In the first part of my review of the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” I noted that the exhibition argues that there are few if any artistic techniques or references that are exclusive to gays and lesbian who make portraits of gays and lesbians vis-a-vis American portraiture as a whole. That doesn’t mean that over the last 130 years there’s been a sameness in the representation of gays and lesbians and heterosexuals. “Hide/Seek” smartly reveals American history by chronicling how men and women assigned to otherhood by the dominant heterodoxy have presented themselves.
The furtiveness of sitters in the exhibition’s first gallery is overwhelming, even uncomfortable. “Hide/Seek” opens with Thomas Eakins’ Salutat (1898, above, collection Addison Gallery of American Art), a painting of a strapping young boxer being admired by a crowd. Ostensibly he’s being ogled because he’s about to fight for the gentleman’s entertainment. But on closer inspection it’s obvious that he’s the target of numerous lusty gazes: The two men standing to the left of the fighter are examining the boxer’s exposed buttocks and his lats. The men in the stands are uninterested in the fighter’s face; they’re captivated by his body. The seated fight-fans who comes closest to looking out at the viewer is facing forward but looks out of the corners of his eyes at the boxer’s body. Furtiveness as a dominant strategy, even a theme in early-20thC gay and lesbian portraiture, is established from the get-go.
The rest of the first gallery or two is filled with the skewed glance. Romaine Brooks hides her own eyes in her famous 1923 self-portrait. A young Lincoln Kirstein sits for Walker Evans with his eyes downcast. Grant Wood’s Arnold Comes of Age (1930) features a preppy-looking lad set against a homoerotic background. Arnold looks just off to our left, almost able to meet us, but not quite. Again and again Carl Van Vechten’s gay and lesbian subjects gaze off to stage left or stage right, particularly Langston Hughes, Bessie Smith and Hugh Laing and Antony Tudor (at right). The subtext of the show’s first couple galleries is uncomfortably direct: These people felt so acutely different from the world around them — and knew it — that they were uncomfortable with meeting a certain intensity of examination.
Only rarely do portrait subjects directly visually engage the artist portraying them: A cross-dressing Marcel Duchamp, an actor playing a role, looks right out at Man Ray. Berenice Abbott’s subjects Janet Flanner and Djuna Barnes look right out at her, but the exhibition’s curators remind us that these are Americans in Paris, where sexual difference was more accepted.
Other rare examples of confrontation in these first galleries are a reminder of how certain kinds of otherness afforded safety from the social mores of the privileged. One of the most direct gazes in the show’s opening galleries comes from a black man who posed nude for John Singer Sargent around 1917-20. He stands with his side facing Sargent, but looks over and down at the viewer. It’s an arresting drawing — and a reminder that a man could be painted nude, confrontationally and with a bit of his phallus on view if he was so far outside Sargent’s (and his clients’) mainstream that the artist could, well, get away with it. (In the show’s catalogue, co-curator Jonathan Katz notes that Winslow Homer also found black men “safe” to present in homoerotic poses.)
As the show continues that changes — but it takes a while. Agnes Martin portrays a woman, possibly herself, behind a mask that recalls the one Picasso put on Gertrude Stein. Slowly but surely, the exhibitions subjects begin to meet our gaze. David Hockney confronts us not with his subjects’ eyes, but with abstracted warmth and affection in We Two Boys Together Clinging. Jasper Johns looks out through a carefully mediated self-portrait in Souvenir (1964), a collage that reminds us of the indirectness of much portraiture of gays and lesbians, but that points the way toward what comes next because ultimately Johns is looking out at us.