In Plain Sight

Co-curators David C. Ward and Dr. Jonathan D. Katz talk about HIDE/SEEK, their daring exhibition about portraiture and sexuality, currently hanging at Tacoma Art Museum.

This show is about the fact that “gay” and “straight” have been utterly interwoven in American culture, especially in the art world, since the get-go. And to deny that is to deny American history. It’s not possible to separate gay or lesbian art-making from the vast body of work that constitutes American culture.

Artists like Jasper Johns or Robert Rauschenberg, Agnes Martin or Ellsworth Kelly—these are mainstays in American museology. They’ve been shown in exhibition after exhibition. But their inclusion in HIDE/SEEK is the first time that their sexuality has been raised. For the first time, we’re talking about their identities as lesbians or gays.  

Walt Whitman is the presiding genius over the exhibition. He has this small presence in a photograph at the beginning of the show. His spirit of capriciousness and “I contain multitudes” is the democratic spirit that we think HIDE/SEEK not only explicates but promulgates. It’s a Whitmanesque show.

The very title HIDE/SEEK in some ways is an irony, because a lot of what we’re revealing has been hiding in plain sight. It requires us to see and acknowledge and to write about an artist’s lesbian or gay identity, to think about it and talk about it. But it’s been there all along. With a lot of the paintings it doesn’t require much to see it, but it requires an act of will to open your eyes. The exhibition requires individuals to spend time and think, but it’s also an exhibition where if you just want to look at pretty paintings, you can look at pretty paintings.

Normally, while organizing an exhibition, you arrange with other museums to travel it. We tried to interest other institutions and nobody wanted to take it. But the show was such a success in Washington at the National Portrait Gallery. And, unprecedentedly, the Brooklyn Museum and TAM instantly reconstituted it. Frankly, we never thought we’d be able to get all the loaned art back together and do it in terms of time and money. It’s fantastic that we did.

One of the things that was particularly important for us was having a West Coast venue. It was sad that people had to travel across country to see the exhibition, and it was sad that a huge population was excluded from this exhibition. It would be great if we also had a Midwest venue, but nonetheless having a West Coast venue is really wonderful. I think there’s a revolution in the American museum that’s beginning in Tacoma and I think people are going to recognize that. AS TOLD TO RACHEL SHIMP

David C. Ward is historian at the National Portrait Gallery and Dr. Jonathan D. Katz is visual studies program director at SUNY at Buffalo. HIDE/SEEK: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture closes June 10. Pictured above: Alice Neel, Frank O’Hara, 1960, courtesy of Tacoma Art Museum.