“THIS GAY AMERICAN LIFE, IN CODE OR IN YOUR FACE”
by Roberta Smith
[This review ran in the New York Times on 17 November 2011. It covers the opening of the now-famous exhibition HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture which ran at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington from October 2010 through February 2011 and ran into controversy when the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights objected to a video by artist David Wojnarowicz and after CL president Bill Donohue enlisted several prominent conservative politicians and activists to protest the short film. The Smithsonian removed the video from the exhibition, a collection of portraits by gay and lesbian artists from the turn of the last century through the first decade of this one, raising the ire of artists and First Amendment activists across the country. As readers of ROT will know by now, I am as near a First Amendment absolutist as you can get; I published “The First Amendment & The Arts” on 8 May 2010 and “David Wojnarowicz” on 15 March 2011 (which included commentary on the Smithsonian censorship of the exhibit). Several museums and galleries across the country and even abroad elected to take HIDE/SEEK intact, including Wojnarowicz’s video, in a kind of art-world rebuke of the Smithsonian Institution’s action. On 18 November, the Brooklyn Museum of Art (no stranger to controversy itself) opened the exhibit, which will be on view until 12 February 2012.
[I’m combining Roberta Smith’s short piece below with an editorial from the National Coalition Against Censorship which ran in the Spring 2010 issue of Censorship News, NCAC’s newsletter. Others who sounded off on the issue were People for the American Way and the Association of Art Museum Directors.]
“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” a diligent exhibition centering on 20th-century portraits and self-portraits of or by gay artists, is now at the Brooklyn Museum, and it is more or less intact. Which is to say that once again, nearly a year after it was first mounted at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, it includes “A Fire in My Belly,” a four-minute excerpt from a video made in 1986-87 by David Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS in 1992, at 37.
Early in its run at the Portrait Gallery, “Hide/Seek” was abruptly divested of the Wojnarowicz (pronounced voy-nah-ROH-vitch) video, whose spliced-together imagery reads as a sometimes furious pictorial lament about human suffering. A brief close-up showing ants crawling frantically over a small plastic crucifix offended Republicans in Congress, who made threatening noises about the Smithsonian’s financing. G. Wayne Clough, the Smithsonian’s director, evidently agreeing that art should never offend anyone, immediately had the video removed from the show. (He later indicated that he regretted acting so quickly, which was small comfort.) That video, along with the longer version from which it had been excerpted by the show’s organizers, became widely available on the Internet, and was in all likelihood viewed by many, many more people than saw the actual show.
Another result of the contretemps is that “Hide/Seek,” which was originally not scheduled to travel, has been reassembled and brought to Brooklyn, almost in its original form. (A handful of the loans could not be renewed.) In March it will travel to the Tacoma Art Museum in Washington State.
There are plenty of criticisms to be made of the exhibition, which was organized by Jonathan D. Katz, an art historian at the University at Buffalo, part of the State University of New York, and David C. Ward, a historian at the National Portrait Gallery. It is more a sketchy overview than a thorough exploration of its subject, clinging too closely to established names, from Thomas Eakins to Robert Gober, with Marsden Hartley, Grant Wood, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, David Hockney, Agnes Martin and Keith Haring in between.
With a couple of exceptions, there is almost no work from the last decade, when art by avowedly queer artists, especially women, continued to flourish. And the material that is included often seems tame and mild-mannered when stronger stuff is available. The American modernist Charles Demuth (1883-1935) made vibrant watercolors of sailors dancing together, one of which is represented here, but he also portrayed sailors engaged in more explicitly erotic activities. Demuth felt compelled to keep nearly all his sailor images out of sight during his lifetime. More than 75 years after his death, it would seem to be time for Demuth’s more risqué efforts to be seen in museums.
Still, this show is a historic event. It is the first major museum exhibition to focus on homosexuality and to trace some of the ways that same-sex desire — and unconventional notions of masculinity and femininity in general — have been manifested in early Modern, Modern and postmodern American art, as evinced primarily in portraiture. It was organized not by a big private museum with lots of resources but by a national institution whose purview as a portrait gallery is relatively narrow and implicitly conservative. Like many events that are the first of their kind, it feels both overdue and a little behind the times.
