Among the most startling images for me in “Hide/Seek,” the art exhibition that has now opened at the , is not the one that has sparked protests by The Catholic League, the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn, and five public officials from Staten Island; not the self-portrait by Lyle Ashton Harris of him naked kissing his brother while pointing a gun at him; not even the photograph by Annie Leibovitz of Ellen DeGeneres in white face clutching the cups of her bra, cigarette dangling from her mouth.
It is a painting by Grant Wood, done in 1930, the same year he painted “American Gothic”—that sour-faced farmer holding a pitchfork and standing next to his daughter, probably the most famous single painting by an American artist, certainly the most parodied. At first glance, Wood’s “Arnold Comes of Age” seems unremarkable, until you notice the two naked men in the background near a river, and then read the wall label: “[T]he wistful youth set against the homoerotic scene in the background suggests the tension and difficulties faced by gay men, such as Wood himself, who stayed in Middle America.”
The second most famous American painting is probably “Christina’s World,” created by Andrew Wyeth in 1948, picturing a young woman in a wheat field yearning for the farmhouse in the distance. Wyeth has a painting in the “Hide/Seek” exhibition as well: In “The Clearing,” a young man is standing in a wheat field, completely naked. On this wall label: “Wyeth gives his subject an undeniably homoerotic, as well as heterosexual, appeal.
Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture is intended as “the first major exhibition to chart the influence of gay and lesbian artists on modern American portraiture,” according to Mark E Sullivan, the director of the National Portrait Gallery of Washington D.C., which organized the exhibition. Curators David C. Ward and Jonathan Katz aimed to create a new context in which to consider familiar American artists. Providing the context is the reason the wall labels are so long.
And context is the key word to respond to the objections to the show; it is hard to imagine criticism where the expression “out of context” could be more aptly applied.
The image that has riled people is in “A Fire In My Belly,” an unfinished film from the 1980’s by the late David Wojnarowicz, in which ants crawl over a porcelain statue of the crucified Jesus. It is a disturbing image, but it is ambiguous; the artist’s intent is unclear. Given the other images in the film—beggars with no feet, a puppet set aflame, coins splashing in what looks like a bowl of blood, a loaf being sewn back together and a mouth being sewn shut, the face of Jesus with the crown of thorns —it is as likely to be representing the suffering of Jesus as to be denigrating Christianity.
But whatever its meaning, it literally lasts only a few seconds, in a film excerpt that is itself only four minutes long, in an exhibition that includes more than 100 works of art by 67 artists, many of them the most important American artists of the last century.
To me, the most effective aspect of the show is the second look at the familiar—what art history types like to call the canon.
In the 1898 painting "Salutat," Thomas Eakens presents a boxer in the ring. But the fighter is not fighting; it is after the match is over, and the half-naked athlete is shown acknowledging his fans: "an opportunity for homoerotic admiration,” as the curators put it in the wall label.
Similarly, John Singer Sargent, a leading portrait painter of his day, who remains much-respected for his oil paintings of richly-garbed society figures, is here represented by a drawing, “Nude Male Standing.” The nude male is an African-American hotel bellhop named Thomas E. McKeller. At the time (sometime before 1920), a nude was usually only acceptable if it had some allusion to classical Rome or Greece—unless he was “a member of a so-called lesser class.”
Art-lovers know Charles Demuth as a turn-of-the-century painter of modernist abstracts. But his “Dancing Sailors” from 1917 depicts three couples, one of which is same-sex.
Those wondering at the origins of the now-pervasive homoerotic imagery in advertising—via Calvin Klein and his fashion/fashionable imitators—will be interested in “Men Reading,” a 1914 painting by J. C. Leyendecker, who created the Arrow Shirt Man.
The wall labels sometimes seem a bit of a stretch, such as the one for Romaine Brooks' wonderful self-portrait: "Her position on a balcony, the threshold between public and private space; her sleek androgynous attire, coupled with her brightly rouged lips and thickly powdered face; the shadow that obscures (but does not mask) her eyes; all signify her lesbian identity."
The exhibition goes chronologically, starting with a photograph from 1891 of Walt Whitman by Thomas Eakins. There are many such crowd-pleasing portraits, either photographs or paintings, that give the curators the excuse to talk about famous people not necessarily visual artists—Bessie Smith, James Baldwin, the poets Frank O’Hara, Allen Ginsberg and Langston Hughes, Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas, Troy Donahue (that one is by Andy Warhol), Susan Sontag. Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, one-time lovers, seem to be communicating in a 1950’s era code through their art about their attraction to each other. Much of the work in the last few couple of rooms will be familiar to anybody who has gone to an exhibition with “transgressive” in the title within the last couple of decades, although the selections here are relatively tame, even the photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe. (There are actually even far more explicit Demuth paintings from the 1920’s that the exhibition could have included.) The most moving pieces remind us of the devastation of the early era of AIDS. Wojnarowicz, who died of AIDS at age 37 in 1992, is the most represented in this section.
Responding to protest, the National Gallery removed the film excerpt of “A Fire In My Belly.” The Brooklyn Museum not only leaves it in, but adds an entire room—an “education resource” space—that provides a timeline of the film, five books written by or about Wojnarowicz, and four other versions of “A Fire In My Belly.”
HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture will be shown from Nov.18, 2011 through Feb. 12, 2012 in the Morris A. and Meyer Schapiro Wing, 4th Floor of the , 200 Eastern Parkway.