On the surface, Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture (through February 12) has the appearance of an ordinary museum exhibition. It contains 104 works, the majority of which are painted or photographed portraits. There are some films and installations, but much of the work is very conventional in nature. No slides. No extra-long foosball tables hanging from the ceiling.
Yet the exhibition proves to be much more dynamic than its flashy counterparts at the New Museum (Carsten Höller’s Experience) and the Guggenheim (Maurizio Cattelan’s All). Hide/Seek demands engagement with an intricate web of personal histories. This web lends structure to a show where few single pieces stand out because each is so compelling.
To trace just one narrative: there are two early-20th century oil paintings by Marsden Hartley, which serve as abstract metaphors for two different love interests. Charles Demuth’s “Study for Poster Portrait: Marsden Hartley” (ca. 1923-24) is an abstract portrait of Hartley, whom he counted as a friend. Another Demuth watercolor, “Cabaret Interior with Carl Van Vechten” (ca. 1918), includes a portrait of the Midwest-born writer and photographer who chronicled the Harlem Renaissance and navigated the city’s libidinous nightlife. Three of Van Vechten’s black and white portraits, including one of Langston Hughes, are included. More than static images, the portraits become portals into the artists’ lived experiences.
Hide/Seek navigates the vicissitudes of time, place, class, race and gender with remarkable dexterity. Viewers gain glimpses into the milieux of gay icons like Frank O’Hara and Andy Warhol. Nan Goldin’s photographs give face to a subaltern community of drag queens. The works capture success, glamour and tremendous hardship. In the final room, viewers encounter a large-scale AA Bronson photograph of a brutally emaciated Félix Partz, Bronson’s lover and colleague (with Jorge Zontal) in the art collective General Idea, a few hours after his death in 1994. Poignantly, Bronson’s photograph looms above a Félix Gonzáles-Torrez wrapped candy installation and an unfinished painting by Keith Haring (who also died of AIDS).
Laudably, the museum included David Wojnarowicz’s short film “A Fire in My Belly” (1987) and devoted a small room to its making. The National Portrait Gallery removed the film from its showing of Hide/Seek last year upon protest from the Catholic League and Republican House Speaker John Boehner over an image of ants crawling on a crucifix. The controversy only highlights the vital importance of an exhibition like this today. Hide/Seek cries out against marginalizing forces and the histories they suppress. It presents a rich and complex account of American history, the kind of story that could go a long way in overcoming the present’s stark divisions.