MOSTLY HIDDEN AT "HIDE/SEEK"
Who knew there were homosexuals and lesbians in the art world? Obviously not the Catholic League, which is right now mounting a campaign against 15 seconds of videotape in the exhibition "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," currently on view at the Brooklyn Museum, Nov. 18, 2011-Feb. 12, 2012. The show has been around for over a year, originating at the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., which caved in to right-wing pressure and removed the offending material, that is, the haunting footage of ants crawling over a plastic Mexican crucifix in David Wojnarowicz's video, Fire in My Belly (1986-87), sparking widespread outrage. Described by the right as "hate speech," the clip is a fleeting image in a longer work that poignantly captures the frustration of an artist in the midst of the AIDS crisis.
Now that we can view the exhibition in person, it's clear that religious groups had to look long and hard to find anything specific that they could object to in this collection of artworks -- which no doubt drove them crazy all the same, as it celebrates gay artists in 20th century American art. Is it a gay show? Well, where else can you find galleries full of portraits, dressed and otherwise, and nary a single female nude? Catherine Opie does give us a suite of four photos of gals, but they're wearing moustaches and beards rather than standing around naked.
"Hide/Seek" is definitely well-behaved, with even Robert Mapplethorpe coming off as a conventional portraitist. Part Ripley's Believe It or Not, part Hall of Fame, the show identifies a long list of American artists as gay, from F. Holland Day and Marsden Hartley to Ellsworth Kelly and surprise, surprise, Andy Warhol. Straight artists like George Bellows and Andrew Wyeth are included for the homoerotic focus, i.e. male nudes, in a few of their works or, in the case of Georgia O'Keeffe, presumably, for the female-centric focus.
Curated by Jonathan Katz, director of the doctoral program at SUNY Buffalo, and David C. Ward of the National Portrait Gallery, the exhibition has an old-fashioned "identity politics" approach to the issue of homosexuality. Its long list of photographic portraits -- headlined by Berenice Abbott's pictures of power lesbians, Djuna Barnes, Janet Flanner and Betty Parsons, topped by the Mother of them all, Gertrude Stein, here depicted by Cecil Beaton -- practically shouts out, "Say it loud, I'm gay and I'm proud." Paul Cadmus' What I Believe (1947-48), is an anthem of sexual equality, with naked couples of all persuasions posed in a pastoral setting with Adolf Hitler screaming in the background. Even Grant Wood makes the grade with his sensitive 1930 portrait of a young studio assistant, Arnold Comes of Age.
According to Katz, art historians have regularly acknowledged sexual desire in the works of heterosexual artists, most notably Pablo Picasso, but keep queer tendencies in the closet. Choosing instead to "out" the artworks of modernist and Pop artists, he sometimes goes out on a limb, for example, making much of a lavender border on Jasper Johns' Ventriloquist (1983). The exhibition does make a case for masks and masquerade, from Marcel Duchamp's Rrose Selavy to Warhol's Camouflage Self-Portrait (1986). But with the advent of the 1990s, when most of the artists here were not only out of the closet but making sexually explicit works to prove it, the curators have no need to bolster the queerness of the artists' identities and have, in fact, tempered their views to make them acceptable for a "major museum exhibition."
Several works by Mapplethorpe are in the show, and the most "out" one is his picture of leather fetishists Brian Eidley and Lyle Heeter (1979), posed in their living room as master and slave. (What a missed opportunity to feature one of Glenn Ligon's pointed installations about Mapplethorpe's notorious Black Book, rather than a more innocuous coal dust painting.) Traditional female nudes may be in short supply, but gone as well is the nudity from Larry Clark, Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, Mark Morrisroe, Jack Pierson (well, no nudity, but underwear) and Lucas Samaras. None of them seem as direct and confrontational as Larry Rivers' exhibitionist O'Hara Nude with Boots from 1954.
Though there are works as recent as 2004, the exhibition reaches its conclusion with the AIDS crisis. Far more disturbing than Wojnarovicz's Fire in My Belly is AA Bronson's portrait of his General Idea colleague Felix Partz, shot minutes after his death. The hollow face peers out of a pixilated field of brightly patterned clothes and bedding, blown up to the size of a mural. It overshadows the other AIDS-related works in the gallery, including an intentionally Unfinished Painting from 1989 by Keith Haring and a 1991 candy spill by Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Bronson tried to have the work removed from the exhibition after the censorship of Wojnarovicz's work, but failed because it was on loan from a museum in Canada. In a way, that's good news because the final section of the show would have lost most of its potency without it.
Though the survey is being touted as "the first major museum exhibition to explore how gender and sexual identity have shaped the creation of American portraiture," I feel that the subject has been better addressed in many other gallery and museum shows, from "In a Different Light" at UC Berkeley in 1995 to "Queer Bodies" at Galeria, the new art center for LGBT artists that opened in August in Jackson Heights, Queens. Especially in the last decade, curators have interpreted queer identity to mean something more than sexual orientation and to include a lot more kinds of artists than painters and photographers. I can't help but think what A.L Steiner and Ridykeulous would make of this show, or Ryan Trecartin for that matter. For this generation, identity is much less fixed and barely legislated.
It would have been great for more of these new voices to be included in this exhibition. But then, who knows what the Catholic League would have said about that? The Brooklyn Museum deserves recognition for standing up to the political hoopla outside its doors, but the curators could have been even braver in their choices.
BARBARA POLLACK is author of The Wild, WIld East: An American Art Critic's Adventures in China (Timezone 8 Books).