In his essay in the catalog Mr. Katz makes it clear that the exhibition’s parade of familiar names is quite deliberate. “Our goal is not to challenge the register of great American artists, but rather to underscore how sexuality informed their practice in the ways we routinely accept for straight artists,” he writes. In other words, this register, like most other sectors of American life, is already full of, and actively shaped by, individuals who do not conform to the heterosexual norm. The show sets out to look at their already recognized achievements through the lens of non-straight sexuality, and also to tell something of their stories as it goes.
And it is very much a storytelling show, with works carefully parsed, lives outlined and various circles of friends indicated in extended labels. In Romaine Brooks’s stylishly mannish self-portrait, painted in 1923; in Berenice Abbott’s 1927 photograph of the writer Janet Flanner wearing a white top hat appended with two masks, one white and one black; and in Abbott’s photograph, also from 1927, of a relatively demure Betty Parsons, future art dealer of the Abstract Expressionists, we see vivid portrayals of what a label calls the “elite expatriate lesbian society” that flourished in Paris between the wars.
With Florine Stettheimer’s saintly, androgynous portrait of Marcel Duchamp, who had himself photographed by Man Ray in drag as Rrose Sélavy, we glimpse a friendship played out in the New York salon of Stettheimer and her sisters, “a space,” according to the label, “where sexuality remained fluid, ambiguous and largely unspoken, yet at the center of social roles.”
The tensions of being gay in straight society are insinuated in works like Grant Wood’s 1930 “Arnold Comes of Age,” a portrait of a pensive young man against a sparse landscape where two male nudes frolic in the distance. And there are occasional bravely open declarations, like the tender male couples among the mostly nude crowd of Paul Cadmus’s latter-day history painting “What I Believe,” of 1947-48.
Some works are fascinating period pieces, among them Brooks’s 1936 portrait painting of the photographer Carl Van Vechten, a white married man, known for his role in the Harlem Renaissance, who also went uptown to cruise young black men. Perhaps this is why Brooks embedded five shadowy black heads in the back of the looming armchair in which Van Vechten sits.
Other works are cornerstones of American modernism, including Hartley’s “Painting No. 47, Berlin” (1914-15), the roiling semi-abstraction of signs, symbols and a plumed helmet with which the artist commemorated the love of his life, a young German officer who was killed in the first months of World War I.
As the exhibition moves forward, it touches many stones, even if it doesn’t completely turn them over. Works by Mr. Johns, Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg represent a distinct break with the machismo of Abstract Expressionism, while continuing the coded references to same-sex relationships that prevailed in earlier generations. The gray tone and implicitly distraught mood of Mr. Johns’s 1961 “In Memory of My Feelings — Frank O’Hara” in which a fork and a spoon dangle from a wire like a metaphor for upended, dysfunctional domesticity, commemorate the end of his relationship with Rauschenberg. It takes its title from a poem by O’Hara, who is visible nearby in a full-length nude portrait by Larry Rivers and a clothed one by Alice Neel in which he is shown in profile, against a profusion of lavender lilac blossoms.
The references to sexuality are often more pointed in the show’s final third, where most of the work is from the post-Stonewall era, and photography is the dominant medium. It registers in the efforts of older artists like Lucas Samaras, shown vamping with a blond wig in 18 of his Auto-Polaroids of 1970-71. Among younger artists’ work, Robert Mapplethorpe’s 1979 photograph “Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter” shows two men in black leather and chains in their antiques-filled living room.
Yet even here the exhibition pulls its punches and glosses over a bit of history by avoiding the more sexually explicit Mapplethorpe images that did so much to set off the cultural wars of the early 1990s. Peter Hujar documents the prickly, high-flying dignity of Ethyl Eichelberger in drag, but also the more subtle androgyny of Susan Sontag in thoughtful repose, an image more in keeping with Abbott’s photograph of Betty Parsons. Catherine Opie’s images of male-identified women are bracingly confrontational.
