A New Exhibit Proves It Takes at Least Two to Play Hide and Seek
by Chael Needle
There’s a danger that “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” currently running at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., will become known as the exhibition whose hosting institution, the Smithsonian, censored a work by an artist who has come to have a major influence on how we understand AIDS. This happened on the eve of World AIDS Day. And that work is a four-minute video excerpt of David Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly, a dark fantasia made in response to the death from AIDS-related complications of the artist’s lover, Peter Hujar, and out of his own response to living with AIDS.
The Secretary of the Smithsonian, G. Wayne Clough, chose to remove the optionally accessed video because of complaints—some from people who had contacted the institution, some from members of Congress—that a depiction of a crucifix on the ground with ants walking on it was anti-Christian. The exhibition was censored without the input of one of its curators, Jonathan D. Katz, director, visual studies doctoral program, SUNY Buffalo, and against the objections of its other, David C. Ward, historian, National Portrait Gallery.
The modus operandi of religious conservatives to reduce everything to one inalterable meaning is a hopelessly naïve tactic, especially in this context, for the artwork assembled for the exhibition does the opposite of reduce—the 105 works expand, expand, expand. They contain multitudes, to paraphrase Walt Whitman, who serves as a kind of grand marshall of “Hide/Seek” through the inclusion of his poetry and photographic portraits taken by Thomas Eakins and Matthew Brady. The exhibition seeks to “follow Walt Whitman in lifting the veil on what has been hidden in the discussion of American art history,” as the program notes state. What’s been hidden is “the gay and lesbian presence in American art,” as Ward stated on the PBS News Hour, adding that another aim is to explore how canonical works, such as those by John Singer Sargent, George Platt Lynes, Georgia O’Keefe, Andy Warhol, and Romaine Brooks, among other heavy hitters, have been “only partially interpreted.”
The exhibition seeks to expand the range of possible critical and affective responses to difference and desire by artists and audiences of all walks. It seeks to expand the meaning of portraiture by including abstract work by Marsden Hartley and Robert Rauschenberg. And it seeks to expand our knowledge of how oppressive binaries such as straight/queer were negotiated by different artists and subjects.
The exhibition also expands the conventional timeline of LGBTQ art history. Starting with “Before Difference,” which gestures toward a time before the medicalized labeling of desire by nineteenth and early twentieth century sexologists really took hold, the exhibition moves through the urbanite camoflauging of “Modernism,” the burgeoning subculture identities of “The 1930s and After,” the “Consensus and Conflict” of the conservative 1950s, the coming-out narratives and civil-rights actions of “Stonewall and After,” the politics and pain of “AIDS,” and the postmodern move beyond mourning in “New Beginnings.”
Katz is prepping to mount his latest exhibition, “Art/AIDS/America.” He describes it as an “attempt to change the discourse on AIDS, which has tended to understand art about AIDS as a kind of self-contained bubble, tangential to the [corpus] of American art history. That approach seriously misunderstands the import of AIDS and does a real disservice to a profound and painful sociohistorical moment.” He continues: “What AIDS did was to take that postmodernist dominant discourse and shift it radically. And it’s not just artists with AIDS that did that; it really changed what we understood art to deliver in America. The whole poetic postmodernism—a postmodernism that says something, but says it poetically rather than [as] flat-out agitprop—that we now see as the mainstream of American art was born there.”
Chael Needle: How did you and co-curator David C. Ward come to decide on portraiture?
Jonathan D. Katz: I had been trying to do a broad-based LGBTQ history and art show for quite a while and kept having doors slammed in my face. The National Portrait Gallery, and especially David Ward, seemed interested, so as a consequence portraiture became its focus.
Through the process did you find that portraiture more than other genres lent itself to the ideas you were interested in?
No…I mean, I would have been able to include work that I did not include because of the portraiture rubric had it been at a different kind of institution, but, with that said, we have made a portraiture exhibition capacious enough to carry some of the biggest things I wanted to explicate.
Many of the portraits seem to establish a conversation between artist and subject that highlights difference and desire—Janet Flanner’s portrait by Berenice Abbott or James Baldwin’s portrait by Beauford Delaney. Is there something about queer portraiture that is particularly collaborative?
