It's the exhibit that made headlines: HIDE/SEEK, the groundbreaking examination of sexuality and gay identity in American portraiture.
The exhibition, which opened in Washington, D.C.'s National Portrait Gallery last fall, generated all kinds of invective from anti-gay groups due to an 11-second clip in a film by David Wojnarowicz that showed ants crawling on a crucifix. Last week, the show opened at the Brooklyn Museum -- but not before the Bishop of Brooklyn had gotten a few words in edgewise. An anti-gay Catholic group from Pennsylvania (see here) got on board on Sunday.
I certainly don't want to rehash all the controversy. (If you need a primer, see this story.) But I would like to make the case that HIDE/SEEK is an urgent and important exhibit -- one that is not to be missed. If all the political hubbub isn't enough to draw you to the museum, here are four good reasons to go see the show:
1. It's the First Exhibit of Its Kind. Until HIDE/SEEK, no major American museum had ever done an exhibit that looked at American art through the lens of gay and lesbian sexuality and homoerotic desire. For anyone who might wonder why this is important, there are a number of reasons -- the most simple being that sexuality has long informed the way art is made and shown. (I mean, hello.) This exhibit is a comprehensive, thoroughly-researched look at how artists incorporated (often veiled) references to gay identity in their work (whether they were gay or not). As co-curator Jonathan Katz puts so succinctly in his excellent and illuminating catalogue essay: "As a case in point, the import of Picasso's mistresses to his artistic development has long been the stuff of uncontroversial art-historical investigation, a fit subject for exhibitions in major museums from New York to Sydney. Yet this book accompanies the very first exhibition in a major museum in this country to attempt a similar investigation for artists inclined toward their own sex." (By the way, if any of these museums really wanted to do the public a service, they'd put Katz's phenomenal essay online.)
2. It Provides a Nuanced View of the Story of Sexuality. This is not a collection of "gay" art by "gay" artists. It's a much more complex and therefore realistic examination of the continuum of human sexuality -- from gay artists who coded their works with symbols so as not to reveal their true nature (see the Marsden Hartley painting above) to others whose exact sexual tastes remain unknown, but whose work is infused with an undeniable homoeroticism (as in the Thomas Eakins painting at right). Not to overlook co-curator David Ward (who is very smart and passionate), but I will once again defer to Katz, from a statement he made at the Brooklyn Museum's press conference last week: "It is an integrated account — whose defining import, I think, is in making clear the absolutely inextricable relationship between gay and straight in the course of American art and American culture. You simply cannot, right, properly define American arts according to one or another sexuality. They are always together."
3. Because the Wojnarowicz Film is Not What It's Been Made Out to Be. Wojnarowicz, who emerged out of the New York art scene in the 1980s, created the film, titled "A Fire in My Belly," as a cry against complacency in the face of the AIDS pandemic -- at a time when figures like Ronald Reagan and Jesse Helms didn't see the need to stop a disease that didn't affect "the general population" (in the words of a Reagan adviser), even though the disease had killed thousands. Moreover, as Katz pointed out at the press conference, the Christ figure is one that has been used in art for hundreds of years as a stand-in for human suffering: "It’s been deployed from the very beginning of Christian art. If we were to challenge works like David Wojnarowicz’s film, 'Fire in My Belly,' then we would have to pull down the Isenheim Altarpiece in Colmar, France — one of the great masterpieces of Renaissance art — because it was built as crucifixion for a hospital for people with leprosy and shows the skin of Christ quite mottled and torn. It was understood in the 15th century as available to an audience as an object of engagement and sympathy. I find it hard to believe we can’t see that today."
4. It is a Comprehensive Look at American Attitudes towards Homosexuality in the 20th Century. It would be easy to think that we, as a society, have traveled a linear path since the late 19th century -- growing more accepting of sexual difference. We have not. HIDE/SEEK reflects the pendulum swings in American attitudes, from the looseness of the 1920s to the Lavender Scare of the 1950s (Joseph McCarthy didn't just go after communists) to the lack of compassion in the 1980s, when young gay men began to be struck down by a then unknown immunodeficiency virus. One of the final galleries displays works that deal with the AIDS epidemic. It is full of rage, tragedy and beauty. These haunting works are not only an important record of of our collective American history, but supremely and gut-wrenchingly moving. And at the end of the day, isn't that what art is all about?
HIDE/SEEK is on view at the Brooklyn Museum through February 12. (Photo credit for the image by Thomas Eakins, above: Addison Gallery of American Art, Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts)