Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name



Art History


Claire Bishop

Committee Members

Sean Edgecomb

Wayne Koestenbaum

Amber Musser

Branden Joseph

Subject Categories

Contemporary Art


New York City, performance, pastiche, drag, camp


This dissertation theorizes “queer maximalism” as an aesthetic of unmitigated flamboyance and voracious drag that appears in a constellation of performance-based artistic practices in the postwar United States. Queer maximalism brings together a historically grounded group of performers primarily based in New York City who have been variously described as theatrical, baroque, and Ridiculous and repositions them within an art-historical frame. Identifying drag and pastiche as central to queer maximalism, I show how artists salvage, assemble, and re-signify pop-cultural imagery, inflecting it with camp in order to fashion intimate community and openly flout societal norms of gender, race, and sexuality.

Drag is central to an aesthetic of queer maximalism. Chapter 1 theorizes drag as “embodied pastiche” through analysis of the performances of Jack Smith (1932–1989), Charles Ludlam (1943–1987), and John Kelly (b. 1959). Each artist appropriates, collages, and assembles camp-inflected cultural signs producing animate pastiches that effectively destabilize gender binaries (in what is known as “genderfuck” drag). Chapter 2 turns to dance, analyzing how these same compositional strategies animate the flamboyant choreographies of Fred Herko (1936–1964), James Waring (1922–1975), and Willi Ninja (1961–2006); and the dance-video collaborations of Charles Atlas (b. 1949), Michael Clark (b. 1962), and Leigh Bowery (1961–1994). In reference to Robert Rauschenberg’s assemblages, these works are grouped under the rubric of “combine-dances.”

Chapter 3 argues that duration and nonnarrativity in the films of Jack Smith and Andy Warhol serve as a foil for the appearance of a queer maximalist persona, the “superstar.” Smith’s films direct audience attention to the way his non-actors perform, while the Warholian superstar Jackie Curtis (1947–1985) exhibits a continuity of performance between on- and off-screen. In a more participatory mode, the lengthy performance sets of San Francisco-based troupe The Cockettes (1969–1972) produce a queer communal self-fashioning.

Finally, Chapter 4 offers three case studies from the 1980s that expand the idea of embodied pastiche beyond gender: Black and Latinx performers associated with Ballroom cultural who appropriate and refashion signifiers of racial capitalism; London-based nightlife denizen Leigh Bowery, who accumulates and modifies an array of references through abstraction; and the linguistic gymnastics of Carmelita Tropicana, the alter ego of Alina Troyano (b. 1951), who shifts queer maximalism from a visual to a verbal aesthetic register.

The dissertation ends in the time and place of AIDS, positing a tonal shift in queer performance of the early 1990s from campy queer boredom to frenetic, manic desperation as queer performers of all genders reckoned with the AIDS crisis.

This work is embargoed and will be available for download on Tuesday, September 30, 2025

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