more like school terminology, my art is about the psychology of color and the impact of the way color is contained in certain materials. In other words, I identify more with certain ‘60s painters, but I don’t use paint. I mean, painters like Morris Lewis, those drip painters. 

Hrag Vartanian: Yep, the color field…

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yes, well I use a lot of plastic. All plastic is some kind of dry liquid.

Hrag Vartanian: Right, acrylic or something. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: What I make is basically a way that color is contained in a way that is not contained in paint. So the colors are actually different. 

You know, it’s very sad. If you go to an art school, they have art exhibits in the hallways. You walk down through there. It smells the same. Everything looks the same. And it’s because those companies make those paint tubes. You know, Holbein, those people, they mixed their own paint. They got colors that don’t even exist today anymore. And they don’t exist because everyone believes in those tubes. And that’s fucked up.

And so you walk past this stuff. And you say, “Well, this person can draw good. But it’s not very interesting because of the way it’s held together, with all the same color combinations.” You know, phthalo green, blah, blah, bla. All those tubes of paint. Acrylic, oil, whatever. It all looks the same.

Hrag Vartanian: So, how about now, with the way the art world has changed? Do you still regularly go see exhibitions?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Oh I don’t go out. I can’t go out at all. I can’t manage the stairs in the building. 

Hrag Vartanian: So then, are you on the internet? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yeah, but I have—it just finally broke down completely the other day. So I’m waiting to get a new computer. 

Hrag Vartanian: So then, how do you feel like you experience the world now?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I experience…well, most of the world I experienced. I’m part of a generation that’s rooted in the past. 

Hrag Vartanian: How do you think that’s influenced your work? Because I have to say, I’m looking around, and here’s so much of your work or things related to your work here. I mean, it’s pretty glorious to see this going on. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: This is what’s going on, these things. 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wow. These plates with cows and…

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Because I get Meals on Wheels, and they have those cows that come on the milk. It’s supposed to have the Warhol wallpaper with the cows hung behind it, actually. Because it’s supposed to be “Cowshead Revisited.” 

Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.]

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Did you get that?

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah, I did. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yeah, most people don’t get that. [Laughs.]

Hrag Vartanian: God, that’s good. [Laughs.] Well, you know, there’s something really joyful about your work. I mean, would you characterize it that way?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yes and no.

Hrag Vartanian: I love that that’s your answer to almost everything. “Yes and no.” I mean, I love that because actually. I feel it in your work. I’d just love you to talk about that a little bit.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, it’s joyful, but it’s also pretty manic if you look at it. 

Hrag Vartanian: But it’s celebratory still, even with the manic, you know?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: It’s celebratory. But there’s…actually…it’s, it’s whatever people get out of it. 

Hrag Vartanian: But what is it, what are you celebrating? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I’m celebrating me not going totally crazy and killing myself. That’s why I make it. 

Hrag Vartanian: That’s pretty dark, Tommy. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, that’s very dark. You want to hear dark? You say it’s celebratory. Say something else. What am I supposed to say? 

Hrag Vartanian: No, no, no! Say whatever you need, but I’m just sort of, you know, because that’s why the celebration—

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Am I supposed to say, like, one of those middle class things?

Hrag Vartanian: No! No, no, no, no. I want you to say it, because we’re talking about the celebratory part and I want to understand it. That’s why I’m interested. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well I wanted to commit suicide since I was 12 years old and I haven’t done it. 

Hrag Vartanian: Well, I’m glad you haven’t. Because I think you’ve given us so much, to many of us. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, I don’t do it because I make art. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: And that breaks so many rules that people can’t stand to hear that. You’re supposed to take some kind of drug to keep from doing that. 

Hrag Vartanian: I’m actually just surprised, because you’ve been very frank and honest, and so many artists are putting up airs. So if anything, if I’m reacting, it’s because of that, because I appreciate your sort of blunt honesty.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, ever since…well, in 1959, I would go to Mass every day because the Pope was—this was crazy back then, in Catholic school—Pope Pius XII…okay, maybe it’s earlier than ‘59…whatever. Pope John XXIII, one of those Popes. They were supposed to open a letter in 1960. As little kids, we were led to believe that the letter was going to come from Our Lady of Fatima. Do you know anything about her?

