I’m not a fan of these art museum exhibition awards, be they the awards of my own association, the U.S. section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) or AAMC or whomever: Quite simply, there are too many good shows in too many places for the voters to have seen everything — or even enough to pick a “best.”
Still, it’s worth noting that AAMC’s selection for best thematic exhibition was the National Portrait Gallery’s “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” the exhibition that was censored by Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough.
Shortly after Clough censored his own historians’ exhibition by ordering the removal of David Wojnarowicz’s “A Fire in My Belly,” (1986-87) the Museum of Modern Art bought the piece. (The NPG showed a version of the work edited by the exhibition’s curators and approved by Wojnarowicz’s estate.)
Today “A Fire in My Belly” is on view at MoMA, on the museum’s second floor. [Image: Detail from “A Fire in My Belly.”] In addition to the usual wall label that provides details about the work, the museum has taken the extraordinary step of calling out the Smithsonian for its censorship of the piece. I’ve never seen that before. It’s a reminder of how in 2010-2011 art museums performed admirably in the face of censorship, and that museum directors, boards and curators learned from the Mapplethorpe-related mistakes of 1989.
Here’s MoMA’s label:
AIDS was formally identified by the United States Centers for Disease Control in 1982, but it was not until 1985, the year the number of known AIDS-related deaths in the United States reached 8,161, that President Reagan publicly acknowledged the disease’s existence. [Marlon] Riggs and Wojnarowicz were among the many artists and activists who worked to shatter the silence around AIDS in the 1980s. During their lives, cut short by the disease, both artists vocally protested against the censorship and distortion of their works for political purposes.
Riggs’s Anthem celebrates the pleasures and challenges of being a black, gay man; at times angry and erotic, it is a fervent affirmation of visibility. By focusing candidly and experimentally on the convergence of black and gay cultures in his work, including videos and documentaries aired on public television, Riggs brought underrepresented histories to a broader audience. Wojnarowicz, a visual artist and writer, captured the lives of outsiders such as French writer Jean Genet, denizens of New York’s East Village, and activists struggling to raise awareness around AIDS. A Fire in My Belly is a meditation on mortality and suffering, referring, often in graphic detail, to death, social inequality, faith, and desire.
The curators added A Fire in My Belly, recently acquired by MoMA, to this exhibition in January 2011; it is the thirteenth work by Wojnarowicz to enter the Museum’s collection. A four-minute excerpt of A Fire in My Belly included in the National Portrait Gallery’s exhibition Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture was removed by officials of the Smithsonian Institution on November 30, 2010.