American presidents are the closest thing Americans have to mythological figures. Their lives are minutely documented, their actions considered and reconsidered every generation, their names placed on buildings and museums, and they become the stuff of legend, lessons for children, and inspirations (and cautionary tales) for future generations. Few presidents are as revered in the American pantheon as Abraham Lincoln, the fabled liberator of slaves and man who held the Union together. Yet, over the last decade, there has been a growing debate about the sexuality of President Lincoln, who, like many men of his generation, slept with other men in the same bed. That fact, which may seem peculiar to a contemporary audience, is the subject of New Orleans–based artist Skylar Fein‘s new work “The Lincoln Bedroom” (2013), at C24 Gallery in New York.
Fein’s art often probes forgotten or little-known moments of LGBTQ history, and his best-known piece, “Remembering the UpStairs Lounge” (2008), recreated an infamous gay bar in New Orleans’s French Quarter that burned down under mysterious circumstances on June 24, 1973. Both the bar and Lincoln’s former bedroom are flash points in the historical record with obvious queer dimensions but no clear answers. Fein’s interest seems lodged in that ambiguity.
“The Lincoln Bedroom” is Fein’s most intricately produced work yet. The UpStairs Lounge was recreated with accents that augmented our experience of a place once home to the era’s sexual renegades; his Lincoln re-creation is so detailed that it’s hard to believe it isn’t original, even if it is obviously staged for dramatic effect. The artist used images of other contemporaneous structures — since none of the original exist — to create his vision of the building that housed the historic room, complete with hay and the scent of tobacco. Most importantly, Fein tucks a theatrically lit, straw-stuffed mattress on one side of the room, and we’re led to believe that this bed, with its messy, quilted blanket, is similar to the one that Lincoln shared with Joshua Speed, the son of a wealthy Kentucky plantation family.
In his accompanying wall text, Fein suggests that he’s undecided in the debate over whether Lincoln and Speed had a sexual relationship, but the evidence he presents — if you can call it that, since the setting is manufactured from the artist’s imagination — points to so many questions that the conclusion can feel inevitable. The two men shared the bed from 1837 until 1841, and Speed wasn’t Lincoln’s only male bedmate: he invited a young captain of the guard to share his bed when his wife was out of town, another fact that Fein provides to the gallery viewer.
Fein is probing the shifting sands of bromance, a contemporary term that might capture some of that non-sexual relationship men of Lincoln’s era enjoyed, even if it has different connotations today.
Fein’s installation is seductive. Walking through the building, you feel like you’re about to uncover a secret somewhere in the shadows, but it never steps out of the darkness. All the ghosts of the place remain hidden.
The appeal of this provocative work is that we’re left to question history, and our relationship to it. Whether we believe Lincoln and Speed enjoyed a love affair is our own decision.
The American imagination often includes scenes of people talking about growing old together on a porch, and it evokes images of unspoken warmth that can only be shared by people with a long history together. But there’s only one chair on Fein’s “The Lincoln Bedroom” porch, suggesting that even if you believed Lincoln and Speed did share more than the warmth of their bodies in the bed, the public face of their relationship was very different, involving a reality that would have ultimately emotionally imprisoned them both.
Skylar Fein’s “The Lincoln Bedroom” (2013) is part of The Lincoln Bedroom at C24 Gallery (514 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) until Saturday, February 22.
This looks amazing an I am going to get to the gallery today to catch the last day of it!
I also want to mention that I met author Jonathan Ned Katz at lecture a few months back and he wrote a book “Love Stories” which explored Lincoln’s relationship with Joshua.
Nice chair on the porch.
Good eye! That chair is on loan from my friend Cassie, who runs a prop house for filmmakers in New Orleans. It’s one of the few things I’m NOT tossing. She deserves to get it back! — Skylar
Thanks Skylar, I happen to have quite a few old chairs and always love a good chair. Will the installation still be up in April? Hope to be in New Orleans then and would love to see it.
I suspect that not much can be made of this bed sharing. It was, as you say, common in the 19th century. It neither confirms nor precludes notions of Lincoln’s sexuality. Am struck in reading two works of 19th century American literature, _The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym_ (1838) and _Moby-Dick,_ (1851) where communal bed sharing is mentioned, that the notion of emotional closeness obtains but not necessarily sexual consequences. That being said, in _Moby-Dick_ something like sexuality is implied (Ishmael says that he and Queequeg were a “cosy, loving pair,” etc.) whereas Arthur Gordon Pym makes nothing special of sleeping with Augustus Barnard..
Demarcation between homosexuality and heterosexuality was not so firmly drawn in the 19th century. The word “homosexual,” with the boundaries and sometimes moral judgments that ensure, didn’t exist until somewhere around 1895, according to the Oxford English dictionary. In Poe’s work no direct sexual implications come out; in Melville’s some do. From what I know of Lincoln’s life apart from the above, I suspect homosexuality was not a significant component of his nature because no further evidence can be found to support it (it can in Melville’s). The questions remains open, to my mind, with the evidence slightly against and a disconcertingly anachronistic quality to the argument.
The installation does not make the case that Lincoln was gay. Not that there would be anything wrong with that… right? 😉
Yes, not that there is anything wrong with that. I personally think that Lincoln lived in a time when the majority of Americans were rural. This agrarian society typically had very small homes and very large families – no birth control = extra milkmaids and farm hands. So, men would have probably grown up sleeping in the same bed with 2 or 5 brothers. Sharing a bed with other men would have been practical and familiar.
The write-up implicitly raises the possibility without going further. Of course, nothing wrong with that. (Isn’t that a Seinfeld tag?)
Skylar here! Many thanks to Hrag for the kind attention to the work, and to the critics below for taking the piece seriously enough to attack it. I love you all. Though not equally. A heads up: the entire installation is coming down tomorrow — Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014 — with the deinstall continuing Monday and Tuesday. The entire Lincoln-Speed cabin is going into a dumpster in front of the gallery. Yes, you read that right. So if you want a piece of it, come get it! I’m putting everything out on the curb, down to the hand-painted signs and faux 1837 knicknacks. It’s free (though if someone would roll me a spliff, I wouldn’t complain). Even if you see yourself as an enemy of the work, or of its ideology, you are still welcome to pick up some souvenirs — in fact I invite you to use it in an act of symbolic destruction. This, after all, is where queer history goes, in 2014: the garbage. Hey, ho, LET’S GO — Skylar Fein
For me the piece invokes a bigger question of how estranged from one another we’ve become in that we find the thought of touching another human with whom we are NOT sexually interested in rather odd and abhorrent. When we are sleeping we are at our most vulnerable. To share space with a friend once was a warm and practical practice. And yet today, the simple act of sharing a warm soft place of respite from the day’s labors in is viewed with a certain fear and abhorrence; hence the nervous jokes and gay innuendos. It re-emphasizes the fact that never before have we been able to connect with so many while remaining so alone.
beautiful work…wcellent review!
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