Hrag Vartanian: Yup.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Okay, she gave this letter to the children of Fatima. So that’s like, a big deal when you’re in Catholic school back then, because we were all children. So, you know, we would think we could have apparitions, or whatever. But the way the rumor got around among Catholics was the world was going to end in 1960. So I was going to Mass every day in 1959, thinking that in 1960, on New Year’s Day, I was going to be in heaven. I was just totally dead serious about that. But it was going to be a joyful occasion, to be dead and in heaven. It didn’t happen. So ever since then there’s been, like, a…but I haven’t, I mean, I haven’t thought about killing myself since probably high school.

Hrag Vartanian: Got it. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: You know, because I was able to find a place where I wouldn’t be killing myself. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right, right, right, absolutely. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yes. 

Hrag Vartanian: And so now, plates seem to play a big role in your work…

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: They’re cheap, they’re easy. And they’re a good, solid form. These are tondos.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I remember one piece made from a lasagna pan. That’s a formalist method to hold the piece together. It also has metaphorical associations. 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: It’s important, because that piece wouldn’t have held together the same way. It was just a bunch of pieces of paper with those pictures on it.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. I guess I’m also trying to understand what role meals and food had in your family.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, in working class families, food is very central.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: It’s central because it’s viewed as part of the economy of living. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. And also just a way that families come together and sort of, celebrate and not deal with their emotions sometimes.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, I don’t know about your family, but somehow at our family, there’s a lot of emotions dealt with at dinner time. 

Hrag Vartanian: Well, there were a lot of emotions too, but sometimes those are kind of performative emotions that kind of go around. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, my mother had—you know, those little paddles that you have, with the ball on it on the rubber band? 

Hrag Vartanian: Yes!

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: My mother had a few of those and she would always have it next to her. She’d throw it across the table at me and my sister. 

[Both laugh.]

Hrag Vartanian: So, when you grew up in Catholicism, was that something you retained later, or was that something that you sort of shed as soon as you ran to New York? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Both. I’m like most Catholics.They retain things about it. And you know, the church is crazy, because like…I don’t know, you’re Armenian…

Hrag Vartanian: Mm-hmm.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: …so the Armenian church is similar. 

Hrag Vartanian: Well, I actually went to a Catholic school in Toronto, so—

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: So then you know it. 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: But you’re a post Vatican II person?

Hrag Vartanian: Yes, I’m a post Vatican II.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Okay, now before Vatican II, everyone was told…now, we were all immigrant families. 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Right? So everyone’s told, “You eat meat on Friday, you’re going to hell. You eat meat on Friday, you’re going to hell.” Then after Vatican II, they say, “You can eat meat on Friday all you want.” And so what happens to those people that were in hell already? According to the Catholic Church, you can’t get out of hell. So they’re stuck in hell because they did something that, if they would have waited a day or two… 

Hrag Vartanian: All for the meat! 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, it’s just crazy. So like, apply that to any rule they have. If they want to approve gay marriage, they could do it like that. [Snaps fingers.]

Hrag Vartanian: Right. So did you start going to church at all when you moved to New York? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I went mostly to Orthodox churches after, because they were just prettier.

Hrag Vartanian: Interesting. So you went to go see the interiors or for the Masses or what? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I actually converted. 

Hrag Vartanian: You converted! 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: To be Russian Orthodox. 

Hrag Vartanian: So you’re actually Russian Orthodox, fully?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Sort of. I’m both. I’m Catholic and Orthodox. I mean, they’re both crazy. But the Orthodox have a better aesthetic at this point. You know, it’s crazy. The Catholic Church created the aesthetics of the Counter Reformation, and then along comes Vatican II, and they become, like, the dullest, moronic people in the world? What the fuck is wrong? I mean, that’s crazy. A place that actually creates culture just methodically abandons it like a ho-hum. And it has the ugliest churches in the world now. With nothing in them. And the Orthodox have to have pictures, it’s one of their rules. 

