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Art Out of the Closet: Hide/Seek at Tacoma Art Museum

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by Matthew Kangas

The only West Coast venue for the National Portrait Gallery-originated survey, the Tacoma Art Museum is pulling out all the stops to make this exhibition an enriching experience for everyone. "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" will be on view from March 17 - June 10, 2012.

Art historian, Jonathan Weinberg, made the comment that, "just as there is an enormous confusion in society about determining characteristics of homosexuality, there are no absolute rules for identifying homosexuality as the subject of works of art." This is the challenge facing curators Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward in their exciting new show at TAM.

With 55 artists (41 men and 14 women), "Hide/Seek" is, according to National Portrait Gallery director Martin E. Sullivan, "not just a chronicle of a prominent subculture, [it] reconsiders a neglected dimension of American art." With 82 artworks made between 1891 and 2005, visitors can experience shifting attitudes toward same-sex relationships in the US over a 114-year period and, if they read the helpful catalogue, learn a great deal about a more complete picture of American art history.

From vintage photographs, oil paintings, watercolors, videos, prints and drawings to posters, encaustics, and even candy, the objects tell a collective tale of public and private lives, closeted and "out," that supplement our traditional expectations of 20th-century art. In fact, several of the artists' names are recognizable as famous figures: Thomas Eakins, Marcel Duchamp, Cecil Beaton, Grant Wood, Andy Warhol, Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

Were they all gay? Yes and no. As Katz and Ward point out, "Hide/Seek" includes art by "straight artists representing gay figures [e.g., George Bellows], gay artists representing straight figures [Charles Demuth], gay artists representing gays [Paul Cadmus], and straight artists representing straight figures [Andrew Wyeth]." So "Hide/Seek" is not about settling scores or assigning sexual preference or gender identity; it is about expanding the horizons of portraiture based on twin themes of "difference" and "desire."

Marsden Hartley: Painting No. 47

Marsden Hartley, Painting No. 47, Berlin, 1914 - 1915. Oil on canvas. Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.; Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn.

Berenice Abbott: Janet Flanner

Berenice Abbott, Janet Flanner, 1927. Photographic print. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Andy Warhol: Camouflage Self-Portrait

Andy Warhol, Camouflage Self-Portrait, 1986. Synthetic polymer paint and silkscreen on canvas, 80.5 x 76 inches (204.5 x 193 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art: Acquired with funds contributed by the Committee on Twentieth-Century Art and as a partial gift of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc., 1993.131.1. © 2011 The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts / Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York.

Just as novelists and filmmakers have included gay characters along with straight ones, so straight and gay painters, printmakers, photographers and other artists draw attention to the diversity of personal expression in figurative American art.

It turns out the word "homosexual" wasn't even used widely until the early 20th century in America. Despite punitive laws promulgated by "public" and "social hygiene" movements (concerned about venereal disease in a pre-antibiotics period), attitudes toward gays and lesbians in the 1920s, 1930s and, especially, the 1940s, were actually more tolerant than after World War II. During the war, thousands of men and women of same-sex leanings met one another in the armed forces. After the war, sex roles became more strictly defined.

Katz and Ward assemble important examples of American art, most of which has never been seen before in Tacoma or, indeed, on the West Coast. Eakins's Salutat (1898) is a terrific boxing-match painting. Bellows's Shower Bath (1917) is an hilarious scene in a men's health club. Romaine Brooks's 1923 self-portrait in men's attire with an eerie nocturnal sky behind her reminds us that her London studio was across the street from Whistler's, known for his nocturnal cityscapes. Instead of Grant Wood's legendary American Gothic, we get his sensitive portrait of a college student, Arnold Comes of Age (both 1930). In place of one of Bellingham native Agnes Martin's grid paintings for which she is known, visitors see a very rare female nude of 1947. Martin destroyed virtually all of her early figurative work, so determined was she to focus on her famous grids alone.

Photography comprises the majority of artworks in "Hide/Seek." From Eakins's 1891 photo of Walt Whitman and Berenice Abbott's glamorous 1926 portrait of lesbian novelist Djuna Barnes to Carl Van Vechten's Harlem portraits of, among others, blues singer Bessie Smith, and later black-and-white portraits by photo legends Minor White, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Platt Lynes and Duane Michals, TAM viewers can follow the whole history of photography right up to the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe and, of course, Andy Warhol, perhaps the most famous American gay artist of all.

Warhol's Camouflage Self-Portrait (Red) (1986), done a year before his tragically early death at 59, uses army camouflage patterning as an ironic metaphor of concealment, but subverts its macho military origins with bright reds, pinks and purples.

The age of AIDS led to equally premature deaths of much younger photographers represented in the show, like Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, and Mapplethorpe.

The biggest surprise of all is the range of less well-known women artists, many of whom display beautiful, if provocative, pictures. Deborah Cass, Deborah Bright, and Catherine Opie, among others, play with male and female appearances, too, often dressing up as men in humorously exaggerated haircuts, make-up and costumes. Lesbian artists have resisted sexual stereotyping since the days of Brooks and Abbott and always seem intent on eluding categories imposed on them by society as a whole. They strive, as do all the artists, to preserve and enhance their realms of innovative creative activity.

TAM has set up tape loops of gay and lesbian musicians of the 1920s and 1930s as background music. And following Seattle Art Museum's Andy Warhol show last year, TAM has a special ongoing viewing of seven Screen Tests (1964 - 66) including the original superstar (Warhol invented the term), Edie Sedgwick.

There's lots to look at and mull over in "Hide/Seek." Bring a gay or straight friend. Enjoy the chance to see an internationally discussed exhibition direct from the East Coast, and get the discussion going on your own. Like the best contemporary art shows, "Hide/Seek" relates to the world and the people around us, yet makes us see everything with different eyes, the eyes of the some very gifted artists.

MATTHEW KANGAS, consulting editor at Art Guide Northwest, wrote the pioneering study, "Prometheus Ascending: Homoerotic Imagery of the Northwest School" in 1986. He lives in Seattle.

Copyright © Matthew Kangas 2012

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