One of the interesting quirks of Iowa life is the presence of works by two queer native sons in the current “Hide/Seek” National Portrait Gallery exhibit, an exhibit that has turned serendipitously into performance art itself.
The full title of the exhibit is “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” and the two Iowa boys, Grant Wood and Carl Van Vechten.
Wood, of course, is widely known out here on the prairie. His campy and ironic masterpieces, most notably “American Gothic,” have become icons of bucolia, a fact that probably would amuse the artist. We do love our Grant Woods.
Van Vechten, perhaps more bisexual than homosexual although one never knows, is less well known in part because he became an expatriate but also because of his extreme sophistication, sophistication expressed in a dizzying range of media --- criticism and essays, novels, photography and philanthropy (and yes even philanthropy is a medium of expression). This guy was Gertrude Stein’s literary executor, for heaven’s sake.
The National Portrait Gallery (an arm of the government-owned and funded Smithsonian Institution) describes “Hide/Seek” with only a little caginess as the “first major museum exhibition to focus on sexual difference in the making of modern American portraiture.” Sexual difference translates as homosexuality, of course, and one point of the exhibit , although not all of the artists were gay, is the fact that works of gay artists were foundational in the rise of American modernism.
The “Hide/Seek” aspect comes into play because elements of same-sex desire expressed the the works, especially early on, were often coded or extremely subtle. In other words, homoeroticism could be overlooked, or found, depending upon the sensibilities of the looker.
Grant Wood is represented by the warm and tender 1930 portrait above, “Arnold Comes of Age,” now in the collection of the Sheldon Museum of Art at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Affection for Arnold Pyle, Wood’s assistant just turned 21, glows in this work by an artist not generally recognized for sensitive portraiture. The homoeroticism, two nude male bathers in the background, is very subtle and can be overlooked --- or acknowledged.
Van Vechten is represented by this 1940 portrait of choreographer Anthony Tudor (left) and his lover, dancer Hugh Laing, who quite obviously are sitting very close together. On the other hand, the fact that they are holding hands can be acknowledged, or overlooked.
The performance art end of the exhibit, perhaps unintentional, resulted from the the screeching and hollering of usual suspects --- several Republican members of Congress and others expressing outrage that the exhibit (funded in large part by private donations) was staged by a federally owned and administered museum. Those dirty homosexuals like Grant Wood, you know.
Then the Catholic League determined that a brief video by David Wojnarowicz that included views of ants crawling on a crucifix was sacrilege (it takes a sacrilege to recognize sacrilege) and demanded its removal. National Portrait Gallery administrators complied. In the commotion that followed, major donors (including the Andy Warhol Foundation) threatened to withdraw funding from future exhibits and there was a good deal of commotion about censorship, which of course it was. Art in motion.
For what it’s worth, I don’t like the Wojnarowicz piece (roughly four minutes edited from a 20-minute work). It is dense, difficult and noisy --- painful to watch. But it rose from the artist’s outrage at the death of a lover from AIDS and his own diagnosis. And it’s hardly sacrilege.
So it’s been a bumpy ride so far for “Hide/Seek” --- but a fascinating one. By the way, if the exhibit goes on the road I wouldn’t look for it to come to Iowa. Heads would explode in legislative chambers and churches across this great state of ours. And we can’t have that.