Saturday, March 19, 2011

Wishing for somebody I've loved and lost to come back and comfort me in my dreams.



Come to me in the silence of the night;
Come in the speaking silence of a dream;
Come with soft rounded cheeks and eyes as bright
As sunlight on a stream;
Come back in tears,
O memory, hope, love of finished years.

Oh dream how sweet, too sweet, too bitter sweet,
Whose wakening should have been in Paradise,
Where souls brimfull of love abide and meet;
Where thirsting longing eyes
Watch the slow door
That opening, letting in, lets out no more.

Yet come to me in dreams, that I may live
My very life again tho’ cold in death:
Come back to me in dreams, that I may give
Pulse for pulse, breath for breath:
Speak low, lean low,
As long ago, my love, how long ago.

Monday, December 13, 2010

A Latter-Day Caravaggio

Actor James Franco appears on the cover of the December 2010 GQ magazine. It appears that photographers Inez van Lamsweerde & Vinoodh Matadin might have been inspired by Caravaggio's 1594 painting Boy with a Basket of Fruit.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

At the Museums: Holland Cotter Reviews the National Portrait Gallery's Landmark Exhibition, "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture."

Sexuality in Modernism: The (Partial) History

By Holland Cotter

WASHINGTON — With the exhibition “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” one of our federally funded museums, the National Portrait Gallery, here in the city of “don't ask, don't tell,” has gone where our big private museums apparently dare not tread, deep into the history of art by and about gay artists.

Over the last few years there has been plenty of speculation as to how this show would shape up, and when a copy of the catalog arrived, I felt a bit let down. All the artists were well known — stars — as was most of the work. The whole enterprise looked like an exercise in Hall of Fame-building, rather than like an effort to chip away at the very idea of hierarchy and exclusion. We were getting a “pride” display, an old model, very multicultural 1980s.

Then, when the Catholic League and several members of Congress demanded the removal of a piece — a video by David Wojnarowicz (pronounced voy-nah-ROH-vitch) that included an image of ants crawling on a crucifix — and the gallery, which is part of the Smithsonian, said O.K., we really were in the 1980s, back in the culture wars. Which led me to understand the show in a somewhat different way.

On reconsideration, it seems more purposeful, as if specifically designed to avoid any controversy that might distract from the major point it was trying to make: namely, that work of gay artists was fundamental to the invention of American modernism. Or, put another way, difference had created the mainstream.

But how was the presence of difference defined in art? By subject matter? By style? By the sexual orientation of the artist? And isn’t gayness, the most familiar form of such difference, a period concept, inapplicable to life and art of a century ago? Today the very word is used for convenience rather than categorically, with “queer” often used. (One way to think of it: gay is something you are; queer is something you choose to be outside of the heterosexual norm.)

Clearly the exhibition covers a lot of ground and raises many questions. It also has wonderful art, and the art stays wonderful whether you ask the questions or not. Again this seems part of the plan devised by the curators, David. C. Ward, a historian at the National Portrait Gallery, and Jonathan D. Katz, director of the doctoral program in visual studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo. They have assembled a historical show with a very specific slant, but with rewards for everyone.

The history begins at the end of the 19th century, where two generations of difference meet in an 1892 photograph of the elderly Walt Whitman taken by the middle-aged Thomas Eakins. In his poetry, Whitman wrote of sexual attraction to men and women alike, but he lived with a man, Peter Doyle. (A Whitman exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery a few years ago acknowledged their relationship.)

Eakins was a married man, but the homoeroticism in his painting could be as bold as in Whitman’s poetry. The great 1898 picture “Salutat,” the first work you see, right at the entrance, ostensibly depicts a boxing match. But there’s no fight, just a young, near-nude athlete who raises one arm high over his head as if to reveal his body more completely to his avid all-male audience.

Some of Eakins’s contemporaries — John Singer Sargent, the Boston photographer F. Holland Day — were more forthright in art about their attraction to men. Certain other homosexual artists, like Marsden Hartley, at least early on, referred to their same-sex desires in coded abstraction.

