The most dramatic moment of the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” comes when we reach the leatherfolk, notably Robert Morris’ untitled self-portrait (1974) in which he presents himself as a spiked-collar-and-chains-wearing he-man, Catherine Opie’s Being and Having (Papa Bear, Chief, Jake, and Chicken) (1991), and Robert Mapplethorpe’s portrait of two gay leathermen, each of which is hung near around the exhibition’s halfway point. As I noted yesterday, in the couple of galleries that open “Hide/Seek,” meek avoidance is the preferred presentation.
Opie and Mapplethorpe’s participation in leather communities is well-chronicled, and Morris’ representation of himself is leathery to the point of caricature. (And he knew it: “As for memorable images, one I consider a total failure and mistake, the 1974 poster of myself with chains and a Nazi helmet, seems destined for a Guggenheim T-shirt,” the exhibition catalogue quotes Morris as saying in 1994.)
This more confrontational work is installed in-and-out of chronological sequence. That’s fine because the work is a hinge which makes the point that somewhere between Johns and Rauschenberg’s generation and the generation of artists that grew up after Stonewall, something in American society changed. The coming-out movement began and quickly caught on. Gays and lesbians revealed themselves to be done with the coded, indirectness of early presentation. Even the flouting of gender norms, long a part of the portraiture of gays and lesbians, was more aggressive (as Opie’s work demonstrates). These middle-of-the-exhibition works suggest that the gay and lesbian leather communities may be more important to changing norms of gay-and-lesbian presentation in American art than is typically considered. (Even work that relies upon coded references is cheekier in its references: Keith Haring’s 1989 Unfinished Painting (below), which coyly refers to both a community’s unraveling and the stereotype of gays as decorators.)
Another way to think of this point in the show is as a reminder that gays and lesbians had to feel free to be themselves before they could fully assert their rights to the privileges heterosexuals take for granted, things like marriage. (There is a specific history of the margins pushing the gay community forward: Drag queens and subcultural ‘others’ led the rebellion at the Stonewall Inn; did the leather community lead the way toward new modes of self-representation?)
It’s hard to imagine any artist and couple being more assertive in any portrait than Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter (1979, above) — no psuedonyms here, no first-names-only, but Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter, if you please — Mapplethorpe’s masterpiece of a leather couple in front of their bourgeois drapes. Beyond Mapplethorpe’s picture, the push for equality was at a high point: The next year, the Democratic National Convention adopted a pro-gay rights plank as part of the party platform, a gay man, Mel Boozer, addressed the Democratic National Convention and presidential candidate Sen. Teddy Kennedy aggressively courted gay and lesbian Democrats, a first. These new, more confrontational portraits reflected nascent changes in America.
And then it all changed when AIDS arrived. The focus of a community became not equality but the fight to not die. The show’s more-or-less final gallery is dominated by a semi-hidden hanging of AA Bronson’s Felix, June 5, 1994 (below). The piece shows Felix’s corpse, so devastated by wasting that Felix’s caretakers couldn’t even close his eyes after he died. (Also: We’re back to a portrait of a one-named man.) Just 15 years after gays and lesbians had presented themselves with muscular assertion, at the point of an on-their-terms mix of subcultural assertion and bourgeois bliss, Bronson’s presentation of a helpless AIDS-ravaged corpse is devastating.
The confrontation we see in Mapplethorpe’s or Morris’ works is a part of these AIDS-era works, but the way in which artists confront us has changed. Felix Gonzalez-Torres reminds Americans of the shamefulness of our government’s to AIDS by presenting his lover Ross as a stack of candy. As we take and consume a piece of the artwork, we are participating in diminishing Ross a second time. Bronson’s portrait of Felix isn’t just confrontational because a corpse is staring out at us, but at seven feet-by-14-feet, the work insists upon your attention — and that you look at what AIDS is doing to your fellow man. It is the exhibition’s least-known masterpiece, an artwork that is likely forever lodged in my visual memory as inexorably as the Mona Lisa.
As important as “Hide/Seek” is, there are some obvious absences: The show calls out for major Rauschenbergs, but there are only minor ones here. (Procuring loans of key portraits or self-portraits, such as 1955’s Untitled Combine (Man with White Shoes) or 1955-58’s Odalisk are notoriously difficult because of the delicateness of the works.) Both David Wojnarowicz and Catherine Opie are represented by important pieces, but neither is represented by their best works: Wojnarowicz’s Untitled (One day this kid…), a self-portrait, would have been a nice fit. Opie is the most important self-portraitist of the last quarter-century. It’s disappointing that none of them are in the show. Finally, the last decade is represented by only three works: A terrific Glenn Ligon painting that excerpts James Baldwin and photographs by Cass Bird and Jack Pierson.
The National Portrait Gallery is typically a middlebrow history museum, content to offer frippery such as photographs of Elvis Presley embarrassingly co-organized by a commercial gallery. In recent years its attempts to historicize the recent-present have been wincing missteps, particularly 2008’s “RECOGNIZE! Hip Hop and Contemporary Portraiture,” a silly attempt at pop cultural relevance. “Hide/Seek” is welcome evidence that when the NPG puts its mind to it, it can present important exhibitions that are about art, art history and American history.