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Smithsonian Explores Impact of Gays on Art History

Smithsonian Explores Impact of Gays on Art History

This undated handout photo provided by the National Portrait Galley shows the camouflage self-portrait of Andy Warhol, part of an exhibit entitled: “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” which opened Oct. 30 and runs through Feb. 1

Associated Press/AP Online

November 03, 2010

WASHINGTON – When artist Jasper Johns was mourning the end of his relationship with Robert Rauschenberg, he took one of his famous flag paintings, made it black, and dangled a fork and spoon together from the top.

Hidden symbols in Johns’ “In Memory of My Feelings,” tell part of story, curators said.

Color from the relationship is gone.

A fork and spoon elsewhere in the painting are separated.

Here we have a coded glimpse into a six-year relationship that was rarely acknowledged – even in Rauschenberg’s 2008 obituary.

Jasper Johns: In Memory of My Feelings (source:

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery is decoding such history from abstract paintings and portraits in the first major museum exhibit to show how sexual orientation and gender identity have shaped American art. The installation, “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” opened Saturday and is on view through Feb. 13.

“There’s been an entire history hiding in plain sight,” said Portrait Gallery historian and curator David C. Ward. “Telling the history of art without the history of gay people is like telling the history of slavery without mentioning black people.”

Many have avoided the subject, he said, out of politeness or homophobia.

Ward said he was surprised to discover more gays were fired from federal jobs during the Red Scare of the Cold War era than suspected communists. In that political climate, he said, many modern artists turned to abstraction and coded language to portray themselves and those they loved.

The exhibit, funded primarily with private donations, comes 20 years after the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington canceled a retrospective of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe’s homoerotic images for fear of a backlash from Capitol Hill.

The Smithsonian’s exhibit is different, Ward said. Indeed, there are few pictures of men kissing, but curators carefully chose many of the 105 pieces for what’s not obvious at first glance.

Continue reading: What Does It Mean, To Be Male? →

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