Influential Margins: LGBTQ Artists in The American Tradition of Portraiture

Two months after Robert Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989, Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art cancelled a solo show of his photographs featuring nude men and homosexual language.

Two months after Robert Mapplethorpe’s death in 1989, Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art cancelled a solo show of his photographs featuring nude men and homosexual language. Considered scandalous by several members of Congress, threats ensued. Fear of losing future federal grants caused the private gallery to cancel the show.

Twenty one years later, this October, the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. opened the first ever museum show addressing the presence and influence of LGBTQ artists in the American tradition of portraiture. Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture traces an evolution of same sex themes and codes from the Gilded Age through the end of the twentieth century.

Annie Leibovitz, Ellen DeGeneres, Kauai, Hawaii, 1997. Gelatin silver print, 20 x 16″. Collection of the artist. © Annie Leibovitz 2010.

This show proves that American artists have been investigating portrayals of homosexuality, female body image and spaces of gender long before the 70s—an era branded as the one dismantling such social structures. Not all artists in the show are homosexual. Among the almost one hundred pieces are major works by George Bellows, Romaine Brooks, AA Boson, Thomas Eakins, Peter Hujar, Annie Leibovitz, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Nan Goldin, Marsden Hartley, David Hockney, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, Mapplethorpe, Agnes Martin, Andy Warhol.

Co-curators David C. Ward (historian at the National Portrait Gallery) and Jonathan Katz (activist academic and scholar) were kind enough to answer my questions about this substantial and ground-breaking show.

I’d like to congratulate you both on such an ambitious project. How did this exhibit shape itself from inception to installation?
David C. Ward:
Thanks. This exhibition grew out of my Walt Whitman exhibition of 2006 in which I showed a portrait of Whitman and his lover Peter Doyle and discussed their relationship in the label. Jonathan, who I did not know, introduced himself and asked if I had had trouble getting that label up on the wall because that was the first time that the Whitman-Doyle relationship had ever been acknowledged in a major museum exhibition.

From this, we evolved a discussion about the silence and contribution of LGBT artists in the creation of modern portraiture, a silence that seemed only to have gotten worse after the Mapplethorpe controversy of 1989. As someone interested in the whole question of gay presence, Jonathan had been working on a museum exhibition like Hide/Seek for much of his career and had been frustrated in not finding a venue. I was interested in the question intellectually, but also because the NPG has a commitment to show the diversity of the American people and the full range of this country’s history. Moreover, it’s a visually very striking exhibition so we hit all the notes for a successful exhibition.

Cass Bird, I look just like my daddy, 2003. C-41 print, 30 x 40″. Collection of the artist. © Cass Bird.

Jonathan, what was the biggest obstacle preventing you from mounting an exhibition like this in New York?
Jonathan Katz: There has been a virtual blacklist on LGBTQ themed exhibitions in American museums since Jesse Helms fanned the flames of culture war with his attacks on Mapplethorpe and the NEA. As scholarship on LGBT art has progressed in the over 2 decades since that cultural nadir, the museum world has nonetheless remained closed off. That this exhibition is taking place at the Smithsonian Portrait Gallery, and not a museum of contemporary or modern art is, in its way, eloquent.

How long did it take to launch this show?
David C. Ward: The Smithsonian was great in supporting both the initial proposal and as we worked through the creation of the project. The proposal was approved in late 2007 but I really date the lift-off to the show to June 2008 when we received the first major donation for the exhibit.

We have to raise money for public programs, including exhibition, and without the support of many people this show wouldn’t have happened. Once we had a major donation, we were not only committed but we had the resources to begin active work on putting the exhibition together. I have to thank the staff of the NPG for its responsiveness in getting all the work done that was necessary to bring the show into being. It’s been a great experience and we’re now seeing the fruits of our work with all the positive responses we’re getting from the press and the public.

The styles and generations differ greatly in this show. What is the binding thread among selected portraits?
Jonathan Katz: This exhibition underscores the diversity of voices, styles and, not least, sexualities that make up GLBTQ art in America. Artists are gay and straight, as are sitters, evidence of the degree to which our assumption of a polarity between gay and non-gay is, historically, unsustainable. At the same time, many of the portraits deploy a coy indirection, signaling one thing to an audience able to read the codes while leaving the sometimes hostile majority out in the cold.

Romaine Brooks, Self-Portrait, 1923. Oil on canvas, 46 1/4 x 26 7/8″. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington D.C.

Romaine Brooks’s Self-portrait reads like a response to John Singer Sargent. A response to postures and deliberate expressions of femininity.
Jonathan Katz: I think Brooks is here searching for a vocabulary to make visible lesbianism that was neither stereotypical nor erotic to straight men. Her forthright assertion of a masculine attire and posture is of a piece with this.

How have traditional art curricula benefited from the “influential marginality” of the voice of LGBTQ artists as creators?
Jonathan Katz: There is no single anything. There are instead a multiplicity of contributions that vary in different historical moments and as the meaning of sexual difference itself shifts historically. But LGBTQ artists, who had long, and of necessity, thought about the meanings of visibility as against hiding or camouflage as a matter of survival, were therefore adept at playing the margins.

Are there undertones of art as activism? Or are the works about personal expression?
Jonathan Katz: Many works are aggressively political and confrontational, and this does not only date to AIDS or even the post Stonewall period. There is a 1951 collage by Jess that angrily denounces homophobia (The Mouse’s Tale) while other activist work negotiates female body image, gender, race and a host of other activist agendas alongside questions of sexuality.

Alice Neel, Frank O’Hara, 1960. Oil of canvas, 33 3/4 x 16″. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. Estate of Alice Neel.

The dynamic expatriate literary circles in Paris were dominated by gay and lesbian progressive thinkers, who have inspired generations. But has American Art properly distilled these ideas?
Jonathan Katz: We have distilled the formal lessons, but nothing related to subject matter. In other words, we are happy to address how expatriate Paris expanded the boundaries of the permissible in stylistic terms, but not in terms of content. To divorce these two innovations is to seriously misunderstand the work and the period.

What have you noticed or learned after completing this exhibition that you hadn’t anticipated?
Jonathan Katz: I feared the exhibition’s diversity of styles, personalities, eras, and sexualities would be too broad and people would find the exhibition confusing or hard to follow. Instead, people are spending hours in the exhibition, reading all the labels, and thoughtfully engaging the work. It’s been enormously gratifying.

Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture will be exhibited until February 13, 2011 at National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F Streets, NW, D.C., 20001, New York NY.