whitehot | February 2011, Hide/Seek: Difference & Desire @ National Portrait Gallery
One’s Difference, Another’s Desire
This notion of equality has found odd reception within the scope of art history as well, leaving scholars with a cannon that is narrowly biographical but imbued significantly with formalist observations. Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture on at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery explores the changing history of expression surrounding same-sex personal freedoms that have appeared in the form of subtle visual codes. Such iconographic metaphors continued to expand and evolve throughout the 20th-century, but their identification as such still remains mostly unidentified within the larger scope of art historical discourse
Arranged chronologically, Hide/Seek opens with a black-and-white platinum print of poet, Walt Whitman, initially taken in 1891 but printed in 1979. The photographer was also the painter, Thomas Eakins, who portrayed the white-bearded Whitman reclining in a chair, set within a domestic interior. The portrait itself started out as a document, taken one year before Whitman died, and soon became a memory. Although Whitman had received extensive criticism for his masterpiece Leaves of Grass (1855) which embraced the freedoms of Enlightenment America, the controversy itself appears no further than the tired, worn expression seen on the poet’s face. However, Whitman’s suggestion of unbridled individualism became a metaphor that underscored many paintings by Thomas Eakins and, more subtly, the work of John Singer Sargeant.
Both Eakins and Sargeant were intent on re-articulating the Classical nude as a symbol of objective freedom when seen within the context of the art history that was utilized at that time, in the Salon of Paris. Salutat (1898) by Eakins, for example, depicts a young male boxer facing the packed crowd following a fight. The figure, in this piece, does not face the viewer nor does he appear to be stereotypically heroic, transforming the viewer into another spectator. Everyone looking, therefore, becomes a subject of the male gaze.
By comparison, Sargeant’s Nude Male Standing (1917-20) portrays an ideally proportioned model, who stands sideways and leans against a wall while looking directly at the viewer. A photograph by F. Holland Day titled The Vision (Orpheus Series) (1907) clearly conflates Whitman’s poetic premise of man as an element of nature, here portraying different exposures that represent a collage of a man standing nude in a forest overlaid with the profile of a portrait.
Painting and photography grew more visually complex as artists began to create personal iconographies. J.C. Leyendecker’s 1914 advertorial painting of two upper-middle class male models wearing his “Arrow Man,” shirts contrasts starkly with Marsden Hartley’s Painting No. 47, Berlin (1914-15) which depicts no one except for the personal effects of the artist’s love Karl von Freyburg, a German army officer who perished during World War I. George Bellows’ lithograph from 1917 titled The Shower Bath captures a New York City bath-house interior, with the same aesthetic detachment seen in urban photography. As an artist of the Ashcan School, Bellows merely painted random urban scenes, as a neutral observer, that were intended to piece together a larger portrait of the City.
Charles Demuth, however, eroticized the urbane and portrayed the sexualized bodies of navy sailors in Dancing Sailors (1917) and socialites in Cabaret Interior with Carl van Vechten (c. 1918) While additional work by Demuth can be viewed at the Whitney Museum’s current exhibition Modern Life: Edward Hopper and His Time, it should be noted that he and Bellows separately reflect the different pictorial aesthetics that were practiced in New York and Paris. Demuth, moreover, had been strongly influenced by the artists who attended Gertrude Stein’s salon when he traveled through Paris in the early 20th-century.
Shifts between metaphor and realism continue in both photography and painting until the mid-to-late 20th-century when homosexuality became a scourge during America’s Lavender Scare. Artists did not go underground but rather viscerally challenged the conventional pictorial surface. Robert Rauschenberg made opportunity out of America’s limited world-view and produced Canto XIV (1959) from Dante Alighieri’s Inferno written in the 14th-century. This particular lithograph portrays the sodomites running across hot sand. The large foot seen above appears to be an outline of the artist’s foot that looms high above the ground. However directly below is the smudged representation of an American flag signifying Jasper Johns.
Johns’ In Memory of My Feelings – Frank O’Hara (1961) layers paint over two wood panels that are hinged together in the center. On the left side, a spoon and fork hang together from a wire, as if these two pieces of cutlery created the painterly marks seen on the right side and lower left of the composition. However just as Souvenir (1964) is a mysterious representation of Johns himself, all of his work is embedded in codes that may mean something and nothing simultaneously.
The heart of this show appears toward the end when the tragedy of AIDS became the experience of meaning that swept and transformed the art world nationwide. Sexuality and gender identity became the muses that artists portrayed with abandon. Freedom, sexuality and expression suddenly became a performative embrace of everything in the face of death. “AutoPolaroids,” (1970-71) by Lucas Samaras, for instance, consists of 18 photographs that portray the artist in a series of guises, ranging from a stereotypical short hair male, with a cigarette, to a laughable drag queen, who attempts to inhabit a small fringe of the feminine.
David Wojnoarowicz’s photographic series Arthur Rimbaud in New York (1978-1979) depicts the artist performing his alter ego, wearing the portrait of irritable Rimbaud as a mask, placing him directly into the grit, that saturated the wasteland of New York City during the 1970s, and transforming the 19th-century dandy into a gigolo. Peter Hujar, lover of Wojnarowicz, became known for his black-and-white portraits of a gay community that quickly vanished. The unfinished painting by Keith Haring from 1989 continues the show’s ominous retreat toward the end, hanging in close proximity to Robert Mappelthorpe’s last self-portrait done in 1988.
Ironically Mappelthorpe’s portrait of Roy Cohn appears above on the wall, radiating both hypocrisy and revenge, given that Cohn built his career on the execution of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg as well as the continued harrassment of homosexual men. Cohn, Hujar, Mapplethorpe, Haring and Wojnarowicz died of AIDS within the short span of 6 years. AA Bronson’s Felix, June 5, 1994 (1994) portrays the artist’s emaciated lover shortly after dying of AIDS.
Regardless of the increasing number of fatalities, then President Ronald Reagan and Republican members of Congress actively diverted funds away from AIDS research. In response to this act of gross negligence, Wojnarowicz made a video titled A Fire in My Belly (1986-87) that combined desolate footage of daily life seen in Mexico, with the nude of a hustler’s body and small ants crawling over a bleeding crucifix. Soon after the Hide/Seek show opened to the public the Catholic League demanded that Congress cut funding to the Smithsonian.
Representatives John Boehner and Eric Cantor responded to Wojnarowicz’s work, concurring that the Smithsonian’s funding should be cut. In a hasty measure the Secretary of the Smithsonian G. Wayne Clough pulled A Fire in My Belly from public view and consequently violated the freedom of speech in this arm of the government. Despite the sensational news coverage, Hide/Seek unveils a different kind of iconography that has appeared consistently throughout 20th-century American art and opens up complex images to a series of deeper interpretations.
Noah Becker: Editor-in-Chief