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“Hide/Seek”

Thomas Eakins, Salutat, 1898, 50 x 40", oil on canvas.

THE NATIONAL PORTRAIT GALLERY’S “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” is an exhibition whose time has finally come. Or so I wrote several weeks ago, before events in Washington—just days before we go to press—came to lend my words a bitterly ironic cast. Gays and lesbians have become acceptable, as characters and as actors, on television shows (Queer as Folk, Will & Grace, The L Word) and in major films (Philadelphia, The Crying Game, Brokeback Mountain), as well as in popular music (Elton John, Ricky Martin, Lady Gaga), and the Internet has made every facet of gay culture readily available to anyone with a computer. With the culture wars of the 1980s and ’90s far behind us (or so we thought), an exhibition of a century of gay and lesbian portraiture in a national museum, though still an unlikely endeavor, had become possible. Since publicly funded museums in Washington, DC, represent the nation, the city’s interaction with the arts is a delicate, uneasy, troubling, but necessary waltz. The partners are politics and art, and each depends on the other for the dance. Politics is deeply present in “Hide/Seek,” but it has arrived in a nuanced form. We don’t see the in-your-face aggression of “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it” or the broadsides of ACT UP or Visual AIDS. The works in “Hide/Seek” instead present a century of coding, repression, and loss in ways that reflect the historical eras depicted. The works are rarely erotic. No significant backlash came the first month after the show’s opening on October 30.

Then, on November 30, conservative politicians—including the House’s presumptive Speaker, John Boehner, and future majority leader, Eric Cantor—stepped in, spurred to action by the Catholic League. They objected to an eleven-second snippet of David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly, 1987, in which ants are shown crawling on a crucifix. Wojnarowicz made the piece in memory of his lover, the artist Peter Hujar, who had died of AIDS that year. Taking the imagery out of context, the Catholic League claimed it was “designed to insult and inflict injury and assault on the sensibilities of Christians” and demanded its removal. Though the exhibition’s $750,000 cost was covered entirely by private donations, House Republicans called for an investigation into the entire Smithsonian Institution’s budget, implicitly threatening its financing. That same day, Martin E. Sullivan, the National Portrait Gallery’s director, was ordered by the Smithsonian, under whose aegis the NPG operates, to remove the work. Sadly, this act of institutional timidity threatens to overshadow the museum’s overall bravery in sponsoring the exhibition. When the gallery opened on December 1, World AIDS Day, Wojnarowicz’s video was gone. A day without art, indeed.

It would be hard to overstate the historical importance of “Hide/Seek.” Curated by Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward, the exhibition is not a parade of venerable gay and lesbian men and women who can be quickly recognized. It is an inventive, groundbreaking survey that requires careful study. Thankfully, the superbly designed catalogue will long outlive the show, which will not travel after it closes on February 13—or earlier, if House Republicans have their way.

To understand the importance of “Hide/Seek,” we must recall the political controversy in 1989 that caused Washington’s Corcoran Gallery of Art to cancel “The Perfect Moment,” Robert Mapplethorpe’s NEA-funded solo show, before it even opened. Most of the photographs to be displayed were portraits and still lifes of flowers that might have appeared in Vogue or Vanity Fair. But a few “transgressive” images depicting s/m gay sex so enraged politicians on the right that no major American institution dared mount an exhibition addressing gay and lesbian sexuality for nearly two decades.

New Yorkers should not smugly assert that the controversy demonstrated the difference between their sophistication and Washingtonians’ cultural backwardness. Though the Whitney Museum of American Art’s 1988 Mapplethorpe retrospective caused little stir, New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani deftly demonstrated a decade later that demagoguery also functions in the Northeast. When “Sensation,” a show of emerging British artists’ work, was mounted at the Brooklyn Museum in 1997, he claimed to be outraged by the inclusion of Chris Ofili’s The Holy Virgin Mary, 1996, which incorporated the artist’s signature material, elephant dung. In the case of the Mapplethorpe photos at the Corcoran, politicians were responding to graphic images that many viewers would find genuinely disturbing. Giuliani’s response to Ofili’s work reflected the mayor’s ignorance: Elephant dung in Nigeria, the artist’s native country, is sacred.

Curating a show (with Carolyn Carr) at the National Portrait Gallery in 1996, I experienced the fallout of the culture wars. The problem raised by my exhibition, “Rebels: Poets and Painters of the 1950s,” was not sexual identity but nudity. I proposed showing Larry Rivers’s iconic 1954 portrait of the poet Frank O’Hara. At a curatorial meeting, it was decided without discussion that O’Hara Nude with Boots could not be shown. More enigmatic was the exclusion of Wallace Berman’s very small nude photograph of the poet Michael McClure. I declined to collude in the bowdlerization of my show and announced that I would make the decision known to Allen Ginsberg, who was highly vocal about all forms of censorship. In the end, however, neither work appeared in the show. The then director of the National Portrait Gallery, Alan Fern, attended the opening but apparently had more pressing engagements than the huge symposium and poetry reading his institution was putting on the next day, featuring Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso, Robert Creeley, Kenneth Koch, and others. I couldn’t help thinking that he feared being called out for censoring the show. In Washington, bullets come from both sides. Rivers’s painting of O’Hara is now on view in “Hide/Seek,” along with another full-frontal male nude—by Andrew Wyeth, one of the most honored of American painters.