Then there were heterosexual artists who occasionally depicted homosexual themes. In a 1917 print by George Bellows, “The Shower-Bath,” a stocky older man is pretty clearly propositioning a younger one in a bathhouse. As the catalog explains, the identities defined in such encounters at the time were explicit: the effeminate, passive partner was the homosexual, the active, soliciting one was, or could pass for, a straight guy out for a good time.

What seems surprising is that the print, which today would have a niche appeal, was a popular hit, widely circulated. Apparently the average viewer saw the vignette as just one more entertaining fact of city life.

Cities can be good that way; they overlook and accept. A photographic double portrait of the choreographer Antony Tudor and the dancer Hugh Laing, taken in 1940 by Carl Van Vechten, is a real city picture. The two men, who were a couple, sit close together. If you want to — but you don’t have to — you can see that they’re holding hands. That’s what this urbane image is about.

Certain portraits done outside a city setting use other means to signal same-sex affections. One of the surprises is a 1930 painting by the regional artist Grant Wood of his 21-year-old assistant, Arnold Pyle, whom he depicts, with melting tenderness, against an autumnal rural landscape empty except for the figures of two male bathers.

And there’s Andrew Wyeth's 1979 portrait of his country neighbor Eric Standard. The young man stands nude in a wheat field, his body, right down to a tan line, detailed with the kind of air-brushed eroticism associated with Playgirl centerfolds.

The show is short on women, but those present are formidable. Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas are here, of course. So is, in photographs by Berenice Abbott, the writer Janet Flanner and the future art dealer Betty Parsons. Both traveled in the same tightly knit lesbian circles in pre-World War II Paris; Parsons would be instrumental in getting Abstract Expressionism off the ground in New York.

Sexual difference can sometimes require protective disguises, though not for anyone here. Flanner has two party masks fancifully attached to her top hat in Abbott’s picture, but her gaze is open and confident. In a painted portrait by Romaine Brooks, the sculptor Una, Lady Troubridge, treats clothing as a form of costuming: she’s dressed as an English gentleman, right down to the monocle.

The long-haired woman in a 1947 painting by Agnes Martin wears nothing at all. Martin tried to find and destroy all her early figurative work, but this picture — a self-portrait? — escaped the purge. As art, it’s no great shakes, but in some essential way it brings her out of hiding, out of the aura of hermeticism she built around herself, and makes her real.

What is great is the sight of work by one of American modernism’s most influential power couples, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns. Both men maintained a long silence about their lives together as partners in the 1950s and ’60s. But here they are, side by side, each represented by work from that time incorporating photographic self-portraits. Rauschenberg died in 2008. That Mr. Johns agreed to have work here is a quiet confirmation of the growing cultural willingness to acknowledge gay identity.

In part, AIDS is responsible for that. It yanked everybody awake, pushed gayness and queerness out of a subcultural closet and fully into the public realm. “Hide/Seek” stands as evidence that they have stayed there. And, despite the inclusion of some recent work, the show really ends with AIDS-era art: an unfinished Keith Haring painting, a Félix González-Torres candy spill, and Jerome Caja’s portrait of a friend painted with a mixture of nail polish and cremation ashes.

The Wojnarowicz video, “A Fire in My Belly,” belonged in this group. It was made in the late 1980s in response to a lover’s death and after the discovery of the artist’s own H.I.V. And crucial elements missing from much of the exhibition — personal and political anger, formal rawness, overt spirituality — are embodied in that work. In a sense the video was missing even when it was here: it was edited down for the occasion to barely 4 minutes from 20. But to have removed it entirely because of ideological strong-arming was to violate the premise and the promise of the show: difference was sent back into hiding.

It is way past time for mainstream art history to acknowledge the shaping role of sexual difference in modern art. And “Hide/Seek,” with its many strengths, begins to do so in a persuasively accessible way. Equally important is the need to assess the price that acceptance into history, and into the world, on mainstream terms may exact.

