New York

Agosto Machado, Shrine (White), 2022, mixed media, 91 1⁄2 × 36 × 10".

Agosto Machado, Shrine (White), 2022, mixed media, 91 1⁄2 × 36 × 10".

Agosto Machado

Any artist who is devoted to experimental performance becomes an expert in letting go. When a show closes, the actor is left with totems that are difficult to capitalize on: a pair of show shoes, for instance; a playbill signed by the cast; or, if you’re lucky, a treasure chest of stories that will sustain you through the inevitable precarity of operating on a theater’s margins. In the case of performer and archivist Augusto Machado—whose collection of colorful ephemera and artworks accumulated over a lifetime were on display in “The Forbidden City” at Gordon Robichaux—viewers could glean more than a handful of tales, all told without the aid of glorifying wall texts but with fantastical mementos of mourning and celebration. Yet perhaps what was truly radical here was that this show was more than your average survey of Greenwich Village art history—it was a space of divination and a moment of spiritual rescue.

A “pre-Stonewall street queen” who seemingly fell into New York’s downtown performance scene by virtue of his inclination to always say yes, Machado counted among his notable peers iconic queer playwright auteurs Jackie Curtis, Ethyl Eichelberger, and Jack Smith. Their premature deaths haunted the rooms of the gallery: Yellowed obituaries detailing the lives of these camp visionaries (and so many others) formed the bedrock beneath the shrines Machado erected here to memorialize a hot, fleeting era full of anticommercial collaborations. Smith’s retired props, including an old film canister and pieces of a broken bright-blue trellis, were lovingly laid out on a long white table. Nearby, two of Smith’s paper lobsters hung from a wall, flanking a pretty cardboard cloud Bruce Eyster had constructed for a 1970s H. M. Koutoukas play at the La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club—one of Machado’s most significant artistic homes. It’s remarkable that these “minor” objects have survived the years; their existence is a testament to the grossly undervalued vocation of stewardship as well as, in my estimation, one man’s damned good taste. Consider the pieces Machado presented to welcome visitors at the entrance to this sanctuary: Caroline Goe’s trio of wooden parrots, alongside several quasi-religious sculptures by Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, all of which made one feel as though a horny altar boy had been let loose in a dollar store after being commissioned for an interior-design gig. The works’ tropical-candy vibes offered an alternative to the gloomy gray of melting New York snow. It also clued us in as to what House Mother Machado values most: priceless beauty on a dime.

A pair of early-1980s Peter Hujar photographs stood out for their capacity to document this ethos of defiant fragility that defined the work of so many New York artists of yore. One picture of Eichelberger draped in a black cloak captured the serious beauty of this camp master; the other featured her in a cast photo from her P.S. 122 production of Hamlette, featuring Machado in full makeup and wearing a ruff while demurely holding a flower alongside fellow thespians Tabboo! and Black-Eyed Susan, the latter of whom played the titular Lady Dane. The actors give face to the camera as Eichelberger, stiletto-clad, preens from the stage floor (which appears to be draped in movers’ blankets that lie next to a trio of decidedly unglamorous power cords). Ah, the joys of a no-budget publicity shoot! The stupidity and enticement of self-mythologization! And the need to get butts in seats! Urgency and enthusiasm flicker across the image, reminding me of Smith’s response to a question regarding whether or not his 1963 film Flaming Creatures was a parody of Hollywood: “Of course. My mind was filled with it. . . . Everybody is filled with Hollywood.”

The show was punctuated with several portraits of Machado, such as a 2005 painting by Tabboo! and photographs by Jack Pierson from 2006 and Collier Schorr from 2019. In Schorr’s picture, Machado wears a pin honoring his friend, late queer-rights activist Marsha P. Johnson. The inclusion of these pieces was not an act of vanity on Machado’s behalf. Instead, they suggested the actor/archivist’s disarming willingness to be portrayed on any given day in any given season. Machado is comfortable in his own skin, and he is also his own divine creation: multifaceted, magnanimous, and utterly, utterly magical.