The approach to the show is serendipitous: After walking up a grand staircase to the second floor, visitors make their way through the august gallery of American presidents, passing through a small civil rights exhibition titled “The Struggle for Justice,” to arrive at “Hide/Seek.” Entering the mammoth exhibition, one first sees Thomas Eakins’s Salutat, 1898, an unapologetic appreciation of a boxer’s nearly nude figure, painted when homosexual was a rarely used term, and leaving the show one sees AA Bronson’s Felix, June 5, 1994, a work made well after “the love that dare not speak its name” had become a political movement.

AA Bronson, Felix, June 5, 1994, 1994/1999, 7' x 14', lacquer on vinyl.

The portraits in “Hide/Seek” have long been seen individually in museums, books, and magazines. They are now historicized in a rereading of art history by an elegant, even stately installation that moves in a chronological line from the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first. “Hide/Seek” is a dizzying array, comprising more than one hundred works. The artists, not all of whom are gay or lesbian, make up a veritable pantheon of American culture. On the “straight” side we see works by George Bellows, Marcel Duchamp, Eakins, Georgia O’Keeffe, Florine Stettheimer, and Andrew Wyeth. There are also openly gay artists such as Mapplethorpe, George Platt Lynes, Hujar, Marsden Hartley, and Andy Warhol. (It should be noted that this is a largely white show, with only a handful of African-American, Asian, and Latin American artists represented. Although exhibitions should not be parsed out by color, what does this suggest about gay and lesbian portraiture?) But “Hide/Seek” radically suggests that the bifurcation of sexual desire can be misleading or beside the point. At the closing of his meticulously researched catalogue essay, Katz writes, “In time, perhaps this book itself might be viewed as something akin to a survey expedition, a means of chronicling a species just prior to its disappearance.” His observation doesn’t refer to gay genocide but looks forward to the widespread acceptance of sexual multiplicity.

Along the way from “prehomosexual” to “post-Stonewall,” a few works in the show stand out. Paul Cadmus’s What I Believe, 1947–48, is a group portrait of forty-eight people; on the left side are gay men (E. M. Forster, Lincoln Kirstein, Christopher Isherwood, Jared French, and Cadmus, among others). The right side consists of mostly anonymous heterosexuals dominated by the tiny figure of Adolf Hitler. Cadmus’s elegant agitprop is one of the first portraits to present homosexuals as a community. Shortly after, one comes upon Jess’s collage The Mouse’s Tail, 1951–54, which presents one of the earliest overtly gay political images made by an American artist. Jess’s political statement could be easily overlooked were it not for the title, which directs the viewer to a small text on the lower left: I’LL BE JUDGE, I’LL BE JURY . . . I’LL TRY THE WHOLE CAUSE, AND CONDEMN YOU TO DEATH.

The exhibition’s most visually inventive works were made in the years before the Stonewall riots of June 1969, a period when hiding was necessary and strategies of seeking were ingenious (a red tie, a subscription to Physique Pictorial, references to a person being “on the team,” etc.). Post-Stonewall, the overt coding became more specific (e.g., the hanky code, used to signify not merely sexual preference but particular sexual desires).

The curators had, of course, to negotiate the sensitivities of living artists who wish to keep their sexual identities private. In the case of the legendarily reticent Jasper Johns, for instance, Katz and Ward decided his inclusion was essential, and one of the show’s most powerful passages presents gnomic “portraits” of his relationship with Robert Rauschenberg. Without explanatory wall labels, these portraits of lovers could not be understood as paintings of desire and lost love; few exhibitions rely so much on the explication of well-written wall labels. Without them, what the artist had hidden would not be seen.

The final work in the show, as noted earlier, is Bronson’s huge photograph of Felix Partz, who was part of the Conceptual art collective General Idea. Shot a few hours after Partz died of AIDS, it is the exhibition’s most shocking work, in its conflation of death and sexual identity. Bronson, the lone survivor of the collective, gathered Partz’s favorite objects (his tape recorder, remote control, and cigarettes) and laid them by his side on clashing, brightly patterned bedcovers. The photograph doesn’t permit Partz, or us, the aesthetic protection of a death mask. We are forced to confront the open eyes and wasted face of a once vital man.

This final work provides a place where one may linger, recalling those who have died—a place for memories of the past century of repression and liberation. What does the new century bring?

Steven Watson is the author of The Birth of The Beat Generation: Visionaries, Rebels, and Hipsters, 1944–1960 (Pantheon, 1995), among other titles.