The specter of AIDS and its politicizing effects are visible in Wojnarowicz’s video and even more in his 1990 photograph “Untitled (Face in Dirt),” which shows his face almost completely buried in dusty earth. It was made three years after Hujar, whose friendship had been Wojnarowicz’s salvation, died of AIDS, and several months before he learned that he himself had H.I.V. It depicts him, as the label puts it, “at once disappearing peacefully into the American landscape and being violently suffocated by it.”
By the time you reach this point in “Hide/Seek” and look back over the immense amount of art and social history that has been covered, and the lives and personalities brought into sharper focus, you may be inclined to forgive the show’s deficiencies and oversights and its general air of caution. It is trying to win converts, after all. It is a significant beginning to which the most fitting reaction may simply be: Good enough. Now, more, more, more.
“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” runs through Feb. 12 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, at Prospect Park; (718) 638-5000, brooklynmuseum.org.
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“CULTURE WARS RETURNING? OR DID THEY EVER GO AWAY?”
In the fall of 2010 culture wars rhetoric seemed like a thing of the past, remembered alongside attacks on the National Endowment for the Arts and Congressional saber-rattling about “offensive” art. What a difference twenty years made: the National Portrait Gallery in Washington was mounting Hide/Seek, a show on queer portraiture in art, and Congress was voting to repeal the military’s repressive “don’t ask don’t tell” policy. It almost appeared as if the old cultural battle-axes had been buried.
And then the firestorm hit. As in so many earlier cases, it was ignited by the press, in this case CNSNews.com, fueled by religious groups, in this case the offense-hounds from the Catholic League, and inflamed as a result of political threats to cut the institution’s funding. Smithsonian Secretary W. G. Clough, demonstrating a fatally low melting point, immediately requested that one of the works in Hide/Seek be removed – a sacrificial victim, according to Clough, to save the show from further attacks and soften the hearts of Republicans in their next discussion of the Institution’s funding.
Congressional critics may have been temporarily appeased, but their appetite for cultural slaughter was only whetted: the moment a new Congress convened in January a rejuvenated GOP was again threatening to slash funding for the NEA, National Endowment for the Humanities and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. While the threats have not been carried out, they serve as a clear reminder that public display of “controversial” art is a risky business.
Deepening the sense of déjà vu, protests among members of the art world and LGBT activists outraged by the Smithsonian’s censorship replayed the passions inspired by 1990s political attacks on the arts. But what had been going on in the last decade? Have the culture vigilantes been sleeping only to be jarred awake by the invasion of the venerable Smithsonian by gays and lesbians? That, in spite of appearances, is not the case:
Only a month before the controversy over Hide/Seek hit the news-cycle, a print by Enrique Chagoya – accused of being offensive to Catholics – was physically attacked and destroyed in Colorado after city councilmen abandoned the effort to have the work removed when they realized that would violate the First Amendment. Even more recently California government officials removed a painting of a nude from a show of work by local artists, and an hour-long video installation was switched off during prime viewing hours in a Texas art space because of concerns that teens might be exposed to a few minutes of sexually suggestive images.
Such incidents, sometimes involving nudity, sometimes religion or politics, hide behind the (pregnant) lull that is periodically punctuated by national censorship firestorms. The censors have not gone away: they have just relocated. Censorship rarely brings artists national fame. More often it confronts them with the mundane reality of petty politics and public officials’ fear of controversy. When an incident gains national exposure everybody becomes a free speech warrior, but few have the patience to deal with everyday censorship. Yet those are the real battles that define our culture.
For more on the Hide/Seek controversy, and NCAC’s activities in response, visit http://ncac.org/visual_art. While you’re, check out all the other art censorship controversies that didn’t make front page news or inspire national protests.
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[When I published “David Wojnarowicz” on ROT, I appended a rather short description of HIDE/SEEK at the Portrait Gallery, which I saw on a vist to Washington that winter. In the interest of completeness, I’ll publish a slightly edited version of that brief report here.]
