PJ and I missed the Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery earlier this year, so PJ ordered a copy of the catalogue. We’re going to have a chance to see the exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in December, so I started reading the catalogue, which was edited by Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward.

This is the first time that I’ve read a book about an exhibit before seeing the exhibit. The book version of Hide/Seek is a great read, whether one ever sees the actual exhibit or not. In particular, Katz’s opening essay describing the exhibit and providing historical context for the works in it is a particularly fine essay.

For a couple of decades now, scholars have argued that before modern notions of sexuality became prevalent, “homosexuality” was coded as being effeminate and the penetrated partner in any sexual activity. Thus, a “heterosexual” man could have sex with a “homosexual” one without impugning his reputation as a straight man, provided he performed the masculine role of penetrating the gay man. Katz’s explanation of this theory is one of the best I’ve ever read.

Katz explains this concept in order to interpret George Bellows’s The Shower-Bath (1917):

He reads this image to explain why, even though it depicts an “obvious” homosexual in the foreground, it was an extremely popular. His reading is convincing, and it made me think about this period of American cultural history differently. This print is nearly contemporaneous with one of my favorite novels, Henry Blake Fuller’s 1919 Bertram Cope’s Year. Thinking about this novel in terms of Katz’s argument would be a very interesting way to approach the book.

Over the course of the essay, Katz provides similar readings of other major works in the exhibit. The catalogue is divided into six sections:

  • Before Difference, 1870-1918
  • New Geographies/New Identities
  • Abstraction
  • Postwar America: Accommodation and Resistance
  • Stonewall and More Modern Identities
  • Postmodernism

Each section has a brief introduction, which largely focuses on the cultural context for that chapter. Each provides helpful information so that the reader can read the images contained in that section.

As a result of reading this book, I naturally have favorite works. I’m looking forward to seeing these works in person; I wonder if the real thing will live up to the reproduced images and what my responses to each will be. Here are a few of the images that currently stand out to me.

The infamous advertisement for Robert Morris’s 1974 show at the Sonnabend Gallery:

The man on the poster is Morris himself. As the catalogue explains, “In a parody that both reifies and unhinges dominant codes of masculinity, Morris’s playful S&M garb indicates working-class machismo and at the same time gestures toward urban gay subcultures that have laid claim to such hypermasculine attributes” (200).

One of the works that I’m most interested in learning more about is J.C. Leyendecker’s “Men Reading,” illustration for an Arrow Man ad from 1914:

This is just one of many ads created by Leyendecker that rely on a sophisticated representation of male sexuality that implied homosexuality without making it explicit. I think this image is beautiful. The man on the left is modeled on Leyendecker’s lover Charles Beach.

I also really like Larry Rivers’s “O’Hara Nude with Boots” (1954):

So few works in this exhibit feature full nudity that this image stands out for that element alone. But what really draws me to it is the color palette. I love paintings that work with browns, oranges, and yellows. Because it’s a painting, I’m really looking forward to seeing how similar or different it is in person — colors can change drastically when transferred to print.

Everything in the collection is interesting, and there are too many images I’d like to write about — but that would result in me reproducing the entire book. I learned a lot from reading this catalogue, and I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the history of queer culture in the America.

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