When “Hide/Seek,” the National Portrait Gallery’s groundbreaking exhibition of gay themes in American portraiture, became the subject of right-wing Catholic ire a year ago, it looked as if the culture wars might be starting up again after a decade of relative calm. The Catholic League accused the Smithsonian of bigotry, some members of Congress began to take notice, and there was a threat the newly elected Republican House of Representatives might take budget knives to the institution if it didn’t censor the show.
The campaign against the exhibition was focused on a video by artist David Wojnarowicz, which included a brief scene of ants crawling on crucifix. Secretary G. Wayne Clough was so addled by the controversy that he immediately capitulated, overruled his own curators and forced the video’s removal from the critically acclaimed exhibition. It was a dark day for the Smithsonian, a successful, coordinated attack on free speech that had the larger cultural world wondering if Clough, who had been the longtime president of Georgia Tech, understood the basic values of humanist scholarship on which the Smithsonian was founded.
What a difference a year, and 230 miles, makes. On Nov. 18, “Hide/Seek” reopened at the Brooklyn Museum, with the Wojnarowicz video reinstated. When it closes in February, it will travel to the Tacoma Art Museum. Clough’s blunder not only helped make “Hide/Seek” one of the most popular show ever mounted at the National Portrait Gallery, it continues to bring it new audiences from around the country.
The usual people made the usual noises before the Brooklyn opening, but the drama played out very differently. A back-channel effort to censor the show by Brooklyn Catholic Bishop Nicholas DiMarzio, who wrote a private letter to the museum’s board president asking that the video be removed, failed to gain traction. The Catholic League issued increasingly vitriolic statements about the show, saying that Wojnarowicz, who succumbed to AIDS in 1992, “died of self-inflicted wounds.” But unlike Clough, the Brooklyn Museum’s director, Arnold Lehman, refused to take the bait.
“There have been thousands and thousands of pre-programmed e-mails, and what we thought was originally a private correspondence was released to the press, asking that the Wojnarowicz video be pulled,” Lehman says of DiMarzio’s letter. But the video will stay.
“We are very conscious that we have a long and committed reputation for freedom of expression and against censorship,” says Lehman.
The difference between the leadership styles of Clough and Lehman doesn’t alone account for the successful reprise of the uncensored show in Brooklyn. The cultural politics of Washington and New York are very different. The Brooklyn Museum has long experience serving a uniquely diverse audience and, as “Hide/Seek” co-curator David Ward points out, it isn’t federally funded and doesn’t sit in the center of the nation’s capital.
But more than anything else, the pace of cultural change on gay and lesbian issues is so rapid that even a year may have transformed the dynamics.
“I have the sense that the controversy is played out,” Ward says.
The show in Brooklyn
In Brooklyn, the show looks as good as it did at the Portrait Gallery. Lehman says he had hoped to be involved with “Hide/Seek” from the very beginning, but the Smithsonian had no plans to create a traveling or joint exhibition. After it opened, the Brooklyn Museum again approached the Smithsonian, and the answer was different.
Not everything from the first “Hide/Seek” installation could borrowed again, but in each case where an object wasn’t available the curators looked for something by the same artist, with the same or similar theme and content. Wall texts are the same as in Washington, and when a work has been replaced with something else, the change is noted.
In a few cases, small differences in how the work is displayed have a big impact on its power: AA Bronson’s haunting image, “Felix, June 5, 1994,” which the artist unsuccessfully tried to have pulled from the original exhibition after the censorship scandal, is mounted lower, allowing visitors a more intimate view of the graininess with which he depicted the dead body of his friend and AIDS victim Felix Partz.
And in at least one case, a substitute work may be a lesser piece in artistic terms, but has particular power given the contretemps that plagued the exhibition a year ago. Unable to continue borrowing Jess’s “The Mouse’s Tale,” a large, cheeky and confrontational collage made of male pin-ups from the 1950s, the curators have substituted another Jess work, “Lord Pervert,” which mocks Whittaker Chambers, star witness in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings who not only rejected communism, but also his own homosexuality after taking up Christianity.
“It wasn’t an unself-conscious change, given all that happened,” says Jonathan Katz, who organized the original show with Ward.
Katz sounds freer, and happier, than he did a year ago. He still praises the National Portrait Gallery for its courage in mounting the exhibition, but he’s not pulling punches when it comes to the groups that first mounted the protests.
“I’m [ticked] off,” he says. “I’ve seen 10 seconds of film overtake 125 years of carefully researched history. I’m tired of them calling the shots and determining the parameters of the conversation.”
According to Katz, the controversy was great for the show’s popularity, but it overshadowed a subtle argument about the role of sexual difference in American art. “Hide/Seek” wasn’t meant to be a “gay” show, but rather a sustained look at how sexual difference of many types were hiding in plain sight throughout the history of American art.
“It’s about the refusal to specify difference,” he says, which underscores a larger theme: the manifold ways that all kinds of people outside the majority create alternative identities, and through those identities influence the course of the mainstream.