Wojnarowicz believed, as have many artists, that the outsider position is a valuable one, and with difference comes responsibilities, resistance to acceptance at any cost being one. The absence of a sense of that resistance in the show is what disappointed me when I first saw the catalog. It deepened with the removal of the video. And it stays with me still.

“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” remains at the National Portrait Gallery through Feb. 13. Smithsonian Institution, Eighth and F Streets, NW, Washington;

"Portrait of Marcel Duchamp," 1925, Florine Stettheimer

Art from the AIDS Era Inspires Controversy, Curiosity, and Public Discourse

Observed on a recent visit to the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition "Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture": A mother with a small child in a stroller watching the video of James Bidgood's 1971 drama "Pink Narcissus."

Years of museum visits have given me lots of memories of finely curated exhibitions. But one of the other things I have often admired on these visits are the parents who go to the trouble to bring small children into the museum galleries and how often those children have been rapt by what they see. Last Tuesday I visited the National Portrait Gallery and was surprised and happy to see a young parent paused in front of a video playing James Bidgood's "Pink Narcissus." As the mother started to move to the next artwork on display, the child protested. She wanted to keep watching the film although clearly what caught her eye was the beautiful palette of the film, the fanciful scenery serving as backdrop to the story. Considering the controversy surrounding David Wojnarowicz's "A Fire in My Belly," which was pulled from the galleries on December 1, I was encouraged to see a parent unafraid of allowing a child to see a film that might elicit the same controversy.

Here is New York Times art critic Holland Cotter's thoughtful analysis of the National Portrait Gallery's exhibition and the Wojnarowicz controversy, "As Ants Crawl Over Crucifix, Dead Artist Assailed Again."

In 1989, Donald Wildmon, founder of the American Family Association, mailed a pamphlet reproducing details from collages by the New York artist David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) to every member of Congress, to various news media outlets and to religious leaders across the country.

Mr. Wildmon, a Methodist minister, had prepared the pamphlet himself; he considered the images pornographic or blasphemous. He had copied them from the catalog for an exhibition partly supported by the National Endowment for the Arts, the real object of his protest. Wojnarowicz (pronounced voy-nah-ROH-vitch), furious at having his work selectively edited, sued Mr. Wildmon for misrepresenting his art and won the case.

Twenty years later, history is repeating itself, with variations. Wojnarowicz’s work is under similar attack, this time by Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League, and several members of Congress. The offending material is again a detail of a larger work, an image of ants crawling over a crucifix, excerpted from a Wojnarowicz video that was included in a large group show called “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.

On Dec. 1 the gallery, part of the Smithsonian Institution, took the video off view. One big change from 1990, however, is the nearly universal presence of the Internet. Word of the self-censorship instantly spread, and the video itself, titled “A Fire in My Belly,” went viral, turning up on a number of Web sites, including YouTube. Untold numbers of people could now see something that, without the publicity generated by the dispute, they never would have known existed.

And what are they seeing? A raw, moving, disturbing piece of art that comes in two sections: one is 13 minutes; the other is 7 minutes, video of the same title found on a separate reel after Wojnarowicz’s death from AIDS. In an added complication, the two tapes were edited down to one that is roughly 4 minutes for the National Portrait Gallery show.

The one thing they all share is a source, the artist’s childhood. Even given that Wojnarowicz was not above self-mythologizing, that childhood was rough. His parents divorced and then disappeared when he was 2, leaving him to a succession of temporary homes and often abusive relationships. On the positive side, many of these homes were in semi-rural settings, and the natural world became a sustaining resource for him. In the lives of animals, birds and insects he found clarified versions of human behavior, and alternatives to it.

By his early teenage years, he knew he was gay and was supporting himself as a street hustler in New York City. Somehow — he was elusive about aspects of his biography — he also made it through Roman Catholic grade school. Religious imagery and emotions, as well as a consciousness of fleeting time, were deeply ingrained in him.

