At the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, the elephant is not in the room. [note: this blog was first published on January 6, 2011]
The missing pachyderm is, of course, the David Wojnarowicz video “A Fire in My Belly,” which the gallery pulled in response attacks by the Catholic League and members of Congress for being “offensive to Christians.” And visiting the NPG last week, the ghosts of this artwork and its creator (who died of AIDS at the age of 37) haunt the galleries and the visitor. And, like all ghosts, these are frightening, terribly sad and a reminder of our own—and our culture’s—vulnerability.
You could argue that this groundbreaking (and truly wonderful) show started out with impossible goals. Even if right-wing bullies hadn’t successfully attacked it, Hide/Seek was already trying to do so much that it might have been doomed by its own ambition. But somehow it does succeed—and in a way, the shadow of the missing video allows us to see the art, the artists and even ourselves, more clearly.
For me the show, like its name, has two sides. The earlier section rescues the gay context of many beloved artists and their creations. It is a joy to look at paintings and drawings and understand what they meant to their creators. Some artists encoded their love and desire, as Marsden Hartley did in his symbolic memorial portrait of a lover who died in battle. Other artworks are more open—but a combination of homophobia, willful blindness and art history’s prudish sensibilities (and general aversion to social history) relegated many to minor status while stripping others of their sexuality. It is lovely to be able to look at a painting, like Larry River’s joyful, nude portrait of Frank O’Hara and recognize how sexy and celebratory it is, without feeling like you are somehow misunderstanding the painter’s intentions. The taboo against recognizing desire, especially gay desire, is so codified that it feels almost like misbehaving to see that two of Charles Demuth’s lusty “Dancing Sailors” are dancing with each other.
In later works, artists continue to mask their love and desire with symbols and private references, like the beautiful semi-abstract tributes lovers Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns created for one another in the 1950s. But with the flowering of gay pride and openness in the 1960s, creators picked up cameras and paintbrushes to celebrate each other and themselves. The gorgeous cheeky Polaroid self-portrait of Robert Mapplethorpe is as vibrant and beautiful as any Renaissance angel.
All this makes the tragedy of AIDS all the more painful. I approached the rooms featuring the art of the 1980s, with a sense of sadness and dread. Keith Haring’s unfinished painting, with its charming playful figures disappearing mid-canvas and threadlike drips brought me almost to tears. (I still remember seeing his very first glowing baby graffiti in the subways stations along the Lexington Avenue line.) In Mapplethorpe’s second self-portrait, he is gaunt and grips a death’s head cane. It is hard to forget (and painful to remember) how AIDS patients were feared and hated and how under-funded AIDS research was—for years. And here is where David Wojnarowicz’s video belonged.
Wojnarowicz, who was ill and mourning the death of his mentor and lover Peter Hujar, traveled to Mexico, where he explored his grief and anger through art. I watched the video that the Smithsonian had edited for the exhibition and then pulled (available online athttp://vimeo.com/17692112). With a soundtrack of crowds yelling slogans (“Black, white, gay, straight, AIDS does not discriminate!”), the film incorporates scenes of beggars, fire-eaters, mummies, religious statues (a saint holding her eyes in a plate, her sockets bloody), coins splashing in a bowl of blood, slabs of meat and (most controversially) ants crawling on a crucifix. For me, footage of Wojnarowicz sewing his mouth closed with yarn and scenes in which a dancing marionette is shot and burned were especially upsetting. The video is ugly, visceral, furious and painfully alive while confronting terrible violence and death. I think that Hide/Seek needed this intensity and political outrage.
We all want to think that we are living in another time, another age. The “gay plague” was diagnosed and there are treatments that allow HIV-positive people to live long and healthy lives (at least in first-world countries). Ellen DeGeneres (who appears in the show in a photo by Annie Leibovitz) is a beloved entertainer who appears publicly with her wife. Glee is one of the most popular shows on television. The Internet is flooded with “It Gets Better Videos.” And there is a lotof reason for hope and optimism. But…
Some years ago (in the early 1990s—after we started Milestone but before we became parents), Dennis and I presented a silent film at an excellent and (usually) well-attended film series at a public library in an upscale town on Long Island. We had been to the library before and we were comfortable speaking about our films and answering questions. And, of course, we had seen this particular film many times. The intro went great, the projection was flawless and then we stood up at the front of the room started discussing the film and fielding questions.
As usual, we took turns. After thanking the audience for coming, I talked about the film, and how it was made and mentioned that the director, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau was gay. And I spoke about how the film, Tabu, a story of a sweet and innocent love that is forbidden under punishment of death. I said that I thought it was a metaphor, a retelling, of Murnau’s own romantic situation.
Well, that educated, middle-class audience did not like my comments, at all. You could actually see them react—the entire audience frowned and stiffened their backs. One man stood up to tell me so in no uncertain terms that I was needlessly ruining a nice story and that he didn't want to hear any more about it. Well, I got the message. After that Dennis and I talked about everything else we could think of—the music, the editing, the actors, the lovely island of Tahiti.
But you know, I do believe that Tabu is gay love story told through straight characters. And that doesn’t make it less wonderful or joyous or beautiful for me. In fact, it makes me happy to think that Murnau (whose real name was Plumpe and chose his professional name because Murnau was a town where he and his boyfriend had stayed together) was able to celebrate his own romantic love through his art. So for my angry friend in the Port Washington Library, I am sorry I upset you, but let us continue to celebrate gay art and yes, to say its name. Out loud.