Hrag Vartanian: So where do you think the best place for your art is? Where’s the best context for your work? A church, a home, in a museum, or a specific museum? Where would it be?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: All of the above. In a perfect world, I would just go to someone and say, “I need this amount of money to live.” They’d give it to me. And then, whoever likes my art would look at it, and they could buy it, or it could be shown in a museum, whatever. I just think that cultural things should just happen. 

Hrag Vartanian: You sound like a socialist, Tommy. Are you? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Partly. I guess I am, but I wouldn’t get along with them either. 

Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.]

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I mean, I remember them from the ‘60s, when my brother was a big socialist. He went to the University of Chicago. He was big in their different socialist organizations. I asked him what he thought about being gay. And he goes, “Oh, um, the organization, or whatever you call it, hasn’t come to a conclusion on that yet.”

Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.]

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: So I turned to him and I said, “George, you’re just a Catholic with a different name now. Are you following rules, like there’s a Pope of Socialism or something?” 

Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.] Oh wow, okay, that’s really good. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: The left used to be horrible to gay people. Now they’re like everyone else. You know, they’re nice if they’re nice and if they’re not, they’re not. 

Hrag Vartanian: Interesting. So now, I’d love to ask you also a little bit of advice you’d give to young artists. Because I have a feeling your work is going to be more influential as time goes on, just because I think you introduce a lot of new ideas into making work. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, thank you.

Hrag Vartanian: What would you recommend to a young artist that’s just getting started, maybe even from a working class background? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, what I would tell them is something that a lot of times doesn’t help them, because it doesn’t make them conform to what galleries want. I tell them to find out what their basic aesthetic is, that connects to them, who they are. And that means where they come from and everything. And to create something that has everything to do with that. Sometimes they do that, and then no one pays any attention to them. So then they tell me how they hate me. I had that happen.

Hrag Vartanian: How do you sustain yourself? Because I agree with you and what you’re saying, but I think the tough part for young artists is that they get ignored a little bit, right? And sometimes it comes later. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: They get ignored, but if they’re serious and they want to stick with it, unless they have a family that’s going to support them, they have to somehow arrive at a way to keep their expenses low.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: So they don’t owe things to people they don’t know. And, the most important thing—and Chris Scott told me this way back. That was the beer can, two can, double hand—but he had a good—

Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.] I love that you keep repeating that. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, he had a very good brain. He was a— 

Hrag Vartanian: He had more than a good brain, it sounds like.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, he had that huge schlong! But he was also a good person. He was very good to me. Because he said, the most important thing among artists is to find art families. 

Hrag Vartanian: And so do you feel like you found yours? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yeah. There’s a few people that I connect to. And they come and go. But back then, the art family existed mostly back in the ‘60s and ‘70s. 

Hrag Vartanian: What advice would you have given your younger self now? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I would say the most important thing is the economy of survival. Economy in both definitions: money wise, and economy in how you distribute the weight of your talent in your life. How you place that so you have the maximum amount of time and energy to do your art.

Hrag Vartanian: So now, what do you think the influence of Stonewall has been on the art world? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, the art world was totally cowardly about Stonewall. Now it’s finally caved in and just accepts it the way the “world” world does. 

Hrag Vartanian: So wait, how was it cowardly? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Oh, back when Stonewall happened, the art world couldn’t give a shit. The art world didn’t acknowledge it in any way, shape, or form until the ‘90s. 

Hrag Vartanian: Mm. With Dan Cameron and some of the others. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: It was a different group of curators and people that had to come along. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. And so now, do you think people really understand what Stonewall was about nowadays? Do you think the art world has finally embraced it fully?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: That depends on individuals. Everyone’s going to perceive it in a different way. 

Hrag Vartanian: Well, I guess part of it is, I’m asking because the art world has a way of sanitizing. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yes, but Stonewall now is up there with, like, Martin Luther King’s speech. It’s something that liberals just think they…they just pay mouth service to it, and try to maybe read up before they visit someone or something on what they can say about it.

Hrag Vartanian: Has the art world become more right wing, or has it always had that element? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: The art world was always very right wing. The art world is probably like the arch propaganda institute of the right wing. 

