David Wojnarowiczs s
David Wojnarowiczs s

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It would have been an awful lot easier to review “Hide/Seek” back in November. Back then, the exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery was just an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery—a relatively groundbreaking one at that, focusing on sexual identity in art and organized right here in D.C., at the fusty old Smithsonian, right under the noses of Capitol Hill’s legion of sound-bite culture warriors.

But, of course, the media circus of the past month has made thinking about the show that way impossible. Nowadays, the show is a cause célèbre, a call to arms, and quite possibly a glimpse of the shapes of struggles to come over arts funding. And it’s now a story that makes it very hard to say nice things about the Smithsonian. By pulling David Wojnarowicz’s 1987 video, “ A Fire in My Belly ,” after receiving complaints from a couple of fringe organizations—like the Catholic League, whose director and mouthpiece Bill Donohue labeled images of ants crawling across a crucifix as “hate speech”—Smithsonian Secretary G. Wayne Clough undercut all of the museum’s well-deserved kudos. Tackling this show had made the institution look brave, innovative, and forward-looking. Clough’s preemptive self-censorship, on the other hand, made it look like his organization had slipped into a time tunnel leading back to the culture wars of the 1980s.

As the battle raged, Clough and the Portrait Gallery staff repeatedly pointed out that 104 works still remain on view, as if this were simply a numbers game: Yes, it’s censorship, but it’s only a teensy-weensy bit of censorship. This attitude is perhaps not all that different from the museum’s initial decision to show an edited version of the video, not the complete original cut: “A Fire in My Belly” as it appeared in the gallery was shorn of several key minutes, and had a new soundtrack grafted to it. Even before far-right critics set upon the show, the Smithsonian seemed to view the issues raised by the video as entirely aesthetic, with no historical dimension.

But what about those other 104 pieces? To look at the rest of the show without thinking of the disaster of the past month is to recapture a sense of why this is such a game-changing exhibition. “Hide/Seek” peels back layers of silence, misdirection, and willful ignorance regarding the marginalization and isolation of gay men (and a few women, too) in American art. Curated for the NPG by its own historian David C. Ward and by Jonathan Katz, director of the doctoral program in visual studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo, “Hide/Seek” is a smart and important show, revealing secrets that have been hidden in plain sight over the past century—secrets that up to now had been only available to those willing to decode them.

“Felix, June 5, 1994”(Photograph by AA Bronson)

The NPG’s own press release touts “Hide/Seek” as the “first major museum exhibition showing how questions of gender and sexual identity have dramatically shaped the creation of modern American portraiture.” But the show extends far beyond a single genre. Instead, “Hide/Seek” significantly overhauls the canon of American modernism, directing the viewer to what many curators have either failed to recognize or outright ignored about a number of major artists, including Thomas Eakins, Marsden Hartley, and Robert Rauschenberg. Further, “Hide/Seek” shows how different strategies in modern art image making—from ash-can school realism, to abstraction, to constructed photography with costumes and alter egos—have been used to telegraph difference. The show ultimately reminds us that homo- and heterosexuality have not always been as they are right now—that they are, in fact, fluid constructions, open to redefinition in relation to one another. More than the deployment of Christian icons or homoeroticism, that’s what really should make cultural conservatives nervous, or angry, or both.

At the very least, viewers will never look the same way at the work of Thomas Eakins, the great lion of American realism. In 1886, Eakins was famously fired from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts for removing a male model’s loincloth in an all-female drawing class; his methods were unconventional and his nude bodies undeniable. The show’s curators describe Eakins as neither gay nor straight as we understand those terms now, but rather as a sexual nonconformist of his era, interested in active erotic play with male and female bodies alike.

As evidence, they offer “Salutat,” a strange, four-foot-tall painting ostensibly about boxing, in which the viewer’s gaze is led ineluctably to the body of a thin, pale, long-limbed boxer named Billy Smith. Smith’s face is turned away from us; all visual cues lead us instead to his backside, where the fighter’s shorts appear to have disappeared into what can only be described as a wedgie. His corner man, carrying a sponge and walking a few paces behind him, is unmistakably staring down at Smith’s bared ass—the clear focal point of the picture. Here the opportunity for chest-thumping theater one expects from a sporting event has been inverted: Instead of a display of aggression from exaggeratedly masculine bodies, we have an undressed androgyne at rest, presented for the fervent admiration of an all-male crowd.

This is how “Hide/Seek” shows us queer culture at the turn of the last century: not through obscure documents or pieces never meant for public consumption, but through figures easily recognizable in everyday experience. Take the dandy in a suit and bowler hat, fully dressed on a sun-drenched beach, surrounded by a sea of unclothed working-class young men in George Bellows’ 1915 painting, “Riverfront No. 1.” There is no reason for this man to be here, except for enjoying the sight of all of the naked bodies around him.

Bellows offered gay archetypes in images meant for general audiences, suggesting, according to the curators, a different relationship between gay and straight of the era. Notwithstanding traditional-values types who argue that everything went to hell in the 1960s, such images also suggest fairly widespread awareness back then of different types of recreational sex. In Bellows’ 1917 print, “The Shower Bath,” a sleight, grinning man offers his naked backside to a looming, stocky, aggressive-looking male—who, despite avoiding eye contact, is clearly aroused by what he sees. Ward and Katz remind us that, prior to their construction as a separate community looking for civil rights and status, gay men often relied on straights (or at least men who were “trade”) for gratification. As long as a man played the active role in sexual activity, his masculinity was often unquestioned.

