Queer History

Mike Newton Jan 24, 2012

“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture”
Brooklyn Museum
200 Eastern Parkway
Through Feb. 12

When the “Hide/Seek” exhibit opened in November at the Brooklyn Museum, it was greeted by calls from the Catholic Diocese of Brooklyn the Catholic League for the exhibit to be immediately disbanded. As with the “Sensation” exhibit at Brooklyn Museum in 1999 and Andres Serrano’s NEAfunded Piss Christ in 1989, the controversy surrounding the exhibit has centered around a single artwork which mixes Christian iconography with worldly filth — in this case, David Wojnarowicz’s unfinished 1987 film A Fire in My Belly. The film features ants crawling over a figurine of Christ on the cross. The film is something of a scattershot, super-8 Mexico travelogue; the image of Christ appears for only a few seconds, as do dancing marionettes, masked wrestlers and salacious newspaper headlines. In 2010, when the “Hide/ Seek” exhibit was on display at the National Portrait Gallery, museum officials paid dearly for those few seconds: Amidst pressure from legislators and talks of public defunding, the museum pulled the film from the show, which in turn caused some private backers to withdraw their support.

At the Brooklyn Museum, the film is back on view, as is the rest of the exhibit. It’s well worth seeing and, like me, you may be surprised at how conventional most of this show feels. Remember that this exhibit was originally curated for a Smithsonian museum, a stone’s throw from the National Mall. This is not a show of young upstarts or brash rebels — this is a show of American classics.

“Hide/Seek” works as a brief overview of 20th-century American art, and many of the works are portraits of other artists, like Berenice Abbott’s lovely 1926 photo of Djuna Barnes, or Alice Neel’s gawky 1960 painting of Frank O’Hara. The show begins with Thomas Eakins’s 1898 painting Salutat, in which a lithe, near-naked male boxer waves to a cheering crowd, his body stark against the black-clad viewers, all men. Elsewhere, painter Paul Cadmus presents two wonderfully distorted scenes of post-war postsurrealism, which dare to imagine sexual liberation as a triumphant virtue of enlightened cultures, and George Bellows’ 1915 painting of a noisy urban riverfront shows a fleshy, charged world of barely-suppressed desires. Andy Warhol’s 1957 drawing of a ludicrously flamboyant bit of footwear — called Truman Capote’s Shoe — is a message from one gifted queer artist to another, a goldleafed communiqué from a more closeted era. Not all of the artists in “Hide/Seek” are gay, but they all show a sensitivity to love and sex outside of heterosexual norms. Even Andrew Wyeth, a stalwart exemplar of traditional American draftsmanship, shows up with 1979’s The Clearing, a work of unambiguous homoeroticism.

Ironically, as the show moves closer to the present day, the artwork becomes less open and more coded (about sexuality, anyway). With the HIV/AIDS crisis raging, gay artists were given a dark world to work in. Robert Gober’s lonely 1992 stack of reproduced newspapers hints at an alienated life in Reaganized America; Keith Haring’s 1989 Unfinished Painting shows a boisterous, cartoonish scene, quickly unraveling into the void of an unused canvas (the next year, at age 31, Haring died from AIDS-related complications).

And of course, Wojnarowicz’s film is there, too, and I wonder if it was really the film that brought protesters out in the first place. Those accusations of “Hide/Seek” as somehow anti-religious were misguided, but this show does indeed have an agenda, a very noble one. Part of the conservative position against LGBT rights is that queer cultures — queer people — represent a new threat to American society at large. But “Hide/ Seek” shows that queer artists have profoundly shaped American culture for generations. From definitive painters like Grant Wood (of American Gothic fame), to pop-art pioneers Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg and portrait- photography doyenne Annie Leibovitz, it becomes clear that the history of queer artists in America is the history of American art itself. You can’t backlash against that.

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