While at the landmark exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the Brooklyn Museum, I realized I had to start my review with a statement that will look simple and quite possibly stupid: Hide/Seek is more than David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire In My Belly.
Unfortunately, the outrage surrounding Wojnarowicz’s video, only a small part of the exhibition, has obscured the real power of Hide/Seek, which focuses on the contribution of LGBT identity to American portraiture.
Curated by Jonathan David Katz and David C. Ward for the National Portrait Gallery, Hide/Seek is shockingly the first exhibition to be based on sexual identity and reveals the conservative streak that still runs through the art world, particularly in museums.
I assume many people outside the art world believe most, if not all, artists are a bunch of radical flaming queens. However, inside the art world, sexuality, as well as race and gender, is still very much taboo.
Earlier this year at a panel I attended at the New York Public Library, Katz admitted that he had been trying to realize this exhibition for many years because many museums were reluctant to host a show on gay and lesbian sexualities. In addition to museums, many artists’ estates and artists themselves refused to allow their works to be in the show out of fear of being labeled a “gay artist,” which could possibly slot them forever into a certain category and, let’s be honest, affect the price of their work.
Even if Hide/Seek‘s radical stance on the importance of sexuality in the development of art in 20th century America seems slightly obvious and even behind the times politically, its importance art historically cannot be ignored. Presenting the work chronologically, the viewer walks through a history of gay and lesbian identity, which allows the viewer to trace a LGBT aesthetic that has endured through the various style developments.
In the beginning of the exhibition, the pre-modern period seems filled with the brilliant bodies of nude men like in Ashcan School artist George Bellows’s “Riverfront No. 1” (1915) and the androgynous beauty of lesbian women such as in Bernice Abbot’s photo of ex-pat writer Janet Flanner. The celebration of the body and of play with gender codes runs through the entire exhibition, allowing for connections to be made in spite of changing styles.
Perhaps one of the most significant portions of the exhibition for me was the exploration of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg’s relationship. Rarely recognized in major exhibitions of their works, Hide/Seek acknowledges not only their sexual preferences, but also their rocky relationship.
John’s slightly emo painting “In Memory of My Feelings-Frank O’Hara” (1961) was based on the dissolution of their relationship with the fork and spoon representing their inherent inability to work as a couple.
As the exhibition progresses past 1969’s Stonewall riots, the works in the show more openly address issues of sex and gender performance. However, I also felt the show weakened in this portion of the exhibit, relying heavily on fairly commonly known works from artists such as Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin and David Wojnarowicz. I’m just not sure how many times I need to see Wojnarowicz’s Rimbaud series (1978-9) when I know his body of work is large and varied.
For me, the most arresting part of the exhibition was the section on the AIDS crisis. From Keith Haring’s “Unfinished Painting” (1989) to Félix González-Torres candy pile, “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” (1991) to Robert Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait, the works in this section presented the sobering reality that many of the artists celebrated in the previous rooms would be wiped out within a decade.
The most horrifying and memorable image in the show is not a crucifix being crawled on by ants, but A.A. Bronson’s photograph of his friend Felix after he died from complications from AIDS. Bronson’s portrait seems like the dark, crushing culmination of the entire exhibition. Celebrated in the beginning of the exhibition, the portrait of the male body is now sunken and drawn and yet, the garish fabric around him, as well as the TV remote, remains, as a friend at the exhibit pointed out, completely camp.
While I have consciously avoided the “A Fire In My Belly” controversy, I do wonder if it is even completely possible to understand the exhibition separate from the outrage. Katz and Ward are aware of this fact, which is why they have added another room completely focusing on A Fire In My Belly, its history and Wojnarowicz’s life. Revealing that gay and lesbian sexuality in art still invites controversy even if it is masked as religious anger, I can only hope that the publicity will not stop museums and other art institutions from further investigating the role of sexual identity and art.
Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture will be at the Brooklyn Museum until February 12, 2012.