The Rainbow Flag that artist Gilbert Baker created in San Francisco has just been acquired by The Museum of Modern Art for its design collection. Do you know its history? I didn’t. It has since become an iconic symbol of the LGBT Pride movement, and is SO closely associated with “gay” that a woman was recently asked to remove her multi-colored lights out of respect for children! (See next post.) In an interview with curatorial assistant Michelle Millar Fisher on MoMA’s Inside/Out blog, Baker explains how design grew out of the bicentennial celebrations in 1976;
“I began to notice the American flag — which is where a lot of the Rainbow Flag comes from — in the sense that all of a sudden [I saw] the American flag everywhere — from Jasper Johns paintings to trashy jeans in the Gap and tchotchkes. And I thought, a flag is different than any other form of art. It’s not a painting, it’s not just cloth, it is not just a logo — it functions in so many different ways.
I thought that we needed that kind of symbol, that we needed as a people something that everyone instantly understands. [The Rainbow Flag] doesn’t say the word ‘Gay,’ and it doesn’t say ‘the United States’ on the American flag but everyone knows visually what they mean. And that influence really came to me when I decided that we should have a flag, that a flag fit us as a symbol, that we are a people, a tribe if you will. And flags are about proclaiming power, so it’s very appropriate.”
Baker, along with about 30 volunteers, made the first two Rainbow Flags at the Gay Community Center in 1978 and his sewing skills, honed as a drag queen who made his own costumes, came in handy. (future RuPaul’s Drag Race contestants, take note!) Baker’s original design featured eight colors (hot pink, red, orange, yellow, green, turquoise, indigo/blue, and violet), but the version most commonly found today feature just six — hot pink was cut when Baker ran out of dye and indigo/blue and turquoise got replaced by royal blue. The original flags were raised the first time in San Francisco’s UN Plaza during the Gay Freedom Day Parade on June 25, 1978. Baker explains;
“I was in the right place at the right time to make the thing that we needed. It was necessary to have the Rainbow Flag because up until that we had the pink triangle from the Nazis — it was the symbol that they would use [to denote gay people]. It came from such a horrible place of murder and holocaust and Hitler. We needed something beautiful, something from us. The rainbow is so perfect because it really fits our diversity in terms of race, gender, ages, all of those things. Plus, it’s a natural flag — it’s from the sky! And even though the rainbow has been used in other ways in vexilography [the practice of studying and designing flags], this use has now far eclipsed any other use that it had.”
MoMA’s permanent collection includes a number of flag-themed artworks — including many versions of Jasper Johns’s Flag (1954–55) and David Hammons’ African-American Flag (1990). Baker’s work though, is its first object that was expressly designed to be used as a flag and the announcement of the acquisition comes, appropriately, during Pride Month. Baker says that he’s constantly surprised by the range of places this design turns up…
“The most surprising thing for me is the way that people have used it for their pets. I’ve never seen one great piece of fashion — but when I see it on pets I have to laugh. People will never wear that but they will put it on their dog!”