Hrag Vartanian: So then why do you still make art? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Because those are the people that will show it and buy it. See, that—it’s crazy. Those people need things that are outside of their sensibilities. It’s the people who respect great achievement who are sometimes horrible people. Sometimes they’re good people. 

But like, okay, here’s an example. Asher Adelman bought my art. He’s a Wall Street person. He helped me a lot of times. He did good things for me. So see, there’s this balance that goes on, that we can’t just blankly say—especially as I get older. People say as people get older they get more conservative. I don’t get more conservative, but I get more tolerant of conservatives. I don’t necessarily like their politics. I don’t like their politics. And I think it’s horrible what’s happened in this country. That it’s so hard for someone to get welfare today or something like that.

Hrag Vartanian: Is there an artwork that you keep returning to? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Yeah. Jan Steen, “The Eve of St. Nicholas.”

Hrag Vartanian: So that work still speaks to you.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Over and over and over again. He was Catholic in a Protestant culture. I didn’t know that when I first saw it. I didn’t find out until years later. That picture probably represents a Catholic family because the little girl in it is holding a doll that looks like a baby Jesus. It’s not really a doll. It’s like a saint statue. So a Protestant can look at it and say, “She has a doll.” But if you look at the picture closely, it has a halo, and it has a certain way that it’s put together which makes it a saint statue. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: So I like that kind of “reveal / conceal.” 

Hrag Vartanian: Oh yeah, absolutely. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I take artists from every era and like them. Back to those tubes of paint, with those awful colors coming out of them. If you look at a Holbein, or you look at any of those painters, like Leonardo da Vinci. They made their own paint. And they made it from ground up things. They somehow figured out how to do it. And then we’re supposed to feel like it’s a great breakthrough because Vincent van Gogh used tubes of paint. And then from then on, it’s like, shit.

Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.] So is there anything you’d like to add? Is there something we haven’t talked about you’d like to bring up? I just want to give you that opportunity. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: What I would say…the best thing about gay street life was the transcendent profundity of what seems to be a cliché. And I would tell people, “Just try to be yourself for who you really are. And not wear those masks of becoming someone else.”

Hrag Vartanian: Good advice. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: And hopefully people can stick with that. Every time you meet anyone, this constantly comes as a challenge, to think like that. The easiest way to connect to the art world is not through your arts, it’s just to look like one of those stupid people hanging out in the art world. Get all those clothes and get the haircut that goes with it and everything, and go to a gallery. And then if you’re young and they want to be around a young person just because they’re young, they’ll hang out with you. But that doesn’t do anything for your art. And they’ll also want you to make art that looks just like it’s supposed to look to them. 

Hrag Vartanian: So let’s say a young artist was saying, “You know what, I want to continue what Tommy’s doing in his work.” What would that look like, to continue the work you created and the legacy you’re leaving?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: That would totally depend on their sensibility. They’re themselves, they’re not me. So what they get out of my work is unique to the interaction with them. They’re coming from a different cultural space. They’re coming from a place where materials were used in their home growing up a certain way. 

In my art, there’s the aluminum foil. And there’s saran wrap. When I was growing up, we didn’t wrap our sandwiches in that. We used wax paper. Because my father said, “Those things are too expensive.”

Hrag Vartanian: Oh, wow. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: So, to me, they’re valuable materials. 

Hrag Vartanian: Right. 

TLS And then it connects to sexual desire. When I was in the fifth grade, there was another altar boy. His name was Eddie, and he was in high school. We were sitting and eating our lunch. We had both served a funeral Mass in the middle of the morning at the church. And the priest said, “You can eat your lunch here in the sacristy.” There was going to be another funeral soon after that. So we’re sitting there eating our lunch, me and this Eddie guy. And we’re looking in the garbage can. And there was all the garbage from the flower pots and things that were used on the altar. And that’s when I first saw gold aluminum foil. And Eddie, who had these very big, beautiful, masculine hands, takes the gold foil out of the garbage can and makes a little chalice with it.

And he was so handsome. There was no other way for me to articulate any connection to him, but just to see him. And so this was kind of a sacramental connection.

