New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 4 February 8 to 14, 2012

Encoded / Open

Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture
Tom Murphy (San Francisco) by Minor White. Source:
Minor White, "Tom Murphy (San Francisco)" 1948

Interestingly, the new Hide/Seek show at the Brooklyn Museum, dedicated to “exploring how gender and sexual identity have shaped the creation of American portraiture”, does nothing of the sort. For nothing in ‘gay’ portraiture is stylistically or technically different from straight portraiture; every mainstream device and convention is there.

Consequently this show is less an exploration of stylistic idiosyncrasies than it is an historical overview of visual work done by and about gay artists. As such it is a blockbuster indeed, a vivid testament to the astoundingly rich gay presence in American artistic life.

While some works, like Bellows’ Riverfront and Demuth’s Dancing Sailors, depict scenes from ‘the life’, most offer portraits of the participants. These portraits run the gamut of media, from paint to collage to video––and the gamut of conventions, from Larry Rivers’ full figure Beaux Arts rendering of a nude Frank O’Hara to Marsden Hartley’s early modernist Painting No. 47 Berlin to Warhol, Rauschenberg and Keith Haring’s Pop and Post Modern work. Virtually every style and medium is represented, giving the lie to any notion of a gay ghetto in art.

Photographically the show has an abundance of riches. Starting with Thomas Eakins portrait of ‘Uncle Walt’; as so many later poets called Whitman, to Minor White’s beautiful nude study of Tom Murphy, to Berenice Abbott’s masterful portraits of Janet Flanner, Betty Parsons, and Djuna Barnes, to Walter Evans’ study of a moody young Lincoln Kirsten and Cecil Beaton’s double portrait of Gertrude and Alice, the show treats us to treasures from the photographic archive we could look at endlessly.

Lesser known images, such as the Carl Van Vechten photographs and some terrific work from George Platt Lynes, shine as well. More recent work includes photos by Peter Hujar whose very moving portrait of David Wojnarowicz is one of the highlights of the show, as well as Wojnarowicz’s own visual death poem, Untitled, taken just before he learned he had AIDS. Bringing the show even closer to the present is Nan Goldin, represented both by an early black and white and the later color work, more typical of her oeuvre.

 by unidentified photographer.
Berenice Abbott, “Janet Flanner”

Ours is a time when many women artists have attempted to address gender issues by switching gender-identified contexts, roles and mannerisms. Unlike the earlier in-the-closet portraits which relied on subtle clues easily read by initiates, this work, typified by Leibovitz’s portrait of Ellen DeGeneres, is defiantly ‘out.

Now sanctified by a glut of academic studies that invest it with all the anthropological solemnity they can muster, contemporary gender-bending was preceded historically by ‘camp’. In fact the predilection for dress-up and theatrical vamping, long a feature of gay life, has become serious art-world-academic business, all the silliness and fun bled out of it. Still, it is possible to enjoy a chuckle or two when looking at Catherine Opie’s, Cass Bird’s, and Deborah Bright’s lively examples of the genre.

The practice of hiding symbolic elements in otherwise conventional work goes back at least as far as the Renaissance and, of course, medieval art was loaded with symbolic material. The need for a community in hiding to rely on such coded signals is obvious, so it is no wonder the gay practice of using visual clues extended into art. At times–– as in Hartley’s memorial to his dead lover, Painting #47, the symbols have a predominantly personal meaning; at others, such as in Berenice Abbott’s use of a double mask in the portrait of Janet Flanner, the meaning is collective. Though not nearly as pervasive as maintained, this occasional use of pictographic elements is central to the core concept of Hide/Seek.

To some extent, it explains the curators’ belief that sexual identity "shaped" American portraiture, when in fact it did no such thing. It merely invaded it, in secret, leaving subtle and not-so-subtle clues for us to find. And to delight in.

Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture
Curators: David C. Ward, Jonathan D. Katz and Tricia Laughlin Bloom

Brooklyn Museum of Art
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Friday, November 18 to
Sunday, February 12, 2012
Hours: Wed - Fri, 10 to 5; Sat Sun, 11 - 6