Now that the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" dust appears to be settled, the hottest LGBT visibility issue in the nation's Capitol may well be the controversy surrounding an exhibit at the Smithsonian. Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, running at the National Portrait Gallery since October ( through Feb. 13, 2011 ) , has been playing to a chorus of protests. The Calamus Foundation, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, The Robert Maplethorpe Foundation, Inc. and a handful of others privately fund and support the exhibition, catalogue and additional programs.
A recent New York Times editorial, "Bullying and Censorship," and an op-ed piece by Frank Rich, "Gay Bashing at the Smithsonian," detail the threats raised by House Republicans and the Catholic League over a piece included in the accompanying public programming of related mixed media. The result was the Smithsonian's withdrawal of the offending 1987 video clip by artist David Wojnarowicz generated by his friend Peter Hujar's battle with HIV. Both men have since died of AIDS.
The brouhaha may give added impetus to the main exhibit of "Hide/Seek"200-plus paintings and photographs"the first major museum exhibition to chart the influence of gay and lesbian artists on modern American portraiture." The accompanying catalog by David C. Ward, with a masterly 60-page introductory essay by art historian Jonathan D. Katz, is spectacular in its own right. Perusing the oversize book, filled with reproductions of works that have become icons of lesbian and gay visual art, was like visiting old friends.
- In July 1985 I presented a slide show, "Image/Artist: the Homosexual in Visual Arts," at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as part of the programming at the Annual Conference of the American Library Association. Included in that show was photographer Berenice Abbott's 1927 image of New Yorker columnist Janet Flanner decked out for a costume party in top hat adorned with black and white masks that now graces the dust jacket of "Hide/Seek." Also included were advertising art by Chicagoan J. C. Leyendecker, whose ubiquitous images of the "Arrow Shirt man" were the advertising icons of the 1930s. He is represented in "Hide/Seek" by an oil painting of two such attired men in a domestic tableau, reading a newspaper and book, respectively.
- One of Marsden Hartley's abstracts, "Portraits of a German Officer"his paintings in tribute to his lover, Kurt von Freyburg, who was killed in WWIwas included in both shows. Abstraction was his choice of artistic closet, not only for his love but because his subject was an "enemy." Tee A. Corinne's solarized photos from the series "Yantras of Womanlove" and the "lesbianized" film stills from 1940s moviesinto which photographer Deborah Bright interposes her own image in her "Dream Girls" series, along with two dozen other images from the 1985 showare also represented in the current exhibition.
The images in the book "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" by Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward ( Smithsonian Books, 2010, $45 ) many in full color, are accompanied by brief, scholarly accurate but palatable histories of the work and the artist. The usual suspects are, of course, included: Robert Mappplethorpe, Keith Haring, Annie Leibovitz ( with her striking photograph of Ellen DeGeneres in clown face ) , Jasper Johns, Catherine Opie, Nan Goldin, David Hockney and Paul Cadmus, to name a few. In addition to LGBT subjects and artists, presumably straight artists are also represented when portraying homoerotic subjectsfor example, Andrew Wyeth's "The Clearing" ( a blond male nude in a golden wheat field ) . An unexpected image is that of an advertisement from the Sept. 22, 1928, issue of the Chicago Defender promoting Ma Rainey's Prove It On Me Blues.
In addition to the Katz introduction, Ward has written overview essays on the six sections of the exhibition: Before Difference, 1870-1918; New Geographies/New Identities; Abstraction; Postwar America: Accommodation and Resistance; Stonewall and More Modern Identities; and Postmodernism, with commentary on individual works.
- Some comment must be made on the quality of the reproductions in the color plates. While they far exceed the images projected on the 20' X 30' screen at the AIC in 1985, some are limited by process. For instance, artist Romaine Brooks ( whose oeuvre is held by the Smithsonian, donated by her lover, Natalie Clifford Barney ) is represented by several canvases, including the iconic portrait of the monocled Lady Una Troubridge, lover of the fabled author Radclyffe Hall, shown with their two daschunds. The reproduction of her portrait of Harlem Renaissance figure Carl Van Vechten barely picks up the "primitive" figures in the black background behind his very white suit. Brooks' self-portrait does not fare even that well. Painted in various shades of black and gray, it comes off very flat in the book. In 2000, the Smithsonian mounted an exhibition "Amazons in he Drawing Room: The Art of Romaine Brooks." After its initial showing at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, Washington D.C. it moved to the University of California, Berkley Art Museum where I had the pleasure of viewing her paintings from less than two feet away, at eye level. Her 1923 portrait was alive with textures, the leather of her gloves, the soft coat, the hat with a silk band and a finely delineated featherall in varying blacks and grays that are not discernibly differentiated in the current photograph. The photograph in the book by Whitney Chadwick which accompanied the "Amazons in the Drawing Room" ( University of California Press, 2000 ) exhibition is more detailed, but still cannot touch the original.
As with all art, it is preferable to see the works in person; but should that not be possible, the Katz/Ward book "Hide/Seek" is a more than adequate alternative. And the text, documenting the artists, subjects, and their place in various art movements makes it a superior document adding to the history of our contributions to the wider culture. The current bowing to censorship, reminds me of the posthumous censorship by the Corcoran Gallery in D.C. of a proposed 1989 traveling exhibition of Robert Mapplethorpe works after complaints by the NEA and politicos, and the circulation of pirated photocopies of Tee A. Corinne's Cunt Coloring Book drawings that were passed around to senators in the effort to derail the ambassadorial nomination of James Hormel during the Clinton administration. The LGBT culture wars begun decades ago in this country are far from over.
Copyright 2010 by Marie J. Kuda