The exhibition that sparked the now infamous censorship scandal last fall at the National Portrait Gallery is coming to Brooklyn. “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” will be on view at the Brooklyn Museum from Nov. 18, 2011, to Feb. 12, 2012. The show, which explores gender and sexual identity in American portraiture over the past 100 years, included a posthumously edited version of David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly (1985–87), which worked religious groups into a lather when it was on view at the Washington, D.C., museum. In the video, a brief scene shows ants crawling on a crucifix.
In response to demands made by religious groups and conservative members of Congress, Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough pulled the Wojnarowicz video from the show, a hotly contested decision he continues to defend. In January he told the New York Times that he regrets not taking more time to consult with museum officials. The move set off censorship alarm bells, and exhibition co-curator Jonathan Katz, director of visual studies at the State University of New York in Buffalo, spoke out against Clough’s decision. As a result of the Smithsonian’s censorship, the unedited Wojnarowicz video was subsequently shown in protest at a number of museums and galleries and was acquired by MoMA.
The video that was in the show was a 4-minute version, edited by Katz, of the longer 13-minute original. In addition to removing sexually provocative scenes, he added a soundtrack of AIDS protesters taken from a Wojnarowicz archive to the silent original. At a panel discussion at the College Art Association conference in February, Katz explained that some museum officials were concerned that visitors would think the video was broken if it didn’t have sound.
According to a Brooklyn Museum spokesperson, the exact version that will be included in its presentation is still under discussion.
Among the themes explored in “Hide/Seek” is “the influence of gay and lesbian artists who often developed new visual strategies to code and disguise their subjects’ sexual identities, as well as their own.” It features 100 works, by Thomas Eakins, John Singer Sargent, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Agnes Martin, Glenn Ligon and Catherine Opie, among many others.
The Brooklyn Museum’s press release downplays the Wojnarowicz video, giving it a passing mention. But that very video, and the hoopla surrounding it, will undoubtedly be what drives a lot of viewers to the museum. The Brooklyn Museum was also at the center of the “Sensation” scandal in the 1990s, when religious groups and Mayor Rudolph Giuliani took offense at Chris Ofili’s painting of the Virgin Mary propped up on elephant dung balls.
The Brooklyn Museum will reconstitute the exhibition with the cooperation of the National Portrait Gallery, and in conjunction with the Tacoma Art Museum, where it will be on view Mar. 17-June 10, 2012. Co-curated by David C. Ward, National Portrait Gallery historian, and Katz, the Brooklyn Museum presentation is coordinated by Tricia Laughlin Bloom.