When one engages in the prospect of making visible something that socially speaking was often rather aggressively camouflaged, it becomes necessary to make the project collaborative.
Portraiture is a form of combat between the sitter and the portraitist. The portraitist is after one thing; the sitter is after another, very often. Yet when it comes to this question I think both sides need to negotiate a common ground.
What I found remarkable about that Flanner image, for example, was the careful thinking-through at a moment when there was no historical precedent for how to signify lesbianism in a way that did not simply appeal to the heterosexual male gaze. To give it form. And it also evaded the problem that governed so many representations of women together which is that we tend to naturalize and make female intimacy sexual.
So that was intentional—the move away from the conventional erotic representations?
Absolutely. On the one hand, the historical forms of lesbian representation had primarily been intended to excite men. The other option was just to show female intimacy, without necessarily erotic activity. [The women in these representations] would be read simply as their family or their friends. So, how then does one suggest, specifically, a lesbian identity? Abbott took that as her task and in concert with Flanner solved it brilliantly.
Also, in order to code something you have to bank on the fact that there’s somewhere out there who can decode it.
That’s a wonderful point because what it begins to suggest is the advent of an identity category not only in the sitter but among the audience.
That is one thing we tried to communicate—the birth of the binary of queer and straight.
Were there any challenges when you reached the “AIDS” section?
There were several challenges. First, how do you avoid a teleology that makes AIDS somehow unintentionally the necessary end of the process that we developed historically all the way through? The other problem is, how do you negotiate the extremely painful, extremely raw emotional power of these works, which were propelled by an imperative that other works were not, such that they do not totally swamp the show? Ultimately what we decided to do was to more or less think of AIDS historically, which is to say give it the percentage of wall space that it occupied historically within the full span of the 120 years of the exhibition.
Obviously artists responding to AIDS weren’t thinking along the lines necessarily of a Jasper Johns, who was participating in an artistic conversation among other things; their first intention was not to enter the canon or make a splash.
Well, in fact one of the things that we’re trying to suggest rather subtly in this, and which is going to be the main focus of “Art/AIDS/America,” is that at this moment historically, when postmodernism ruled the roost in the American art world and the [starting] assumption was, as Barthes put it, “the death of the author,” that artists were only one part of the signifying machinery and that audiences were the much more significant part, what do you do with the “death of the author” when authors actually start to die? And how can you, while acknowledging the complexity of that relationship, nonetheless say something definitive?
Especially when there are people out there who are trying to empty signs of the content that they don’t like.
Absolutely. And mind you not only in terms of the political Neanderthals but also within the art world itself, [a world] which at this moment was very much interested in exploring the mechanisms of signification ahead of what was signified itself. October Magazine is a classic example of that.
What’s your sense of the censorship of Wojnarowicz’s A Fire in My Belly—is it a reinvigoration of the culture wars or is it a last, desperate gasp?
In my brighter moments, I think dinosaurs squawk before they become extinct, and that this may be the squawking moment. But I also think there’s a very cynical calculation on the part of the Right here. I have no doubt that the thirty days between the mounting of the exhibition and its attack was being used strategically by our enemies. I wouldn’t be surprised if they focus-grouped forms of attack and tried to find a handle. Perversely, there’s actually something progressive about this particular red herring of religion, which suggests that the old politics of “There’s a queer—kill it!” is a politics of diminishing return and that they had to invent a new handle to attack the exhibition. That said, I have no doubt that they’re trying to seek a culture war, and they’re trying to seek a culture war because the Right has continuously fed off of the debris produced in such wars. And old habits die hard.
I’m hoping, and in this I’m in a profoundly different position than—to my mind, the shortsighted understanding of the Secretary of the Smithsonian—that the Right makes the miscalculation of attacking the Smithsonian. Anybody who stands on the Mall and looks at that constellation of majestic museums immediately recognizes its centrality to the construction of American culture. It may very well be that attacking that institution is the only thing that will get the vast bulk of Americans roused enough to say, “Wait a minute, we believe in government support for arts and culture.”
“Hide/Seek” will run through February 13, 2011, at the National Portrait Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. View A Fire in My Belly on YouTube and many other on-line sites. A catalogue is available for purchase through the Smithsonian and booksellers such as Amazon.com.
Chael Needle is Managing Editor of A&U.