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.
(Copyright Trustees of Princeton University) - Minor White (American, 1908-1976), ‘Tom Murphy (San Francisco),’ 1948. Gelatin silver print.
(Courtesy Brooklyn Museum) - ‘Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture’ installation image.
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.