Protesting video's removal, artist asks Portrait Gallery to take his work out of show

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 17, 2010; 12:43 PM

On Wednesday evening, just before the unveiling of one of his photographs in a prestigious show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, Canadian artist AA Bronson took an unusual step: He asked another major museum, the Smithsonian's National Portrait Gallery, to take another print of the same work down.

Bronson, who is a pioneer of gay-themed contemporary art, was protesting the controversial removal of a video from the Portrait Gallery show "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture," exploring art by and about homosexuals.

The exhibition, on view through Feb. 13, has been the subject of debate since Nov. 30, when Christian activists and members of Congress pressured the museum into removing a 1987 video by the late artist David Wojnarowicz; it included 11 seconds of footage of a crucifix crawling with ants.

The piece that Bronson has asked to be removed is his wall-size color photograph "Felix, June 5, 1994," showing the corpse of his partner, Felix Partz, lying in bed minutes or hours after he died of complications from AIDS.

The photo is one of the exhibition's linchpin works, which this writer praised as a "harrowing, almost unbearable image" in a review of "Hide/Seek."

"I do this out of solidarity with David Wojnarowicz," Bronson said by phone from New York on Thursday morning. "I feel I have no choice but to withdraw the work."

He said his decision came after the Smithsonian refused to reinstate Wojnarowicz's work in the show, even though the Andy Warhol Foundation had announced that it would withdraw future funding to Smithsonian shows if the video wasn't put back on display.

"As far as I'm concerned, everybody in the show should withdraw their work," Bronson said. He said a Portrait Gallery curator e-mailed asking that he reverse his decision, but he plans to forge ahead with the removal.

Bronson requested the withdrawal in an e-mail to Martin Sullivan, director of the Portrait Gallery, in which he informed Sullivan that he has asked the National Gallery of Canada, the work's owner, to take back the photo.

"I had resisted taking this step, hoping that some reconciliation could be reached regarding the censorship of the David Wojnarowicz video," Bronson wrote, "but it is clear that this is not coming anytime soon. As an artist who saw firsthand the tremendous agony and pain that so many of my generation lived through, and died with, I cannot take the decision of the Smithsonian lightly. To edit queer history in this way is hurtful and disrespectful."

If the Canadian museum chooses not to withdraw the work, it is not yet clear whether Bronson can force them to do so. "I don't think I need to compel them," he said. "I think they'll be quite supportive."

He said he has corresponded with a curator at the National Gallery of Canada who agrees with his position but had not yet spoken to the museum's director, Marc Mayer.

Bronson also raised the possibility that even Mayer might not have full authority to have the piece withdrawn, if the loan agreement were for a fixed term and the Smithsonian chose to enforce it - which, however, Bronson finds very unlikely.

Reached on Thursday afternoon, a Portrait Gallery spokesman said, "The work by AA Bronson is currently up on view. We will adhere to the loan agreement, and the lender has not asked us for this to be removed."

On Thursday evening, the National Gallery of Canada said that Mayer was not yet ready to comment on the matter, as he had yet to speak to the artist.

Reflecting on the controversy over the Wojnarowicz video, Bronson said that "the issue is not an issue of art versus religion."

Though not a follower of any single creed ("I've never figured out what I am"), Bronson works as artistic director of the Institute for Art, Religion and Social Justice at Union Theological Seminary in New York, which describes itself as "the oldest independent, nondenominational seminary in the nation."

He said that many of his peers at the seminary find Wojnarowicz's video to be an "entirely appropriate" use of Jesus on the cross, whose image, they think, stands for "universal suffering." Bronson said he believes "a very large contingent of Christians" would approve of this reading of the video, "but it is less visible than the Christian right."

Though raised in the Anglican Church in Canada, Bronson says he stopped practicing when he was 7 because of fury at a hypocritical Sunday-school teacher.

More recently, he spent 14 years as a practicing Buddhist. "In the end," he said, "I seem to have come back in the direction of Christianity."

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