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Hidden Unions Brought to Light

The National Portrait Gallery’s newest exhibit spans more than a century and includes 105 artworks in a variety of forms. But what really sets this exhibit apart is its focus.

“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” is the first major art exhibition to explore the influence of gender and sexuality. While the exhibit focuses primarily on gay and lesbian influences on American portraiture, it includes a wide variety of sexual identities.

According to exhibit co-curator David Ward, planning for the exhibit began nearly three years ago when he and co-curator Jonathan Katz worked together on an exhibit about the American poet Walt Whitman.
“It’s a show people have been thinking about but nobody’s done it,” Ward said. “I’m glad we’ve done it.”

An 1891 photograph of Whitman taken by Thomas Eakins is featured in this exhibit. It’s thought that Whitman was bisexual or homosexual. In fact, his poetry collection “Leaves of Grass” was abhorred when first published in 1855 because it was considered deeply immoral, with clear sexual references throughout.

Starting from that literary opening, the exhibit is very much a history of sexual difference in American culture and how it was then reflected in art. But associating that theme with these works is, in many cases, a first.

“We’re addressing a history that has very rarely, if ever, seen public play,” Katz said. “For most of these works this is the first time their homoerotic context has been brought forward.”

The works on display in “Hide/Seek” vary just as much in content as they do in form. While many of the portraits are traditional images of a person, a large portion is made up of abstract portraits, which Katz and Ward said reflect the theme that sexual differences are taboo.

For example, Marsden Hartley’s “Painting No. 47, Berlin” is a disarray of bright colors, shapes and a few numbers and letters. But it is in fact an abstract portrait of Karl von Freyburg, a German officer Hartley fell in love with just as World War I began and who died in battle. Without actually painting von Freyburg, Hartley depicted him with his initials, age and symbols of his military rank.

Another nontraditional portrait sits in a pile in a corner of the gallery. “Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.)” by Felix Gonzalez-Torres is a heap of colorfully wrapped candy that visitors are invited to eat. The work is a memorial to Gonzalez-Torres’ partner who died of AIDS, and the spread of the candy is meant to turn him into a martyr and represent the spread of AIDS.

Some artists featured in the exhibit, such as Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, gave permission to have their work displayed in the context of “Hide/Seek.”

Johns and Rauschenberg were romantically involved for a time; several of their works are displayed. Their influence on each other’s artwork is apparent, especially as their art is displayed near each other.
Ward said the show brings forward a topic that was known but not discussed for a long time. But Ward said he also hopes “Hide/Seek” will revitalize interest in American portraiture.

“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” runs through Feb. 13.

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