“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” currently on view (in part) at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., has been called “Virulent,” “vile,” “strident,” “decadent,” by Mr. William Donohue, spokesperson for The Catholic League Republicans Rep. John Boehner of Ohio, and congressman, Eric Cantor of Virginia called for the show to close down entirely. By their own admission, not one of these critics has seen the exhibit, which consists of 105 works and spans more than a century of art and culture.
“Hide/Seek” considers the long-ignored role of sexual difference in the depiction of modern Americans. It seeks to show how artists have explored the definition of sexuality and gender at certain points in our history. And it considers how major themes in modern art—especially abstraction—were influenced by the position of gay and lesbian artists in American society,” according to the exhibition notes. Blue-chip artists like Jasper Johns, Annie Leibovitz, Robert Mapplethorpe, Georgia O’Keeffe, Robert Rauschenberg, John Singer Sargent, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Andy Warhol, and Grant Wood created many of the images. Some powerful lesbian artists not not included, like Maria Martinez Cruz, Nicole Eisenman, Louise Fishman, and Joan Snyder. This may be because their subject matter is not directly gender-related.
All of the works have been shown before. Curators David Ward and Jonathan David Katz explained to me they were tired of seeing, as Katz said, “Museum after museum where they don’t mention the partners, the autobiography, the question of gender and sexuality. It’s hiding in plain sight, yet no one has put it together.”
Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough ordered the 11-minute excerpt from David Wojnarowicz’s video The Fire in My Belly (which originally ran 30 minutes) removed from the exhibit under pressure from the aforementioned critics. He acted over the objections of both curators, citing objections to the image of Christ on a decaying crucifix, overrun by ants. Ironically perhaps, Wojnarowicz’s work addresses the failure of many Christians to act with compassion during the early years of the AIDS epidemic. The work was also protested in a 1999 of the artist’s work, organized by Dan Cameron at the New Museum.
“Hide/Seek” starts in the 19th Century with an 1892 photograph of Walt Whitman taken by a straight-identifying man, Thomas Eakins. It includes Eakins’s 1898 picture, Salutat, an embodiment of homoerotic desire in the figure of an almost nude young fighter on his way to the ring. And there are a few nice surprises, for example, three stunning portraits by the lesbian expatriate artist Romaine Brooks, whose fascinating self-portrait from 1923 is a ravishing display of chromatic harmonies in gray. Contrary to common opinion she is not cross-dressing in men’s clothes. This fashionable Belle Brummell designed her high hat and black lapelled suit by herself. Another gem is Grant Wood’s sensitive portrait of his 21-year-old studio assistant Arnold Pyle (1930) with a butterfly hovering near him and two bathers in the background.
This show provides a critique of contemporary arrangements in society and culture from the standpoint of the marginalized and makes a significant contribution to provide a critique of contemporary arrangements in education contexts, particularly from the standpoint of the marginalized and attempts to offer an alternative to the dominant homophobic models that dominate the history of American art and culture, especially the portrait tradition. The resulting controvery demonstrates that the works have a new—or at least unrevisited—relevancy, following the 1980s culture wars.