Activist, art historian, educator and writer Jonathan D. Katz's new exhibit, "The First Homosexuals: Global Depictions of a New Identity, 1869-1930," will be available to see at Wrightwood 659, 659 W. Wrightwood Ave., on Fridays and Saturdays from Oct. 1 through Dec. 17.
Designed by Pritzker Prize-winning architect Tadao Ando, Wrightwood 659 is a private, non-collecting institution focused on socially engaged art and architecture. Katz's exhibition is presented by Alphawood Exhibitions, an Alphawood Foundation affiliate, at Wrightwood 659.
"The First Homosexuals is an international project of an incredible scale, which perfectly fulfills our mission of presenting novel, socially engaged exhibitions," said Alphawood Foundation Chicago Executive Director Chirag G. Badlani, himself a member of the LGBTQ+ community. "We are thrilled that the community can experience an important exhibition like this at Wrightwood 659given the content, it otherwise might not be seen."
Katz is currently a University of Pennsylvania Art History and Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies Associate Professor of Practice. He previously served as Yale University's Larry Kramer Initiative for Lesbian and Gay Studies executive coordinator, City College of San Francisco Lesbian and Gay Studies department chair and University of New York at Stony Brook Art History Department associate professor where he also taught queer studies.
While living in Chicago, Katz was involved in the queer politics of the time, including the effort to get a human-rights ordinance for gay men and lesbians passed in the city. He founded The Gay and Lesbian Town Meeting group in Chicago to work on getting that ordinance passed, which happened a decade later. Katz also worked for then-Mayor Harold Washington on queer issues.
Additionally, Katz was the first person to achieve tenured status in the United States in the field of LGBTQ studies. He also founded the Harvey Milk Institute and College Art Association's Queer Caucus for Art as well as co-founded Queer Nation San Francisco and was the National Queer Arts Festival in San Francisco's first artistic director.
When asked what other exhibits he has spearheaded, Katz said the most important one was "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture."
"This was the first major museum queer exhibition in the United States," said Katz. "That was at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery in 2010. Republicans attacked it and it became a national cause celeb because they wanted to censor a work by David Wojnarowicz that was featured in the exhibition because they claimed it was anti-Catholic." (Editor's note: Katz also curated "About Face: Stonewall, Revolt, and New Queer Art" at Wrightwood 659 in 2019.)
Now Katz is returning to Wrightwood 659 with this new, first-of-its-kind, LGBTQ+-focused exhibit. He decided to focus on the years 1869-1930 because the word "homosexual" was first used in 1869 to define gay and lesbian people, hence his exhibit title choice.
Katz told Windy City Times that being defined as a homosexual "was both a gift and a problem" for queer people during those years, depending on how the word affected their daily lives. For some, it clarified who they were and that was a benefit to them while for others their sexual possibilities were limited otherwise people would define them as a homosexual.
"The reason this is important is previously same-sex desire was understood not as a noun but as a verb," said Katz. "It was something you did, not something you are. What we are trying to do is assess what happens after the identity category was created and a group of people fell under that name. The important theoretical point I am trying to make is that as language grew increasingly strict and binary, the menu of sexual and gender possibilities that was open to everybody grew increasingly constricted. What resulted out of that is as language became increasingly impoverished regarding sexuality and gender, art took up the slack. Art started to represent all sorts of sexual possibilities that language could no longer understand or name."
More than 100 paintings, drawings, prints, photographs and film clips from queer artists or of queer subjects of portraiture will encompass an entire floor at Wrightwood.
"These works will be looked at not just in the Euro-American frame, but in a global frame," said Katz. "We are also assessing how, for example, following the lines of colonial domination European ideas were imposed over more local sexual definitions and names. What we have really is the first imaging of the first homosexuals. What is remarkable about this is some of these are among the most famous paintings among the most famous painters in their respective regions, but they have not been gathered under this rubric. The images are known, they just have not been interpreted in this way."
Some of the works that will be on display include "Salutat," by Thomas Eakins, which Katz argues is "one of the most homosexual of paintings;" what is believed to be one of Gerda Wegener's first trans paintings of her transgender/intersex spouse Lili Elbe, Sarah Bernhardt et Louise Abbéma sur le lac au Bois de Boulogne by Abbema; and the most famous Russian queer artist, Konstantin Somov, who sketched Cecile de Volanges in 1917 with his face melded into hers.
Katz and his associate curator/graduate student Johnny Willis teamed with 23 international scholars to put this exhibit together.
"This show resolutely demonstrates that we, as queer people, have a history, tooa rich, complex history that has been left out of the prevailing accounts of art history," said Willis. "Too often we hear the accusation that queer, trans, and non-binary identities are something 'new,' and thus something without a history. The exhibition shuts down any such allegation, resurfacing this 'lost' generation of modern LGBTQ ancestry."
One of the scholars is a Russian expert, Pavel Golubev, who had to flee the country due to his queer-focused work. Golubev moved to Ukraine and took a job as the Odesa National Fine Arts Museum curator until the war began early this year.
"I got very nervous that Pavel was going to get killed so I arranged through academic networks to get the scholar at risk program activated at the University of Pennsylvania," said Katz. "Pavel was approved and is now a Department of Art History visiting research scholar at the University."
"In the fall of 2020, Jonathan invited me to be a part of his scholars' team," said Golubev. "I thought it was an excellent opportunity to generalize a significant mass of paintings, drawings and sculptures that referred to the themes of same-sex desire. The queer art history of Russia, Ukraine, Belarus and former Middle Asian Soviet republics has yet to be written. It was complicated to imagine maintaining such research in Russia, where I lived at that moment, because the results would hardly be visible there, especially in the form of the exhibition.
"At the same time, I believed that these artworks, generally unknown to the common public, could be curious to the global audience interested in the theme of homosexuality in art. We expect to bring seven works from the Odesa National Fine Arts Museum collection to this upcoming exhibit, despite all the complications of wartime."
Another, more comprehensive, Katz-curated LGBTQ-focused exhibit will take place at Wrightwood 659 in 2025 featuring 250 masterworks. The reason for both exhibits is because most major museums have slowed or stopped their lending programs due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so he was unable to get all the works he wanted for this current exhibit.
"The 2025 exhibition will be utterly revelatory and take up all three floors of the Wrightwood 659," said Katz. "It is going to be one of the largest queer exhibitions ever mounted and will bring in work from over 70 countries. It is one of the few places you will see Uzbek queer art from the early 20th century."
Katz said the upcoming show is vital because sexuality is still an "unspoken category in museum exhibitions" even though it is depicted everywhere in the artworld. He urged the museum world to "get on the ball and start [focusing] to this."
"I think this exhibition will begin to open up or underscore the way in which our language of binaries is way too delimited and poor of frame to understand the complexities of human behavior," said Katz. "What this show does, and what art is great at because it does not have to use language, is depict all these variations. You will see therefore a range of possibilities of gender and sexual desire that our language does not have words for."
Note: Wrightwood 659 requires all staff and guests to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Visitors will be required to show proof of vaccination and booster via their official vaccine card or a photo of that card along with a matching photo ID. Any individual who does not meet these requirements will not be permitted to enter the building. Children who are not fully vaccinated or who are ineligible for vaccination cannot be admitted to the building. Masks will continue to be required throughout the gallery; read the rules at wrightwood659.org/terms-and-conditions/health-safety/ .
Note: this exhibition contains sexually explicit content and is for mature audiences only.
The gallery's hours of operation are Fridays from noon to 7 p.m. and Saturdays 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The $15 per person tickets for this exhibit must be purchased in advance and online only at tickets.wrightwood659.org/events. Walk-ups will not be permitted.