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On November 30, 1994, choreographer Bill T. Jones’s experimental dance piece “Still/Here” opened at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. The work featured live dancers performing in front of video footage of terminally ill people discussing their sicknesses. Nearly a month later, dance critic Arlene Croce blasted the piece in a now-infamous essay in the New Yorker. Announcing that she had never seen “Still/Here” and had no intention of doing so, Croce wrote, “By working dying people into his act, Jones is putting himself beyond the reach of criticism. I think of him as literally undiscussable.” She went on to classify that category of undiscussability as “those dancers I’m forced to feel sorry for because of the way they present themselves: as dissed blacks, abused women, or disenfranchised homosexuals — as performers, in short, who make out of victimhood victim art.”
In many ways, the National Portrait Gallery’s current, controversial, and excellent special exhibition Hide/Seek feels like a resounding rebuttal of Croce’s thesis. Of course, 16 years have passed since she wrote those words, and this is hardly the first refutation; but Hide/Seek feels especially pertinent because it explores the way sexual outsiders, most commonly gay men and lesbians, have, since the late 19th century, made fantastic, eminently discussable, and by turns playful and serious artwork about themselves and their situation.
The exhibition also includes a stunning Tseng Kwong Chi photograph of Bill T. Jones from 1983 (an example is at left). Keith Haring painted the naked, black Jones in white, eye-popping lines and patterns. Jones’s strong, angular pose proclaims his physical presence, and as Haring’s art aligns with the contours of his figure, painting and body come together to create a picture of physical artistry and vitality. Only five years later, Jones’s partner, Arnie Zane, would die of an AIDS-related illness, as would Haring, one year after that. Jones himself would be diagnosed as HIV-positive, although he survives healthily to this day. Tseng’s photograph derives immense retrospective power from its illustration of the way two artists who contracted a virus known for wrecking the body had used the body as a locus of art making.
The picture also articulates quite literally the central premise of the Portrait Gallery’s show: that art and identity — the body being part of that — are so inextricably bound together, particularly in the genre of portraiture, we need only dig a little beneath the surface to go a long way toward recognizing expressions of sexual difference. In the first two-thirds of the exhibition, which includes works from the turn of the 20th century to the 1960s, choice of subjects speaks volumes, as with painted and photographic portraits of American literary giants James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, and Walt Whitman, who were all gay. Messages are also relayed through coded symbols, as in colorful, brash portraits by Marsden Hartley, or the abstract and often cryptic works of artists and lovers Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.
As the century progresses, references to homosexuality and gender bending come out of the closet, along with their makers. Artistic explorations of gay and lesbian culture become more pronounced, and more specific, when the AIDS crisis hits. In turn, we get penetrating photographs of drag queens by Peter Hujar and Nan Goldin, an unsettling conceptual candy mound by Felix Gonzales-Torres and an emotionally exacting, 7-by-14-foot portrait by AA Bronson of his artistic collaborator Felix Partz shortly after Partz’s death from an AIDS-related illness.
But here we hit a snag. In response to the Smithsonian’s highly controversial decision to pull a work from the exhibition — David Wojnarowicz’s video “A Fire in My Belly” — after a manufactured conservative uproar, Bronson has asked that his piece, too, be taken down. It’s a bold and laudable stand — though the Portrait Gallery has denied the request — but also one that raises problems, because Hide/Seek would unquestionably suffer without Bronson’s work. We can only wonder, then, what the show lost in emotional weight when “A Fire in My Belly” disappeared.
How can we balance the desire to encourage people to see such an eye-opening exhibition with the urge to condemn and protest an institution that censors artworks? The National Portrait Gallery has done something immensely important in revealing the story, in the museum’s words, “of a powerful artistic and cultural legacy that has been hidden in plain sight.” But by pulling one of the pieces that helps tell that story, the Smithsonian has tainted its credibility; it has tried to hide one of the artworks it should instead be seeking.
Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture is at the National Portrait Gallery until February 13.