Photographer Ryan McGinley’s Unfiltered Debut Show ‘The Kids Are Alright’ Defined a Generation. 20 Years Later, the Artist Takes a Look Back

The Whitney Museum exhibition catapulted the New Jersey skate kid to art world fame.

Ryan McGinley, Self Portrait (Bathroom) (2000).

Twenty years ago, photographer Ryan McGinley’s seminal exhibition “The Kids Are Alright” opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, marking the 26-year-old’s solo debut. The august museum was still in its original Upper East Side location, and while Ryan’s photographs were taken just a subway ride away, it may as well have been an entirely different universe.

McGinley and his downtown squad indulged in euphoric abandon on illegally-accessed rooftops. There was graffiti, sex, drugs, dancing, and plenty of bodily fluids, but also a fresh sense of optimism—as well as an intriguing backstory. How did a 20-something skater kid from a New Jersey suburb and a deeply religious family come out of nowhere and become the youngest person with a solo show at the Whitney?

“Up until that point, it wasn’t about art as a career,” McGinley explained on the Art Angle podcast. “It was just about creating energy, being on the street, being wild and carefree and making a name for our crew. It was important to bridge queer culture, skating, and graffiti. I knew at that time that that was my lane, and I knew that as an artist, if you want to be recognized as a successful artist, you have to be able to do something that people haven’t seen. At that time, those three subcultures had not converged.”

Although only 20 images were displayed in the exhibition, they were culled from thousands taken over a five-year period. “I started taking photos in a very compulsive, addictive way,” McGinley says, documenting his friends, lovers, and passersby against the backdrop of a city in flux, recovering from the dual crises of the AIDS epidemic and the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. That trauma fueled more outrageous adventures, and McGinley captured all of it from behind his camera:

“My hours were nine to five” he said, “but 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.”

On the twentieth anniversary of the defining exhibition, McGinley took a look back at some of the most poignant images from the era and shared his recollections. —William Van Meter

Listen to the full interview with Ryan McGinley on the Art Angle Podcast, featuring special guests artist Marc Hundley and Jack Walls; photography critic Vince Aletti; and curator Sylvia Wolf.

Ryan McGinley, Dan (Bloody Eye) (2002).

Ryan McGinley, Dan (Bloody Eye) (2002).

It was a spring night in the East Village, and we were out at bars until about 4 a.m., and then came back to our 7th street rooftop to hang out with a group of friends. Dan [Colen] left for the corner bodega to get more beer for everyone. He was gone way longer than it took to get a six pack at the deli. An hour and a half later he came back all bloody and bruised: he said on his way to the corner, he had passed the old man bar on the corner of 6th street and First Ave… He must have talked shit because a group of 60 year old men totally kicked his ass.

He came back to the rooftop when the sun was beginning to rise with a fresh black-and-blue shiner swollen and with a cut that was dripping one long stream of blood. He looked like a boxer in the corner of the ring and I felt like the cut-man tending to his eye with my camera.

Ryan McGinley, Agathe & Dash (Black Leather) (2001)

Ryan McGinley, Agathe & Dash (Black Leather) (2001)

Agathe and Dash were the first couple to let me document their love life. Agathe is Corsican, she has this European free energy that I love. They were my muses, my camera’s movie stars, always in front of my lens in those early days. They lived together on Avenue C and 5th street, it was easy to visit them, I’d just walk a few blocks over, we kind of shared apartments because we spent so much time together.

I was always trying to reference paintings. I think my favorites at that time were Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss or Marc Chagall’s Lovers floating in the kitchen. We all hung out on that couch so much. When I look at this now it feels like it has all the perfect ingredients: Agathe’s yellow underwear and Dash’s cool James Dean hair and that black leather couch.

Ryan McGinley, Earsnot (Paint) 1999.

Ryan McGinley, Earsnot (Paint) (1999).

I met Kunle at Astor Place in the mid ’90s. Skaters at the time called him Kool Aid because he had green hair. He started the IRAK graffiti crew in 1997 and wrote “Earsnot”—a play on words from a column in a skate magazine called Earshot. We would skate around between Astor Place & Union Square.

I came out in ’98 but was having trouble finding my queer peeps. A friend told me Earsnot was gay. I didn’t believe it, so I skated over to Astor to find him. I sheepishly asked Kunle if he was gay, he hesitated and said who was asking? I told him I was gay and we both freaked out, jumped around, hugged, and had an immediate bond.

Being the president of IRAK, he was the first openly queer person to lead a graffiti crew. In this image we were on Canal Street at Lafayette. Kunle was hanging off the side of the ledge doing a fill in, that’s probably how he got paint all over his stomach. I thought it was cute how the paint matched his bathing suit and belt. Sometimes God gives you gifts in a photograph.

Ryan McGinley, Dash Bombing (2001)

Ryan McGinley, Dash Bombing (2001)

Dash Snow was an infamous graffiti writer in the late ’90’s and early 2000’s. He was the most wanted on the Vandal Squad’s top ten list. His SACER pieces were up everywhere, in all boroughs. We connected so well because we both had adventurous spirits, we were addicted to adrenaline. We loved to bust onto rooftops and climb on ledges. He would risk his life for his graffiti, everyone wondered how he painted on such out-of-reach places.