Hrag Vartanian: That’s beautiful.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: See, because, I couldn’t say to my parents—I wouldn’t even know how to say it back then. “I think Eddie’s sexy?” No, no, no. I didn’t even know that those were the exact thoughts back then. I was like, 12 or 13.

Hrag Vartanian: Right. And what was your church? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: St. Elizabeth of Hungary in Linden, New Jersey. And, if you want to do a nice thing for me…it’s easy to get to that church, you can look it up online. On their sidewalk in front of the church, they have this big cross. It’s maybe like, four feet high. And that was the cross that was on their old church that got torn down in the early ‘60s. I was the one who saved that cross from the junkyard. 

Hrag Vartanian: Wow!

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: It was at my mother’s house. When my mother died, they gave it to the people next door, the Derelankos. And the Derlankos gave it to the church. So there’s a little tag beneath it that says that the Derelankos donated that. That’s fine with me. But I want that church to know that I was the one who found that cross. 

Hrag Vartanian: So you found it in a garbage dump? Where’d you find it? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: No, no, no. The church was torn down.

Hrag Vartanian:  Got it.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: It was in the “town down church” pile of stuff.

Hrag Vartanian: Gotcha. So, in the ruins. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: In the ruins of the church. I went in there, and there was the janitor from the church and the school…what was his name? I forgot his name. I don’t remember it. But I said, “How can I get the cross?” Because the cross that was in the little steeple they had…when you looked at it from the ground, it looked like it was around this big. But it was actually four or five feet high.

Hrag Vartanian: Oh wow. Yeah. So why did you have that urge to save that cross? 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Just because I liked it. But what was interesting, was that that cross was in the tower, and was attached to a beam, a big thick beam of wood that went up all the way from the bottom. So he had to saw it off and give me the cross. And the cross was light enough that I could carry it home. So I carried it home like Jesus carrying the cross. My parents house was only a block away, two blocks and a half away from church. So my sisters love telling that story about me carrying the cross down the street when I was 12, I think. You know, it’s a little later than the Eddie story. But I want them to know that I saved that cross. 

Hrag Vartanian: So it sounds like you’re always trying to save things from destruction.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: What I’m saying with this is that the art world, for all it’s bad, has done good. It’s helped me to survive. Even though it can be the most evil, stupid, horrible place at times. 

Hrag Vartanian: Well, like you were saying, it’s a little bit of both, right? Is there anything else you want to add?

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: No. Nothing I can think of. Can you think of anything?

Hrag Vartanian: I mean, I could talk to you for a long time. So I could think of a lot of things, but I want to give you the opportunity if there’s something you want to bring up. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, the most important things to me are things like the materials, and the thing about wax paper, because that makes a big difference. 

Hrag Vartanian: Absolutely. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Otherwise, I couldn’t look at these materials the way I do. Because those are expensive materials to me. 

Hrag Vartanian: Thank you, Tommy, for your time, and it’s a pleasure to get to know you in your home. This was a pleasure. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, thank you. I had a very nice time. And I hope some of that has meat for thought, food for thought, whatever the word is.

Hrag Vartanian: I think people are going to be thinking about this for a while, and, I think you’ve given us a lot of insight. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Well, you’re going to edit this, right? 

Hrag Vartanian: Well, I don’t know. You’re pretty good! [Laughs.]

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: I never know if I’m good or I’m not. You know what I did, the first time I was going to be on the radio? Did you ever hear of Minnette? 

Hrag Vartanian: Yeah.

TLS I met Minnette back in the early ‘60s. So Minnette said, “Oh, Tommy, come on, I’m going to take you to BAI.” You know that station?

Hrag Vartanian: Yep.

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Okay, so we’re there, and I’m there with Charles Ludlam and Minnette. I was so intimidated by them, I didn’t say anything. So no one even knew I was there! It was my own stupid fault. 

Hrag Vartanian: [Laughs.] I love it. Well, Tommy, people know you’re here now. 

Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt: Thank you.

Hrag Vartanian: Thank you so much for joining us. Our membership is the main supporter of our podcast. So thank you so much to all the Hyperallergic members out there.

I’m Hrag Vartanian, the Co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Hyperallergic. We’ll see you again very soon.

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