Artist AA Bronson’s campaign to remove his artwork from the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek” show in protest of the Smithsonian’s censorship of David Wojnarowicz’s video has an eerie parallel in a 1989 incident that also involved Wojnarowicz — except then it was the late artist himself who was demanding to remove his work from display in protest of anti-gay bigotry.
The previous show in question was “Art What Thou Eat: Images of Food in American Art,” an exhibition curated by Linda Weintraub that had toured from Bard College to the New-York Historical Society. Including work by Jasper Johns, Warhol, Wojnarowicz, and other artists, the exhibition also featured a piece by Mark Kostabi, a 1980s New York art wunderkind who at 24 became the youngest artist to have work enter MoMA’s collection, but who became widely reviled by the gay community for comments he made in a 1989 Vanity Fair profile: “These museum curators, that are for the most part homosexual, have controlled the art world in the eighties. Now they’re all dying of AIDS, and although I think it’s sad, I know it’s for the better. Because homosexual men are not actively participating in the perpetuation of human life.”
In protest of Kostabi’s presence in the exhibition, William Dobbs of ART+ organized a demonstration outside of the historical society. (Dobbs, a veteran activist, will be familiar to readers who followed his anti-Smithsonian march in New York last Sunday.) The demonstration “was set for the evening and that afternoon David Wojnarowicz called me with some interesting news: he was working to get his own piece ‘Tuna’ out of the show because of Kostabi, and it was a bit complicated because he didn’t own it,” Dobbs recalls. “I got Karin Lipson on the phone and she wrote a story for the next day’s Newsday and then dashed out the door. Right around the time of the opening they honored David’s request, but then several days later Weintraub put it back.” Finally, the Historical Society took the work down for good.
Today Bronson’s demand that his work — a portrait of his former lover, Felix, taken just after he had died from AIDS — be removed from “Hide/Seek” has found support from the National Museum of Canada, which loaned the piece for the show, but has met stonewalling refusal from the Smithsonian and, oddly, exhibition co-curator Jonathan Katz, who has himself decried the censorship. Katz explains that he doesn’t want to detract further from what remains of his show, which some have hailed as a historic first in spotlighting work by gay artists. Dobbs, however, points out “some of the hype about ‘Hide/Seek,’ the first this and that” is misplaced: in 1982 the New Museum held an exhibition called “Extended Sensibilities: Homosexual Presence in Contemporary Art,” curated by Dan Cameron (who wrote an ARTINFO OP-Ed opposing the Wojnarowicz censorship), and the Berkeley Art Museum showed “In a Different Light: Visual Culture, Sexual Identity, Queer Practice,” curated by Lawrence Rinder and Nayland Blake, in 1995.