Berenice Abbott, Janet Flanner, 1927. Gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 by 7 3/8 in. Courtesy Brooklyn Museum
A Berenice Abbott photographic portrait from 1927 features Janet Flanner. She appears androgynous, self-assured and strong as she gazes directly into the camera, directly into the viewer. She wears a theatrical top hat signaling both the performative nature of gender and also conventional “masculinity.” There are two masks strapped around that hat, just above her gaze, suggesting multiple disguises as well as the dual roles that she may play. The presence of the masks makes an almost overt reference to her alter ego and literary pseudonym, Genet. The work conjures the ways in which a person’s gendered self, erotic nature, and sexual desire are bound up with personal identity and, as such, play an essential role in artistic expression. This is a central theme in the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.”
Co-curated by Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward and first on view at The National Portrait Gallery, the exhibition is now at The Brooklyn Museum. Spanning 100 years of art and several movements, it interprets the idea of portraiture generously in its selection of work, which includes painting, works on paper, sculpture, photography, film, and even installation art. The curatorial intent is to “explore the role of sexual identity” in American portraiture and to bring themes of same-sex desire into mainstream view. The use of the word “different” in the exhibit title seems more in keeping with binary notions of gender and sexuality than with suggesting the idea of a spectrum of diverse desires, sexual practices, and gender presentations. This limitation notwithstanding, the exhibition does function to highlight the strong presence that both gay and lesbian artists have had in the art world over the last century.
It’s easy to criticize the show for what it fails to include. For one, it is male-centric in its scope, especially in the sections devoted to the mid 20th century through the present. Moreover, the curators have largely chosen to avoid work that is bold or challenging with regard to gender and sexuality from the seventies to the present. Instead, the work representing this period feels tame and the conspicuous absence of certain well-known pieces makes the exhibit feel as if it had been museum washed, or censored. It is not that all of the artists well known for boundary-pushing work on sexuality and gender are altogether excluded, but rather that the works the curators have chosen by artists like Catherine Opie, Robert Mapplethorpe, Nan Goldin, and Larry Clark seem “establishment” and purposefully chosen to be inoffensive. Furthermore, what feels wholly unarticulated in the exhibit is the modern and contemporary queer. One of a few exceptions is the lone work by Cass Bird, I Look Just Like My Daddy (2003). The exhibit would have benefited from contemporary work by an artist like AL Steiner, who really takes risks in exploring sexuality, desire and gender. Even the inclusion of work by ‘straight’ artists who play with gender and sexuality like Cindy Sherman, Vito Acconci, Mathew Barney, or The Chapman Brothers would have been welcome.
AA Bronson, "Felix, June 5, 1994." 1994. Lacquer on vinyl, 84 by 168 in. Courtesy Brooklyn Musuem
An exception to the overall ‘G’ rating of the show is the daring photograph by A.A Bronson, Felix, June 5, 1994 (1994), which shows a man’s atrophied body post-mortem, propped up in his death-bed. Often criticized for its shock value, the work is undeniably provocative. Interestingly, while at times sexuality gets a somewhat muted treatment, the subject of AIDS does not. The loss that overcame the homosexual community in the eighties and nineties as a result of AIDS is palpably experienced in this piece as well as in works by Bill Jacobson, David Wojnarowicz, and Felix Gonzalez-Torres. The exhibit appears to all lead up to this morbid finish. It seems an unintended moralistic message.
While it is perhaps easy to criticize “Hide/Seek” for what it isn’t, there are many strengths and accomplishments in what it is. The exhibition tells a rich historical story. Wall texts, for the most part, complement the visual work, sharing interesting social information about the artist or persons depicted and their coterie. Organized chronologically, the exhibition begins with some of the most surprising and delightful work on view.
There is an excitement in seeing this early work that arises from the tension created by its depictions of “forbidden” desires and behaviors. Sometimes this takes the form of suggesting a subtle line crossing, for example between male camaraderie and homosexual yearning, as in J.C Leyendecker’s Men Reading (1914). Or the way in which the all-male audience’s gaze, in Thomas Eakins Salutat (1898), seems to be subtly yet salaciously focused on the backside of the toned male athlete. Other gems among the early works are Romaine Brooks’s depictions of gender non-conforming women, Self-Portrait (1923) and Una, Lady Troubridge (1924). In each, a woman peeks out from under masculine (even drag) clothing and reveals herself as queer. It is satisfying to see same-sex desire and homoerotic imagery from the early twentieth century.
It is especially fascinating to encounter George Bellows’s lithograph, The Shower-Bath (1917), which shows an effeminate bather pointing his backside toward a butch-looking man who holds his towel at his groin, concealing his arousal in the crowded public bathhouse. The wall text explains that while the feminine man would have been marked as queer, the masculine one would have escaped marking because this was “what men do.” It is most interesting to note that this is a lithograph produced in multiple, suggesting that there was a market for this imagery.
Among other highlights are Abbott’s portraits (including that of Janet Flanner), which feature members of the “fashionable… wealthy expatriate lesbian” scene in Paris. The wall texts here, and elsewhere, conjure secret worlds where “sexuality was fluid” and people were “free to experiment.” Another nearby wall text describes a salon that included Marcel Duchamp and was hosted by “New York’s cultural elite in [a] flamboyantly decorated upper east side apartment.” Viewers are invited into a vivid fantasy about life in these particular times and spaces where gay literary and artistic glitterati consorted.
There are other great moments throughout the exhibit, from early homoerotic works by Charles Demuth (1983-1935) to mid-century coded abstractions by Marsden Hartley and Robert Rauschenberg. Frank O’Hara looms large in postwar works on view, with a nude portrait of him by Larry Rivers taking center stage. There are a number of references to Walt Whitman, for example the fiercely moving work by David Hockney entitled We Two Boys, Together Clinging (1961).
Overall, the exhibition recontextualizes significant artists and artworks by asking viewers to consider sexuality within the “portraits.”. .Most notably successful perhaps is the work of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. While the youthful relationship between Rauschenberg and Johns is well known, looking at their work in this context clarifies the intimate references can be that traced through their early work.
When I first heard about this curatorial effort, I was skeptical of what seemed an attempt to highlight an under-represented theme for political reasons. How could it not be reductionist, and to some extent prevent the work from really being seen in its wholeness? Yet my most optimistic and private self was thrilled to see curators take on such important, fascinating and exciting territory. Overall, my optimism was in large part rewarded.