SCOTT SIMON, host:
This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.
For the first time a major museum in the United States is dedicating an exhibition to gay and lesbian portraiture. The show, titled "Hide/Seek," has opened at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.
NPR's Neda Ulaby paid a visit.
(Soundbite of crowd)
NEDA ULABY: "Hide/Seek" is not exactly hidden, but to find it you've got to thread your way upstairs and through massive crowds visiting a nearby Norman Rockwell exhibition. But Gary Fisher came to see just this show. He's an artist in D.C.
Mr. GARY FISHER (Artist): To see artwork all by gay men and women in this country exhibited in a place like this, it's just absolutely amazing. It's about time.
ULABY: The artists are actually not all gay, but the subjects mostly are. Jonathan Katz is a queer studies scholar who co-curated the exhibition. He cannot overstate the significance of the Smithsonian Institution's involvement.
Dr. JONATHAN KATZ (Curator): For a gay man of my generation to understand the federal government as a helpmate was, shall we say, a new feeling.
ULABY: 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.
This one was co-curated by David C. Ward of the Portrait Gallery.
Mr. DAVID C. WARD (Curator): You know, we kind of jumped into this without really knowing what we were doing. It was a little like Internet dating - you don't know if you really want to trust the picture.
ULABY: Back story: Ward curated a National Portrait Gallery exhibition about the Civil War that included a photograph of Walt Whitman and a male lover. They were identified as such on the title card. When Jonathan Katz visited the exhibition, he was amazed Ward did not get into any trouble for it.
They eventually became friends and their co-curated show has so far gotten great reviews. Ward credits that to their differences.
Mr. WARD: Jonathan is gay. I'm straight. Jonathan is the outside guy. I'm the inside guy. Jonathan is the academic. I'm a little bit more the bureaucrat.
ULABY: 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, and music.
(Soundbite of song, "Prove It on Me Blues")
Ms. MA RAINY (Singer): (Singing) Went out last night. Had a great big fight, everything seems to goin' wrong...
ULABY: Even this is portraiture, says scholar Jonathan Katz, a tune by blues singer Ma Rainey that refers to her arrest in 1925 for throwing a lesbian party.
Dr. KATZ: And then she goes onto say: Yes, it's true. I wear a collar and a tie. Yes, it's true, I don't like men. In other words, she's teasing us with the revelation of her lesbian identity.
ULABY: The show's title, "Hide/Seek," refers to the artists' quest to represent desires that for years lay beyond social norms. They worked in code or used the cover of a clueless culture.
The show includes an ad for shirts from 1914 that pictures a pair of handsome bachelors enjoying domestic bliss. The illustrator used his boyfriend for one of the models.
"Hide/Seek" is intentionally complicated, with work by straight artists that nonetheless reveal an appreciation of same-sex erotics. No one could claim Andrew Wyeth was gay. He is famous for his autumn-colored portraits of his lover Helga, but this show includes his portrait of a blond nude man - Helga as beefcake.
Curator David C. Ward...
Mr. WARD: Wyeth said that when you paint somebody's portrait, you fall a little bit in love with them.
ULABY: "Hide/Seek" includes a lot of works that might be tough to call portraits at first. Two abstract paintings by Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg are hung close together. They're both big, grey and somber. Johns and Rauschenberg were boyfriends for six years. These paintings were finished during their breakup. Jasper Johns, known for his iconic flag images, covered this one under a wash of dark paint.
Mr. WARD: That's where the stars would have been in an American flag, and the stars have gone out. His relationship with Rauschenberg is over.
ULABY: An even sadder portrait is a conceptual work. It's by Felix Gonzales-Torres, and meant to evoke his lover, Ross Laycock, who died of complications from AIDS.
Curator David C Ward...
Mr. WARD: It's 175 pounds of candy, which was Ross's weight when he was healthy. And you, the visitor - and I'm going to ask you to do this - everybody takes one candy away.
(Soundbite of wrapper)
ULABY: It's melon.
Mr. WARD: Gradually, over time, the weight dwindles from 175 to nothing and Ross disappears, as he did.
(Soundbite of a song)
Unidentified Man: (Singing) Thinking of you...
ULABY: A video shows an underground kitschy film from the 1970s, overripe with matadors and Greek gods. The show also includes well-known gay artists: Andy Warhol, Thomas Eakins, Romaine Brooks. The juxtaposition of their work makes it hard to ignore their subtexts, their shades of hiding and exposing.
Mr. WARD: We have Annie Leibowitz's portrait of Ellen DeGeneres. And DeGeneres is wearing the white face of a mime. She's wearing men's boxer shorts. She's posed in a kind of quintessential Playboy model pose, cupping her breasts.
ULABY: The tension in so much of this work reflects the tension and the interplay between artists and culture, between gay and straight. The struggle to express the presence of desire makes this, says Ward, a show that's really about everyone.
Neda Ulaby, NPR News.
SIMON: And you can see photos from that exhibit on our website, npr.org.