Hide/Seek in the City: Reflections on the NPG Exhibit

Last weekend marked the final days of the National Portrait Gallery’s monumental exhibit, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture.  Monumental, because in 2010, it became the first exhibit in a major American art institution to focus on the impact of sexual and gender identity on American art in the 20th century.

It also quickly became the subject of controversy when the museum chose to remove one of the video pieces because of a fringe group’s objections to its representation of Christian iconography.  I’ve catalogued many of the articles that discuss this controversy on my facebook page.

To me, this controversy not only reflected the exhibit’s high stakes in the Art Museum world – a place that has been surprisingly conservative in its refusal to acknowledge the sexual identities of some of our most praised artists.  But I could also see its effect ripple into the realm of queer public art, giving public entities at large cold feet about what we’re allowed to see and have represented in the public domain.

I visited the show four times – each a slightly different experience because of whom I was with or the amount of time I had to spend there.  I was particularly interested in exploring how queer spaces were represented in the exhibit.  Where did depictions of queer lives and livelihoods take place?  Is there anything to infer about how queer identity and its relationship to the city has changed over time?

It wasn’t until my last visit that I was struck by the publicness and the explicitness of some of the earliest works – WWI-era paintings and prints of waterfronts, bathhouses, cabaret bars, and even a streetscape.  The exhibit refers to this period in social history as “Before Difference” (and I heard the primary curator, David Katz, discuss this concept at a small lecture at the Foundry Gallery).

Before difference describes the time when the sexual identity binaries – heterosexual vs. homosexual – had yet to be formed.  Men and women were presumed heterosexual (and most likely had spouses and families) no matter how they behaved outside of their family lives.  As a result, images capture an “integrated” world in which there was no definably “gay” space.

The waterfront scene depicts young laborers waiting to find work.  Some of the bodies are sexualized, some aren’t, and a dandy in a top hat winds through the crowd having a look.

The bathhouse scene captures a temporary space where “heterosexual” men would hook up with “fairies.”  This print was widely popular, and it was reproduced thousands of times.

And the cabaret scene shows three sailors dancing.  The eye is drawn to the sailor in the middle with bright red lips and a buttocks of exaggerated definition (!).  As the eye scans this figure, it settles upon the glance of his dance partner – a young man looking over his shoulder.

And about a decade later, a music flyer depicts the famous blues singer, Ma Rainey, in butch dress chatting it up with some foxy ladies and challenging the cop nearby to “Prove it on me.”  She’s referring to her penchant for hanging out in sexually fluid spaces that nearly got her in trouble with the law.

This pre-WWII-before-the-binary period in queer history has been written about by a number of queer historians in the last decade, most notable George Chauncey in Gay New York.  Chauncey argues that the phrase “coming out of the gay closet” wasn’t a part of the collective conscious in the first half of the 20th century; rather the language of the time was framed around “entering the gay world.”

What are we to take from this?  Is this period and the way it was represented a model for queer or fluid urban space?  Or is it a romanticization of a time that bares little relationship to the way we think of identity now (a time in which overt queer sexuality was punishable by ever-changing “deceny” codes and regulations of bars)?

Stay tuned for another post on the later works in this exhibit.