When the Smithsonian Institution had the courage this year to place in the National Portrait Gallery this exhibition HIDE/SEEK: DIFFERENCE AND DESIRE IN AMERICAN PORTRAITURE the art world applauded. The exhibition aimed to describe how gender and identity could be traced far back in the country's history of creating American portraiture and in doing so break some barriers of controversy that have dissipated with the passage of time. The exhibition was conceived and well-mounted by Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward with the idea of combining a timeline of art history within the framework of the same-sex desire from the 'Victorian' era of the turn of the century through the changes accompanying the feminist movement, Stonewall and subsequent gay liberation through the AIDS plague (and the country's response) to the present. Given the fact that Congress has now finally repealed the 'don't ask, don't tell' military restriction it would seem this exhibition is thoughtfully timely. Sadly the spectre of censorship - removing David Wojnarowicz's video "A Fire in My Belly" that momentarily shoed ants crawling over the belly of an inexpensive Mexican crucifix - has diminished the statement of courage made by one of our most important national museums, numbing the impact of the importance of this extraordinary collection of American portrait art.
Thanks to the publication of this rather impressive catalogue for the exhibition, the ideas within the exhibition are now preserved for history. The greeting work as the doors open in the National Portrait Gallery is the beautiful 'Salutat' by Thomas Eakins, a large painting of a near nude male saluting his appreciative all male audience - one of the many works where Eakins depicted his same sex stance in a society that condemned such of his paintings as his famous 'Swimming'. Other artists with like inclinations are included - Marsden Hartley, Charles Demuth, Romaine Brooks, George Bellows, Winslow Homer, Grant Wood, F. Holland Day, JC Leyendecker, John Singer Sargent, Georgia O'Keefe, Paul Cadmus, Jasper Johns , Robert Rauschenberg, Andrew Wyeth, Andy Warhol, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Catherine Opie, Robert Mapplethorpe, Larry Rivers, Cy Twombly, Frank O'Hara, Agnes Martin, Ellsworth Kelly, Lucas Samaras, Lyle Ashton Harris, Jerome Caja, Alice Neel, David Hockney, Anthony Goicolea, Annie Leibovitz, and many others, including, of course, David Wojnarowicz!
The well researched and well written essays by Katz and Ward relate by word and accompanying images that the artists from the early part of the 20th century treated questions of sexuality as 'fluid, hiding reality behind the demands of society at that time...occupying a safe state of marginality. Their resistance to society's attempt to proscribe them forced them to develop new visual vocabularies by which to code, disguise, and thereby express their subjects' identities--and also their own.'
As the exhibition continues to the present there are many very important works that demonstrate the courage of the creators in a society that is beginning to cope with differences in gender identity. This is an historically important exhibition and the accompanying catalogue is a substantial addition to both art history and gender studies. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp, December 10
on September 7, 2015
An extraordinary exhibit and book. A first in American history. The contributions of Gay people to art and culture through the visual arts. It names names, shows images and explains the encoded relations depicted in photography, painting, graphic arts, music and film. Highly controversial because of our homophobic society and culture this is a ground breaking event in the history of publishing and a coup for the National Portrait Gallery that broke the mold of conservatism's death grip on the arts with this exhibition and book. Kudos to David Ward and Jonathan D. Katz.
on February 4, 2011
I have seen this exhibition three times now at the Smithsonian American Art Museum [Oops! There's an artwork of Earl Butz in the next room, it's the Portrait Gallery!] now, and had time to peruse some of the catalogue, and strangely the most insightful thing I can say about it came from a bit of serendipity. As I was leaving today, the famous and uncompromising gay activist Larry Kramer was arriving to see the show, apparently for the first time. He said to friend, with notable surprise, "Oh, it's a lot." To which his friend responded quickly "Yea, it's big." I would have liked to have heard more of his take on the matter, but fortuitously, I think he had already summed- up the real virtue of the effort. Namely that it is clearly a very big celebration of sorts of gay art, and there is a whole mess of it in a very prestigious and important spot. I am quite sure this could not have occurred under the reign of the Smirking Chimp, George W. Bush. So there is progress in life, and we should celebrate it, and be grateful for it. But excuse me if this sounds like the art-critical princess and the pea, but though there is a lot of great art in the show, due to the hugeness of it, there is also correspondingly, a lot that is not. This is an art museum after all, not an historical museum, and even under the attenuated aesthetic of the "Portrait Gallery", something is really lacking in the choice. The catalogue, from what I could bring myself to read seems to have invited a heuristic very common today. Namely, one that puts sheer aesthetic matters secondary to artistic concerns. This explains why though there are great Hartleys and Brooks and Demuths, there are also a mass of really weak pictures, which could not hold my interest even on a third go-around. And I am predisposed to like it. It kind of reminds me what I told my now-legal-husband over twenty years ago when I was, I think, the first person at a major newspaper in the country (the Washington Post) to do a music review of a local Gay Men's Chorus. I swore to him that unless it was really, incredibly terrible I was not going to write anything but a rave about it, just out of solidarity for "my people". Well, the incredibly bad impinged on my swear, and after one very painful Broadway medley I had to be a teensy bit honest to keep my own self-respect. Mutatis mutandis, so much of the art in the show can be dressed up by earnest rhetoric as meaning this or that, which I might utterly agree with in the abstract, but the more basic matter cannot be avoided. Simply put, they could easily have found a more consistent artistic level from gay artists than this. Easily. And when they do score, as with the monumental picture by George Bellows, which would be great whether it is from a gay artist or someone commenting on a sort-of gay theme, the commentary verges, unfortunately, on a bit ont the unintentionally creepy. They quite annoyingly highlight how the figure of the full-dressed dandy figure looking at all the naked youths in this bathing scene suggests some oblique social point, but it only seems vaguely skeezy, lecherous as a vibe. What a shame, and a mistake. But what a great picture! (And why wasn't it up when we visited the Columbus Museum of Art a few years ago! Was it hidden away purposely habitually?) It is much better to dwell on the profound background of this Bellows' picture in Cezanne's male bathers, or even Puvis de Chauvanne, which the picture really does evoke. But, I'll cease my griping and just thank the organizers for putting on such a remarkable show with some excellent highlights, and a very noble overall purpose! And note how wonderful that it all takes place right across from the Family Research Council, which is across the street from the American Art Museum! [Oh, there's that ravishing painting of Denyce Graves, this is the Portrait Gallery!]