His most famous piece was on the side of the Brooklyn Bridge—he climbed out on the ledge. In this photo he’s on a building right next to the Holland Tunnel. I was really into that bright square in the doorway, it was emitting so much light and really helped with the composition. Watching Dash work was like watching an Olympic athlete on the balance beam. He had so much grace as he created.

Some of the other images from the contact sheet show him spray painting in the other direction with the Twin Towers behind him.

Ryan McGinley, Sex (Polaroids) 1999.

Ryan McGinley, Sex (Polaroids) 1999.

I started taking Polaroids around 1998, shooting everybody who came over my apartment on 7th street in the East Village. I took them daily for about five years, snapping whoever stopped by, came to a party, or slept over. I photographed my best friends and roommates daily. I started off with the standard Polaroid 600 camera, then started using the SX-70. I learned a trick, how to scrape off the ridges of the standard film to slide into the SX-70. I would photograph indoors in the evening and bring friends up to the roof in the daytime, I painted a wall white on my rooftop. I’d write down the date and time on the back as they were developing.

This photo is of me and my boyfriend Marc. We were using the self-timer on the Yashica T4 camera, fooling around nude in bed with the wall of a few hundred polaroids behind us. All of our friends in the pictures are kind of our audience as we are performing for my camera.

Ryan McGinley, Lizzy 2002.

Ryan McGinley, Lizzy (2002).

I met Lizzy and thought she looked like a young Sissy Spacek. I was really into Sissy in the movie Bad Lands, and Three Women, they were big film inspirations on my photographs. Lizzy was a cool musician and we’d all party at the gay bar The Cock on Avenue A.

I’d probably looked at the wallpaper drunk or high in the bar’s bathroom for a few months before I decided it was the greatest backdrop I’d ever seen. It was tagged by all our friends from the IRAK crew, especially Sace, the artist Dash Snow.

Our friends Jay, Alain, and Nate bartended and Holli DJ’ed. We asked them if we could come in early while they were setting up. I brought a mini trampoline and photographed Lizzy jumping up and down, to look like she was floating with the astronauts in the wallpaper. I just used my point and shoot, 1600 speed film, and the available fluorescent light from the bar.

Ryan McGinley, Jack (Poetry) 1999.

Ryan McGinley, Jack (Poetry) (1999).

Jack is reading poetry at I.C. Guys bar on 6th street and Avenue A in the East Village. He was probably reading from his book Bad Angel. I met Jack in 1998 when I had just started to snap some photos. He had a cool loft on 29th street filled with Mapplethorpe books, he was in a lot of Robert’s pictures. 

We became so close so fast. He was a lover in the first few months of our friendship, then became a life-long best friend. 

He was always my mentor and gave me a lot of guidance early on. Jack would hang with Parker Posey and Patti Smith, so it was always interesting and fabulous. He has great style, I love all the silver he’s wearing in this image, the rings and wallet chain (one of his signatures is his horseshoe ring). Jack taught me an old bartender’s trick, to swish with peroxide (and maybe baking soda) to keep your teeth pearly white. He has a gap between his teeth when he smiles, I love that you can see that in this photo, it just really captures his spirit.

Ryan McGinley, Ryan & Marc (Kiss) 1999.

Ryan McGinley, Ryan & Marc (Kiss) (1999).

I had met the artist Marc Hundley through the fashion designer Ben Cho. Marc is a twin and I originally saw his brother Ian at an Alleged Gallery opening and thought he was cute. Ben said that Ian had a boyfriend but Marc was single and they were identical.

Marc was my first boyfriend, I was 21 years old and he was 27. He and his brother had a modeling career before we met, he knew all the cool fashion people around New York and Brooklyn. They had moved down from Toronto and lived in Williamsburg in the ’90s, and I was wildly in love with him. He was my first muse, I photographed him day and night with my point-and-shoot. I kept buying different colored sheets at the Salvation Army so it seemed like wee weren’t always just taking photos in my bed. I loved these red sheets because they felt so romantic.

It was important for me as a young queer artist to show two men kissing. Believe it or not there wasn’t much imagery like that around at the time. You can see Marc’s scar on his cheek in this photos, it’s a way to tell him and his identical brother apart.

Ryan McGinley, Sam Ground Zero (2001)

Ryan McGinley, Sam Ground Zero (2001)

This photo was taken on September 11th, 2001 in the evening, close to where the Twin Towers had fallen. I was woken up that morning by a librarian I was dating, he had recently moved to the city from the Midwest. A big group of friends were all out the night before at a fashion week party until 4 a.m., we had gone back to my apartment to sleep, so I had just gone to bed when he started buzzing. He ran up the five flights to my apartment and rushed through the door to tell me one tower had been struck by an airplane.

We went up to the roof to see what was going on. As were were on the roof the second plane had struck and there was even more smoke and we were all so confused as to what was happening. I walked downtown with Kunle Martins and Dan Colen to see everyone covered in ash, heading uptown or walking across the Williamsburg or Manhattan Bridges. Later that evening a group of us wanted to go help, so we rode our BMX bikes along the East River to the Financial District.

The photo is of my friend Sam who took his shirt off to cover his face from inhaling the dust were were bicycling through. They were starting to flood the streets with water to get rid of the ash as were were making our way over to Ground Zero to see how we could be helpful.

Ryan McGinley, New Year's Day (2001)

Ryan McGinley, New Year’s Day (2001).

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