He studied art for his one year of high school, then more or less taught himself painting, collage, photography and video. He traveled, frequently to Mexico, but New York was home. And his art, including his extraordinary diaristic writing, reflected the atmosphere of the sexual underground he was part of, one that fed into the new art scene on the Lower East Side in the 1980s, and that was eventually wasted by AIDS.

Wojnarowicz made “A Fire in My Belly,” dated 1986-87, at a turning point. In 1987 his longtime mentor and lover, the photographer Peter Hujar, died of AIDS, and Wojnarowicz himself learned that he was H.I.V.-positive. Although his career was by then well established, he was backing off from involvement in the art world and on his way to becoming immersed in AIDS politics.

Both parts of “A Fire in My Belly” are made from video shot in Mexico, a country that Wojnarowicz found mesmerizing for its combination of vital popular culture and daily life lived shockingly close to the bone. The 13-minute video opens with a panning shot, taken from a moving car, of the streets of a Mexican town, interrupted by quick shots of newspaper headlines reporting violent crimes. These sequences are punctuated, very briefly, with a few other images: a suspended world globe; a cartoonish dancing puppet wearing a sombrero; a disembodied hand dropping coins.

Then three scenes of combat alternate repeatedly: a bullfight and a cockfight — each gruesome — and a masked and acrobatic wrestling match. Travelogue-ish sequences that follow — of a circus with performing animals and a visit to a Mesoamerican archaeological site with demonic-looking sculptures — go on too long (as does the wrestling), and the video ends abruptly when the dancing puppet is shot at with what looks like a pistol full of paint. If there is any overriding idea delivered in the video, it has to do with how violence-addicted people, and specifically men, are.

The seven-minute “excerpt” feels more packed and purposeful, and quite complete. The opening image, which will recur again and again, is of metal wheels turning, like some machine of fate. Then, interwoven and rapidly repeated, we see pairs, not necessarily juxtaposed, of related images: street beggars and armed police; Day of the Dead candy skulls and a painting of an Aztec human sacrifice; mummified bodies displaced from graves in a cemetery and an undisturbed tombstone being gently washed.

Certain images were evidently filmed in a studio: coins falling into a bandaged hand, and a hand held under splashing water; halves of a loaf of bread being sewn together, and a man’s lips being sewn shut. A short sequence of a man masturbating alternates with images of sides of beef in a slaughterhouse. The image of the crucifix with ants comes almost in the middle of all of this, between shots of bread being sewn and blood dripping into a bowl. At the end, images from the first video reappear — the puppet and the globe — both burning.

That “A Fire in My Belly” is about spirituality, and about AIDS, is beyond doubt. To those caught up in the crisis, the worst years of the epidemic were like an extended Day of the Dead, a time of skulls and candles, corruption with promise of resurrection. Wojnarowicz was profoundly angry at a government that barely acknowledged the epidemic and at political forces that he believed used AIDS, and the art created in response, to demonize homosexuals.

He felt, with reason, mortally embattled, and the video is filled with symbols of vulnerability under attack: beggars, slaughtered animals, displaced bodies and the crucified Jesus. In Wojnarowicz’s nature symbolism — and this is confirmed in other works — ants were symbols of a human life mechanically driven by its own needs, heedless of anything else. Here they blindly swarm over an emblem of suffering and self-sacrifice.

Am I giving the image too benign a reading? Possibly, but I’m basing it on what Wojnarowicz had to say about another image of Jesus that he used in his art, one that Mr. Wildmon and the American Family Association called blasphemous. Part of a detail of a 1979 collage called “Untitled (Genet),” it is an altered version of the familiar 17th-century painting “Christ Crowned With Thorns,” by Guido Reni. Reni’s Jesus, who looks both agonized and ecstatic, is here shown with a heroin syringe in his arm.

But the changed image is part of a larger picture. Wojnarowicz has placed it atop an altar inside what looks like a bombed-out church swarming with antlike figures of soldiers as a flock of large angels descends into the church from the sky. In the center of everything stands a haloed figure, the French homosexual writer Jean Genet, dubbed “St. Genet” by Jean-Paul Sartre.

