Work in Progress
The National Portrait Gallery's queer endeavor
Difference and Desire in American Portraiture
by Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward
$45.00 List Price
By yanking David Wojnarowicz's film A Fire in My Belly (1986–87) from the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition "Hide/Seek," Smithsonian secretary G. Wayne Clough gifted to art history a splendid case study in cowardice, censorship, and institutional failure. Far from undermining the exhibition (which closed last February), moreover, Clough's capitulation to the grumblings of the Catholic League managed to validate beyond all expectations the relevance of the show's conceit. The Wojnarowicz Affair performed the very premise advanced by curators Jonathan Katz and David C. Ward: a story of queer portraiture told through a dialectical account of absence/presence, shame/pride, closeted/out, hidden/revealed.
"Hide/Seek" was marked by elisions from its inception. The title itself points to a work missing from the show, Pavel Tchelitchew's great 1940–42 canvas Hide-and-Seek. Anchored by the central figure of a gnarled tree that doubles as a hybrid hand-foot appendage and organized as an elaborate vortex of visual puns conflating anatomy, biology, botany, and the cycle of seasons, this peerlessly seductive painting was, as Katz notes in his introductory essay to the catalogue, once the most popular painting in the Museum of Modern Art. An openly gay representational painter, Tchelitchew fell out of favor during the ascendancy of Abstract Expressionism, and it was just recently that his masterwork was returned to view at MoMA after decades in storage.
Katz understands the multivalent strategies of Tchelitchew's painting as "familiar to a subculture long used to employing protective
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