HIDE/SEEK Difference and Desire in American Portraiture
Smithsonian Books

HIDE/SEEK is the exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery which became a political cause celeb over a short film by David Wojnarowicz that depicts ants swarming a crucifix. It has been deemed anti-religious by right-wing politicos, who also claim, falsely, that a gay exhibit is funded with public money. Even more shocking than the censoring is that the National caved-in and removed the purportedly offending work. (See Robert Nesti’s EDGE commentary) A stinging reminder that homophobia thrives and Jesse Helms gay art bashing equals state-sanctioned censorship.

The film has been removed from the exhibition, but is being shown, in protest, at other galleries and is getting a lot of hits on YouTube. The benefit of censorship is that more people want to judge for themselves. For its part, The National asserts that they weren’t buckling under political pressure, but that they don’t want the totality of the exhibit to be lost in the debate (or further maligned).
You couldn’t blame anyone for boycotting over the censorship, but if it doesn’t matter to you the book of the exhibit is a must see and read for art lovers and anyone interested in GLBTQ cultural history. It displays an unprecedented collection of over 100 years of art by and for GLBT viewers. In addition to sterling plate transfers of the art and photography, the book has invaluable commentary by gay historian Jonathan Katz and curator David Ward. It fills in so many missing figures and creative motives, indeed, gay aesthetic of the history of American art. And as Katz and Ward illustrate a visual language before there was a legal vocabulary of gay life.

Of course, some of the most famous gay icons appear- Bessie Smith, Gertrude Stein, Frank O’Hara , Walt Whitman, Lincoln Kirstein, Allen Ginsberg- works from
Thomas Eakins, Romaine Brooks, George Platt Lynes, Marsden Hartley, Georgia O’Keeffe, Charles Demuth, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Andrew Wyeth, Andy Warhol, Keith Haring, Annie Lebowitz and Robert Mapplethorpe. But just as interesting are the dozens of other lesser know figures pushing the bar at a pivotal time in gay culture.

 

Bravery is an accumulated theme of the book from nudes from the 1900s that document secret lives, to the boldness of Demuth and Brooks in the 20s depicting explicit gay subcultures, to the uncompromising courage of the artists in the 80s with confrontational art about AIDS and homophobia as they were witnessing the decimation of their colleagues to a mostly indifferent public perception.
Katz and Ward’s study and annotation of the art work is in your face art and artist history, elegant and extravagant commentary that doesn’t back away from the sexual lives of the artists that was fueling their work. It is provocatively revisionist. Katz’s style is both succinct and stream of consciousness- This isn’t beach reading or a cover table decoration.

 

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