To be honest, I don’t have a lot to say about HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture. First of all, between the reviews in the New York Times (“Sexuality in Modernism: The (Partial) History,” 11 Dec. 2010, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/11/arts/design/11hide.html) and the Washington Post (“National Portrait Gallery's 'Hide/Seek' finds a frame for sexual identity,” 5 Nov. 2010, http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/11/04/AR2010110407182.html), the critics, Holland Cotter and Blake Gopnik respectively, said anything I might have and I find I have little to add. Second, the show was very large: 105 pieces covering the end of the 19th century through the first decade of the 21st—essentially a history of 20th-century gay portraiture. Third, since most of the works were photographs and I’m not enamored of art photography, I can’t really comment critically on the art. Generally, however, I agree with Cotter that the exhibit was focused on “stars” and “Hall-of-Fame” art, but since I’m less familiar with this field than he is, that didn’t bother me so much. I was glad to see some of the Thomas Eakinses, Romare Beardons, Jasper Johnses, and Andy Warhols, even if I might also have been awakened to new possibilities if less-well-known artists’ portraits had been displayed. As it was, I didn’t know the work of such artists as Romaine Brooks, Cass Bird, or Minor White anyway, so I was introduced to new artistic experiences anyway. The controversy over A Fire in My Belly notwithstanding, though, I ended up feeling that the sheer volume of work in HIDE/SEEK made it hard for me to see the overall point of the exhibit. Cotter phrased this as “Work of gay artists was fundamental to the invention of American modernism” or “Difference had created the mainstream” and Gopnik expressed the idea as “Being gay—or being straight and paying close attention to the twists of gender and desire—makes you a better, more careful observer”; but in the welter of photographs, drawings, paintings, videos, and one or two sculptures, what I carried away was that here was a collection of intriguing work by even more intriguing artists. (I also found, like I did at the wonderful Dada exhibit some years ago [the report was published on ROT on 20 February 2010], that I had to read all or most of the panels accompanying the portraits because, one, I knew so little about the work and, two, it was all so interesting and revealing.) There were some real surprises, like Men Reading (1914) by commercial illustrator Joseph Christian Leyendecker. Approaching the painting of two young, handsome men, impeccably dressed, it’s immediately reminiscent of the classic Arrow Shirt ads, and it was fascinating to learn that Leyendecker was, in fact, the designer of that ad campaign—the painting was the original ad—and that one of the men, who in context are obviously a gay couple, was modeled from the artist’s own partner. Ironically, a few of the items in the exhibit weren’t great or even good art; their inclusion in the show owed more to their message or, if you will, political impact than their artistic quality. The show was sometimes more about history than aesthetics. The excision of the Wojnarowicz video echoed and underscored that. One other point came out from HIDE/SEEK: The presence of works by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, a clandestine couple in the middle of the last century, seems to say that self-identification as gay has become more openly acceptable since Johns permitted his work to appear here (Rauschenberg died in 2008) as a sign that what once had to be hidden now didn’t have to be. Sadly, the message of the administration of the gallery and the Smithsonian is that some things still have to be.
[I mentioned parenthetically that the BMA had previously been the subject of an attempt at censorship which it defeated on the basis of the freedom of speech and artistic expression. In 1999, after the opening of Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection at the Brooklyn Museum (2 October 1999-9 January 2000), New York City Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (in office, 1994-2001) joined with several other critics to denounce the exhibit publicly, focusing particularly on one work, The Holy Virgin Mary by Chris Ofili (1968- ), which the critics declared was anti-Catholic because the artist used elephant dung among his media. Ofili, a British artist of Nigerian heritage, explained that the painting was intended as a homage and that elephant dung in his African culture is considered sacred. Ignoring the artist’s explanations, Giuliani and his supporters tried to close Sensation, which was in a city-supported museum, and when their efforts were thwarted, the mayor tried to have the museum evicted from the city-owned building it has occupied for over a century. All these efforts failed, but on 3 April 2001, Giuliani announced the appointment of a “decency panel” that was intended to advise the mayor’s office on the display of art in city museums and other public spaces. The move was roundly denounced by First Amendment advocates and supporters of free artistic expression, but the panel was named anyway. (It was disbanded by Giuliani’s successor, Michael Bloomberg, who took office on 1 January 2002.)]