As abstraction came into vogue, some painters found new strategies for commemorating lovers and friends. Take Marsden Hartley—whose “Painting No. 47” from 1914-15 appears merely to take parts of a German military uniform as motifs for a flattened, purely decorative image. Instead, this painting serves as a funerary portrait for Hartley’s lover, a German soldier named Karl von Freyberg. Charles Demuth created similar secret portraits thinly disguised as abstraction, as with his study for a portrait of Hartley created circa 1923—which features a flower with an oversized stamen as a reference to Hartley’s frequent discussions about the size of his own penis. Abstract modern art, which so often is assumed to either lay bare universal truths or obscurely express the artist’s subjective self, is in this case something of a ruse.

Many artists in the show both signal difference and hide themselves within caricatures of that difference through assumed identities, drag, and costumed play. Man Ray’s 1923 photo of Marcel Duchamp posed as his pun-happy female alter ego, Rrose Sélavy, offers an opportunity for Duchamp to not only project his unusual sensuality, but also to create a body of work under a pseudonym for which he perhaps felt less accountable. Christopher Makos’ 1981 photo shows Andy Warhol in Marlene Dietrich-esque drag—a man dressed as a woman dressed as a man. Given Warhol’s constant use of a blonde wig and delight in celebrity and superficiality, this late drag photo feels more like an honest reflection of his life and oeuvre than concealment.

With the emergence of the AIDS epidemic in the early 1980s, images in the show take a turn from playful to elegiac, or even defiant. AA Bronson of the Canadian media and conceptual art collective General Idea created a haunting death portrait of 25-year collaborator Felix Partz, in which we see a wasted skeleton bundled in a colorful bedspread, all staring sockets, hollowed cheeks, and darkened, brittle flesh. It’s a heartbreaking image made by an artist who had previously been more associated with strategic engagement and tongue-in-cheek sendups of consumer culture than for intimacy.

After the Wojnarowicz video was pulled, Bronson requested that “Felix, June 5, 1994” be removed from the exhibition as well. “To edit queer history in this way is hurtful and disrespectful,” the artist put it in an e-mail to National Portrait Gallery Director Martin E. Sullivan. Unfortunately for Bronson, he no longer owns the piece; it was loaned to the exhibit by the National Gallery of Canada. According the Portrait Gallery, it will be staying in the show for the duration.

If Felix were to be removed, “Hide/Seek” would lose one of its few truly visceral images—an emaciated corpse, filling a single wall. One striking feature of “Hide/Seek” is precisely its lack of deliberately inflammatory images. Instead, much of the show appears to be a fairly quiet succession of smallish pieces, many of them black and white photos, requiring close examination and inviting contemplation.

True, there is “Brotherhood, Crossroads, Etcetera (1994),” by Lyle Ashton Harris, in which the artist and his brother, both standing a few feet apart, nude, share a kiss. But even this stops far short of including anything like explicit sex. Frankly, given the state of our image culture in the present tense, it’s awfully tame stuff. “Hide/Seek” was largely designed by Ward and Katz to be a canonical, mainstream art exhibit: It features many blue-chip artists. There are provocative images, but only a few aim to shock the viewer. It is an experience demanding patient observation and reflection. It does not assault the viewer with spectacle.

Take, for example, the work of Robert Mapplethorpe included in the show. Mapplethorpe, of course, was the subject of a 1989 retrospective, “The Perfect Moment,” that the Corcoran Gallery of Art first scheduled, then canceled under pressure from gay-baiting Sen. Jesse Helms. Helms, a Republican from North Carolina, was known for carrying around a sheaf of four Mapplethorpe images from that exhibition—one that depicted the artist himself, crouching over a chair with a bullwhip inserted in his anus—and challenging reporters to tell him they weren’t obscene.

No such Mapplethorpe images are to be found in “Hide/Seek.” There’s a striking female nude of Lisa Lyon. But, really, the only eyebrow raising pic is of two men in a conservative domestic interior dressed head to toe in black leather and chains. Aside from the ironic juxtaposition of S&M gear and antique vases, there is little to scandalize here—it’s no more shocking than, say, the cover of a Village People album. No surprise, then, that for the first month of its run, the NPG received no complaints about the show whatsoever.

But the comparative tameness, in the end, did nothing to protect “Hide/Seek.” All it took was an outraged, outrageous report by the conservative CSN News, and all of a sudden even a non-salacious show was too much for a federally funded institution. Sure, there are some differences between the current ruckus and the 1989 Mapplethorpe controversy. The open use of bigoted language, for instance, may finally be beyond the pale, making it impossible for a legislator to assert, as Helms did, that gays are “degenerates.” And yet the whole imbroglio demonstrates that our political and cultural institutions continue to show bigots deference all the same.

Ultimately, the actions of the Smithsonian illustrate a type of disconnect peculiar to Washington. The NPG didn’t flinch when the Warhol Foundation (and, one assumes, countless individual small donors) threatened to pull their respective thousands of dollars of private funding. Similarly, the NPG has had no problem weathering protests from plucky D.C. non-profit arts organizations like Transformer, or threats to remove work by artists not in a position to actually do so. These are all powerful symbolic acts. The art world is full of transactions involving symbols or cultural capital, which are distinct from actual dollars or political might. Clough’s stance seems to be about acceptable risk, and reflects a sort of bureaucratic logic unique to Washington, one that favors pragmatism over courage, compromise over statements of principle, and real authority over moral rightness.