Embroiled in controversy—it's what you’d expect from an exhibition about gay portraiture at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington D.C. In fact, it’s rather surprising that the controversy didn’t arise until a month after the show was open—just in time for World AIDS Day. On November 30th, the Catholic League complained about David Wojnarowicz's 1987 video piece Fire in My Belly, a “vile video” that could be interpreted as nothing more than an attack on Christianity, all because of a section of the video showing a cheap crucifix with ants walking on it. Immediately House Republicans John Boehner and Eric Cantor chimed in, smugly calling into question the public funding for National Portrait Gallery—a part of the Smithsonian Institution and one of the most venerated museums of our country. The NPG caved to the political pressure and removed the video, not wishing for it to detract from the exhibition as a whole.
Wojnarowicz’ work is no stranger to political controversy and censorship. He was one of the main actors in the Culture Wars of the late 80s and 90s, at a time when conservative representatives felt compelled to share their limited interpretations of what constitutes “art” on the House floor. It proved a dangerous precedent, and in one sense I understand the museum’s desire to keep the torches and pitchforks as far away from the art as possible. But the show itself is a foray into a realm that some people, inevitably, will find objectionable. It’s a very brave exhibit; some circles would deem it overdue, while others would scoff or prefer to cover their eyes and keep pretending “it” doesn’t exist.
An incredible amount of scholarship went into the show, and the choices made by the curators were judicious and well-chosen. Featuring works by Andy Warhol, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Keith Haring, Robert Mapplethorpe, even Thomas Eakins and Georgia O’Keeffe, the show isn’t predicated on whether the artist or the subject was gay or lesbian, but explores the changing face of portraiture through the lens of difference. There are also some very moving pieces by lesser-known artists, like AA Bronson, whose portrait of his lover Felix shortly after his death from AIDs presents one of the most candid and powerful moments of the show. Taken from a photo of a severely wasted Felix lying amongst the colorful fabrics of his deathbed, it’s an enormous piece, but the work is hidden behind a wall, in a section at the back of the exhibit. The curators here force an intimate viewing of the piece—a poignant choice.
Many of the art objects convey queerness only in a coded fashion, hidden behind abstraction and symbols. One of the most compelling arguments put forth by the exhibition’s curators is that modernist abstraction was one way to sublimate gay desire in painting, as in Marsden Hartley’s Painting No. 47, a composite portrait of a German soldier he was in love with, comprised only of symbols and badges. In fact the human form is often missing in these portraits, the most powerful works depicting the absence of the lover, showing instead metonymic stand-ins for romantic attachments, symbols in place for actual desire. Jasper Johns’ and Robert Rauschenberg’s abstracted works stand in a quiet but intense conversation with each other. Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Portrait of Ross in LA), slowly shrinks as each visitor takes a piece from the pile of candy. Sometimes significance is measured in what is absent, rather than by what is shown.
So perhaps there is something to be said for the absence of Wojnarowicz’ video. We’ve taken an important step in recognizing the cultural contributions of gays and lesbians in America, but the fight is obviously not over yet. Please go see this show, or visit the exhibition online to read some of the valuable insight of the curators. And also, write to your Congressperson and inform them that art is a form of discourse, and should not be censored, otherwise one risks the stultification of culture.
(*Images: Berenice Abbott, Janet Flanner, 1927, photographic print, 23 x 17.3 cm (9 1/16 x 6 13/16"), Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., © Berenice Abbott / Commerce Graphics Ltd., Inc.
Jasper Johns, In Memory of My Feelings - Frank O'Hara, 1961, oil on canvas with objects, 102.2 x 152.4 x 7.3 cm (40 1/4 x 60/ 2 7/8"), Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, © Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.
AA Bronson, Felix, June 5, 1994, 1994 (printed 1999(, lacquer on vinyl, 213.4 x 426.7 cm (84 x 168"), National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, © AA Bronson, 1994.
Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991, candies, individually wrapped in multicolored cellophane (endless supply) ideal weith 175, 91.4 x 91.4 x 91.4 cm ( 36 x 36 x 36") (apporx. dimensions variable), Collection Donna and Howard Stone, on extended loan to the Art Institute of Chicago, © Felix Gonzalez Torres Foundation, Courtesy of Andrea Rosen Gallery, New York.)