Daily Picture Show

Express Yourself: A Major New Showcase Of Gay Portraiture

Hide/Seek is not exactly hidden, but to find it, you have to thread your way upstairs and through the crowds visiting a hugely popular Norman Rockwell exhibit at the adjacent Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C. Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery is a smaller show, but it marks the first time a major museum in the United States has dedicated an entire exhibition to gay and lesbian portraiture.

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    "Hike/Seek" begins in the 1880s with Walt Whitman — before the legal codification of "homosexual." Whitman spent the days before and after the Civil War with his lover, Peter Doyle, a Confederate deserter. Walt Whitman, 1891
    Walt Whitman/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    Eakins' Salutat, 1898, depicted a boxer after a fight — an object of admiration by a male audience, rather than an athlete in a fight.
    Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    American writer and art connoisseur Lincoln Kirstein founded a literary magazine at Harvard called Hound and Horn, which featured writing by the likes of Walker Evans and Alfred Stieglitz. Lincoln Kirsten in Dorm at Harvard, 1930
    Walker Evans/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    Georgia O'Keeffe, averse to the interpretations of her work, responded with a series of horns and antlers. According to the exhibition, this one was a "representation of womanhood, protected and bulwarked from the world of men." Goat's Horn with Red, 1945
    Georgia O'Keefe/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    "The Lavender Scare" of the 1950s, paralleling the Red Scare, refers to the persecution of gays and lesbians. Artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, lovers for years, opposed that prevailing political culture in their work. Canto XIV [From XXIV Drawings From Dante's Inferno], 1959
    Robert Rauschenberg/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    Souvenir, 1964
    Jasper Johns/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    Beauford Delaney was associated with, although not necessarily in, various circles in New York City — he had African-American friends in Harlem, white gay acquaintances in Greenwich Village, where he lived, and contemporaries in the modernist art circles. James Baldwin, 1963
    Beauford Delaney/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    The gay liberation movement arose after the Stonewall riots in New York City's Greenwich Village in 1969. Robert Mapplethorpe was a well-known artist-photographer at the time, also known as Patti Smith's lover. Self-Portrait, 1975
    Robert Mapplethorpe/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    The intellectual Susan Sontag had an early marriage to sociologist Peter Reiff, but later in life had a committed relationship with photographer Annie Leibovitz. Susan Sontag, 1975
    Peter Hujar/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    With his series of camouflaged portraits, Warhol continued to reinforce his notoriously evasive persona. Camouflage Self-Portrait, 1986
    Andy Warhol/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    In 1990, more than 18,000 Americans died of AIDS, painter Keith Haring being one of them. Unfinished Painting, 1989
    Keith Haring/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    Photographer Robert Mapplethorpe also died of AIDS in 1989 — which explains the stark contrast between this 1988 portrait and his playful 1975 portrait. Robert Mapplethorpe Self-Portrait, 1988
    Robert Mapplethorpe/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery
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    About a quarter-century after AIDS first appeared, a number of artists are examining gender identity in a way that resembles the exhibition's starting point. Ellen Degeneres, Kauai, Hawaii, 1997
    Annie Liebovitz/Courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery

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"To see artwork, all by gay men and women in this country, all exhibited in a place like this — it's amazing," enthused a visitor, Gary Fisher of Washington, D.C. He added tartly, "It's about time."

The artists are actually not all gay, but the subjects generally are. Co-curator Jonathan Katz is an eminent queer studies scholar and art historian. He agrees that the Smithsonian's involvement is a landmark achievement. "For a gay man of my generation to understand the federal government as a helpmeet was, shall we say, a new feeling," he observed.

Katz came of age as an art historian in 1989, when the Corcoran Gallery of Art canceled a retrospective of Robert Mapplethorpe's photographs. Their confrontational gay and S&M content stirred a furor in Congress. Since then, Katz says, major museums have basically blacklisted exhibitions focusing on gay sexuality. He put together this one with the Portrait Gallery's David C. Ward, and its reviews have been terrific. Ward credits that in part to their different perspectives.

"Jonathan is gay, I'm straight," Ward said. "Jonathan is the outside guy; I'm the inside guy."

Ward says Hide/Seek is one of the biggest and most expensive shows the National Portrait gallery has ever launched, with over a hundred works of art. The show includes an ad for Arrow dress shirts from 1914 that pictures a pair of handsome bachelors enjoying domestic bliss. The illustrator, J.C. Leyendecker, used his boyfriend as one of the models.

Other pieces in the exhibition include a pair of somber grey paintings by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg. Lovers for six years, the artists completed the paintings during their breakup. And a moving conceptual piece by Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), is a pile of Jolly-Rancher-type candies that weighs 175 pounds. That was the weight of his lover Ross Laycock, who died of AIDS-related complications. Viewers take candies until the piece vanishes, evoking the subject's slow passing — and his sweetness.

As well as portraiture by well known gay artists, such as Andy Warhol, Annie Leibovitz and Romaine Brooks, Hide/Seek also includes work by straight artists that seem to suggest an appreciation of same-sex erotics. For example, A 1979 portrait, titled The Clearing by Andrew Wyeth, of a handsome young beefcake with flowing blonde hair evokes a male Helga, the artist's female lover of many years.

Ward explained: "Wyeth said when you paint somebody's portrait you fall a little bit in love when them."

Hide/Seek will come to a close the day before Valentine's Day, 2011, but many of its images and much of its scholarship is available on its website.



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