“I always saw it through the rubric ‘queer,’ ” he says. Queer, which was definitely not a term used much during the Portrait Gallery iteration of the show, is a broader, more inclusive term, which stresses difference over assimilation, self-fashioned and transgressive identities instead of the more mainstream ideas of assimilation and inclusion. In some cases, queer doesn’t necessarily refer to homosexuality at all, but can denote sexual difference of supposedly “straight” people.
It’s a term that has greater currency in New York and academia than it does in Washington and the political world. Now that the show is in New York where isn’t being overwhelmed by politics, Katz can connect it to a larger cultural theme: “It’s about the inherent queerness of America,” he says.
The environment in New York is so different that the show has already been attacked by some reviewers for being too tame.
Ward just sighs.
“We became instantly old hat,” he says. He points out the exhibition was never meant to be about sex or provocation, that it was the first serious exhibition about gay themes in art mounted in a major American museum, and that he and Katz approached multiple museums around the country to no avail before the National Portrait Gallery agreed to take on the subject.
“I’m looking at you, Olga Viso,” he says, referring to the director of the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. Viso was strongly critical of the Smithsonian’s censorship of the exhibition, even though the Walker reportedly turned down “Hide/Seek” when it was offered the show.
The art of understanding
The idea that there is an “inherent queerness of America” may be one of the biggest challenges and opportunities mainstream cultural organizations face today. There is a distinction between a state of social affairs in which the majority thinks it is wrong to be mean to a particular minority, and a more advanced state when it doesn’t distinguish between us and them, and hence finds bigotry a form of violence against the entire community. The challenge for art museums isn’t just to mount an occasional token show about gay issues or decry censorship. Rather, it’s to include an everyday understanding of gay — or queer — issues in its regular discourse.
That’s already happening at some museums, such as Brooklyn, where the change in the zeitgeist can be seen clearly in another exhibition that nicely complements “Hide/Seek.” “Youth and Beauty” is devoted to changes in American art during the 1920s, when the United States became increasingly urbanized and was forced to grapple with the chaos and promise of modernity. Among the changes, the curators argue, was a focus on the body, and physical beauty in figurative painting. One of the works that couldn’t be included in the remount of “Hide/Seek” was a striking painting by Romaine Brooks, a portrait of the lesbian artist Lady Troubridge. The painting was unavailable to “Hide/Seek” because it is now part of “Youth and Beauty,” which easily incorporates same-sex desire among its many threads.
Making the connections
A large part of art scholarship is tracing the networks and connections between artists, and one of the accomplishments of “Hide/Seek” was to jump-start that process for mainstream audiences. Brooks’s painting is now gathering a kind of intellectual momentum through its appearance in both shows, a momentum that will connect it to, and enliven, other works of art.
In New York’s gallery-rich Chelsea neighborhood, a show devoted to the photographs of Peter Hujar — the mentor and lover of David Wojnarowicz — recently opened at Matthew Marks Gallery. Jeffrey Peabody, vice president and director of the gallery, says the show wasn’t planned to coincide with the Brooklyn edition of “Hide/Seek.” But it’s a happy coincidence that has brought attention to the work.
Among the photographs, which explore the inner lives of three gay men over a period of almost 30 years, is an image of Hujar’s friend Paul Thek on a beach, taken in 1965. It is uncannily similar to a work that appears in “Hide/Seek,” a 1979 painting by Andrew Wyeth called “The Clearing,” which depicts a young male friend of the artist. Both subjects command the center of the image, standing alone out of doors with their hands on their hips. Both are in the bloom of youth, have long, flowing hair and face the viewer with an open countenance. But Wyeth, who was heterosexual, depicts his subject naked while Hujar, who was gay, depicts Thek fully clothed.
Katz says he chose the Wyeth painting in part because he wanted to challenge the very distinction of “gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender,” emphasizing an idea of a queerness that transcends simple identification as gay or lesbian. Seeing the Wyeth and Hujar images in the same city, at the same time, in the context of the queer understanding which governed “Hide/Seek,” makes Wyeth’s words (quoted in the catalogue) all the more poignant: He needed to love his models, he said, “I don’t mean a sexual love, I mean real love. . . . I have to become enamored, smitten.”
A retreat in the culture war
That may be more threatening to some people than any effort to argue simply for decent or equal treatment of gay and lesbian people. But the hostility generated by the Catholic League, which so affrighted Clough a year ago, now looks like a rear-guard action.
“They had hopes of starting a culture war like they did in 1987,” Katz says. “But it didn’t work out that way. They got repeatedly attacked for being narrow-minded bigots and now they’re just playing to their base.”
Ward says he is happy “Hide/Seek” is going to have two more outings, but that he doesn’t want it to go on forever.
“I don’t want to turn ‘Hide/Seek’ into ‘Cats,’ where we’re doing a road-show production,” he says. It’s time, he argues, for other institutions to do original work on the themes “Hide/Seek” limned in broad strokes.
“My hope is that ‘Hide/Seek’ will have a really great year then, go ye forth and multiply,” Ward says.
Difference and Desire in American Portraiture on view at the Brooklyn Museum through Feb. 12, 2012. 200 Eastern Pkwy., New York. 718-638-5000. www.brooklynmuseum.org .