In response to questions during his courtroom testimony against the American Family Association, Wojnarowicz explained that he made the piece after returning to New York from a stay in France, where he had been reading Genet. Back in New York, he was struck by the rampant and rising use of hard drugs among people he knew and the self-destruction that resulted. He said that in his own upbringing as a Roman Catholic he’d been taught that Jesus took on the sufferings of all people in the world.

“I wanted to make a symbol that would show that he would take on the suffering of the vast amounts of addiction that I saw on the streets,” Wojnarowicz testified. “And I did this because I saw very little treatment available for people who had this illness.”

I don’t believe Wojnarowicz was being disingenuous. He was speaking under oath and, in any case, he was nothing if not passionate about his belief in the moral purpose of art, as passionate as his religious accusers have been in questioning his morality. It’s an interesting thing about passion, how coming from ostensibly opposite beliefs and directions, it can sometimes end up meeting in the same place.

Monday, December 06, 2010

Favorite Paintings: We Two Boys Together Clinging, 1961, David Hockney

Hockney borrows his title from Walt Whitman's poem published in Leaves of Grass:

We two boys together clinging,
One the other never leaving,
Up and down the roads going—North and South excursions making,
Power enjoying—elbows stretching—fingers clutching,
Arm'd and fearless—eating, drinking, sleeping, loving,
No law less than ourselves owning—sailing, soldiering, thieving, threatening,
Misers, menials, priests alarming—air breathing, water drinking, on the turf or the
Cities wrenching, ease scorning, statutes mocking, feebleness chasing,
Fulfilling our foray.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

In Honor of My Mother, Valarie Bryan

Holy Sonnet 10: Death, be not proud, John Donne

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

Ophelia, 1900-1905, Odilon Redon

Friday, May 29, 2009

Insect Life of Florida, Lynda Hull

In those days I thought their endless thrum
was the great wheel that turned the days, the nights.
In the throats of hibiscus and oleander

I’d see them clustered yellow, blue, their shells
enameled hard as the sky before the rain.
All that summer, my second, from city

to city my young father drove the black coupe
through humid mornings I’d wake to like fever
parceled between luggage and sample goods.

Afternoons, showers drummed the roof,
my parents silent for hours. Even then I knew
something of love was cruel, was distant.

Mother leaned over the seat to me, the orchid
Father’d pinned in her hair shriveled
to a purple fist. A necklace of shells

coiled her throat, moving a little as she
murmured of alligators that float the rivers
able to swallow a child whole, of mosquitoes

whose bite would make you sleep a thousand years.
And always the trance of blacktop shimmering
through swamps with names like incantations—

Okeefenokee, where Father held my hand
and pointed to an egret’s flight unfolding
white above swamp reeds that sang with insects

until I was lost, until I was part
of the singing, their thousand wings gauze
on my body, tattooing my skin.

Father rocked me later by the water,
the motel balcony, singing calypso
with the Jamaican radio. The lyrics

a net over the sea, its lesson
of desire and repetition. Lizards flashed
over his shoes, over the rail

where the citronella burned merging our
shadows—Father’s face floating over mine
in the black changing sound

of night, the enormous Florida night,
metallic with cicadas, musical
and dangerous as the human heart.

Constellation, detail, 1996, Kiki Smith

Thursday, May 28, 2009

my dreams, my works, must wait till after hell, Gwendolyn Brooks

I hold my honey and I store my bread
In little jars and cabinets of my will.
I label clearly, and each latch and lid
I bid, Be firm till I return from hell.
I am very hungry. I am incomplete.
And none can tell when I may dine again.
No man can give me any word but Wait,
The puny light. I keep eyes pointed in;
Hoping that, when the devil days of my hurt
Drag out to their last dregs and I resume
On such legs as are left me, in such heart
As I can manage, remember to go home,
My taste will not have turned insensitive
To honey and bread old purity could love.

New Galaxy, 1970, Alma Thomas