Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek Uncovers an Intricate Visual History of Gay Relationships

The show reveals how American artists as a whole have explored human sexuality


It's hard to consider a large pile of Jolly Rancher-type candies as a form of portraiture. And yet, in the corner of the National Portrait Gallery's new show "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture" is a tidy spill of sweets in Technicolor cellophane. You can't miss it, nor should you—it's one of the few opportunities you'll ever have to not only touch the art, but to eat it. (Minding the nearby choking hazard warning signs, of course.) But the sheer whimsy of it all is quickly undercut upon realizing that the piece is a memorial to Ross Laycock, partner and lover of the artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres. Laycock died of AIDS in 1991.

But what does a pile of candy really communicate about a human being? Minimalist art isn't always easy to read, so careful consideration has to be paid to what visual elements are there before you. To display the work of art, the museum had a number of guidelines they were required to follow. "There has to be an assortment of colors," says Hide/Seek curator David Ward, "and it has to weigh 175 pounds—Ross’s weight when healthy—at the start of the installation." As viewers pass by and eat the candy, they enjoy the sweetness of the relationship Gonzalez-Torres and Laycock shared.

The piece was created at a point in time when much of America—including the nation's leaders—was ignoring the AIDS epidemic, and the dwindling pile of candy is also a symbol for the dissolution of gay communities in the wake of this disease. Furthermore, the piece can be arranged in one of two ways: a mound in a corner or in a rectangle on the floor. "The mound in the corner is simply a way of collecting or organizing it so its not just a lump that gets spread out on the floor in a misshapen mass," Ward explains. "But organizing it flat suggests two things: either it’s a bed or it’s a grave. This makes it more powerful in a way but we didn’t have the space to install it like that."

But artwork that speaks to how AIDS impacted gay communities is only a facet of Hide/Seek. As a whole, the show reveals how American artists have explored human sexuality. Those who approach the show thinking that gay culture is a recent development may be surprised to find that it has been hidden in plain view for decades. It's all a matter of knowing how to crack the visual codes that artists hid in their work. "This is a show about oblique glances," says Ward. "It's a show about subversion."

For a preview of the show, be sure to check out the gallery below as well as Blake Gopnik's Washington Post reviewHide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture will be on view at the National Portrait Gallery until February 13, 2011.

“Walt Whitman is the founding spirit of this show,” says Ward. During the Civil War, Whitman, whose poetry collection Leaves of Grass contains themes of free love, worked as a nurse in the Patent Office Building, which is now the National Portrait Gallery. Thomas Eakins took this photograph a year before the poet’s death in 1891. (Walt Whitman by Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
In the late 19th century, sporting events that glorified masculinity rose in popularity. College football, rowing and boxing celebrated the fit and healthy physique of the athlete. Here, Eakins plays with social norms by portraying a scantily clad boxer instead of a nude female as the object of an all-male crowd’s gaze. The boxer is the 22-year-old featherweight Billy Smith, who was a close, devoted friend to the artist. (Salutat by Thomas Cowperthwaite Eakins. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
In this 1917 canvas, Marsden Hartley memorializes a man he fell in love with, a German soldier named Karl von Freyburg, who was killed during World War I. “Gays and lesbians were particularly attuned to abstraction because of the care with which they had to present themselves in society,” says Ward. “Their lives had to be coded to hide themselves from repressive or hostile forces, yet they also had to leave keys both to assert their identity and to link up with other members of the community.” Von Freyburg’s initials, his age at death his position in the cavalry unit are all cautiously hidden in this abstraction, Painting No. 47, Berlin. (Painting No. 47, Berlin by Marsden Hartley. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
Romaine Brooks was both an artist and patron of the arts. In this 1923 self-portrait, she depicts herself in hyper-masculine clothing. “I think the element of cross-dressing has had an appeal in the lesbian community,” Ward says. “Brooks abandons a stereotypically female look for a combination of items that would signal how she was crossing gender and sexual lines.” (Self Portrait by Romaine Brooks. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
Janet Flanner was an American living in Paris with her lover Solita Solano and together they traveled in the most fashionable gay social circles. Flanner wrote a regular column for the New Yorker that gave readers a coded glimpse of the Parisian “in crowd.” This 1923 portrait, Flanner’s masks are a symbol of the multiple disguises that she wears, one for private life, and one for public life. (Janet Flanner by Berenice Abbott. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
This 1942 portrait captures artist Marsden Hartley mourning the death of another man that Hartley admired. A shadowy man haunts the background of this portrait, taken by photographer George Platt Lynes in 1942, alluding to the loves of Hartley’s life that were lost and unspoken. (Marsden Hartley by Geoge Platt Lynes. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
Stricken with AIDS, Robert Maplethorpe casts himself in this 1988 self-portrait as the figure of death. “What he is doing,” Ward says, “is refusing to accept our pity. He is refusing to be defined by us: poor gay man, poor dying gay man. He is also dying with dignity, turning himself into the King of Death. He is owning his status. And what he is telling us is that we are all going to die. We are all mortal and this is the fate that awaits us all. And I also think he is making a statement that he is going to survive after death because of his work as an artist. He is transcending death through art.” (Robert Mapplethorpe Self-Portrait by Robert Maplethorpe. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
As AIDS raged through gay communities across the United States beginning in the 1980s, Haring’s 1989 devastating canvas, entitled Unfinished Painting, mourns the loss of so many. Haring himself died from AIDS on February 16, 1990, a year that saw the incredible toll—18,447 deaths—of the disease. (Unfinished Painting by Keith Haring. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
In this 1986 canvas, Andy Warhol plays with the concept of camouflage and the idea that portraiture is a means of masking oneself. Here he is hidden, yet in plain sight. (Camouflage Self-Portrait by Andy Warhol. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)
When Ellen DeGeneres publicly acknowledged her lesbianism in 1997, it was a landmark event. Besides defying Hollywood’s convention of rarely publicly acknowledging her homosexuality, coming out gave her a degree of control over her life. "For me,” DeGeneres said in a 1997 interview with Diane Sawyer, “this has been the most freeing experience, because people can’t hurt me anymore.” (Ellen DeGeneres, Kauai, Hawaii by Annie Leibovitz. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

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