Paul Cadmus: What I Believe, 1947-48, egg tempera on pressed wood panel, 16 1/4 by 27 inches. McNay Art Museum, San Antonio. © Jon F. Anderson, Estate of Paul Cadmus/ licensed by VAGA, New York.

When I visited the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C., to see “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” in early December, David Wojnarowicz’s video A Fire in My Belly (1987) had already been removed [see A.i.A., Jan. ’11 and Homepage, this issue]. Across the country, institutions had begun screening the video, and the Association of Art Museum Directors had issued an official statement condemning the Smithsonian’s decision. As I am writing, protests and panels proceed apace (a discussion is scheduled for Jan. 29 at the NPG itself), and the Canadian-born artist AA Bronson is militating, so far unsuccessfully, for the removal from the exhibition of his disquieting Felix, June 4, 1994, a mural-size photograph that depicts his lover and collaborator in the collective General Idea, Felix Pardo, gaunt and open-eyed, just deceased from HIV/AIDS. Unlike A Fire in My Belly, which vanished from the show without a trace (none of the videos in the exhibition are included in the catalogue, so we have no record there, either), the removal of Bronson’s piece, leaving a blank wall, would present an explicit sign of the controversy that has come, regrettably, to eclipse the show itself.

“Hide/Seek” had seemed to have escaped what its co-curator Jonathan D. Katz calls a 21-year-long “blacklist” of gay-themed exhibitions at U.S. government-funded institutions, following the notorious cancellation of the Corcoran’s Robert Mapplethorpe exhibition during the (first) Culture War, in 1989. Katz, director of the doctoral program in visual studies at the State University of New York at Buffalo, and David C. Ward, historian at the National Portrait Gallery, have mounted a carefully researched, in places ingeniously selected, exhibition. On view are 104 works (A Fire in My Belly made the count 105, at least for one month)—drawings, paintings, photographs and videos—dating mainly to the 20th century. Many of them are little known or rarely seen, tucked away in private collections or belonging to small regional or university museums.

“Hide/Seek” comes at a time of unprecedented inroads into social equality for LGBT persons (though also, as the winter “Intelligence Report” by the Southern Poverty Law Center reveals, during a period when hate-crime violence against gays is on the rise). Gay rights as an issue crosses the political divide, as was demonstrated by the recent repeal of the military’s Don’t Ask Don’t Tell policy and several gay marriage cases that are steadily making their way to the Supreme Court. The appearance of “Hide/Seek” at this relatively staid institution in the nation’s capital is at the very least a symptom of changing attitudes. Moreover, the show’s rather conservative roster of establishment artists, from Thomas Eakins, Grant Wood and Marsden Hartley to Jasper Johns, Ellsworth Kelly and Georgia O’Keeffe, gives it a further air of legitimacy. This exhibition was designed to outrage no one.

In his excellent if perhaps overly digressive catalogue essay, Katz makes a carefully reasoned argument that portraiture, even heavily coded, is a genre well suited to revealing gay life before Stonewall (1969):

Portraiture plays a key role in understanding sexual difference ina world not yet divided between homosexuals and heterosexuals, a world where the concept of “having a sexuality” did not yet exist. It helps us answer not only the question of what same-sex difference signified socially and how it was marked but also, by implication, how critical an aspect of character it was deemed to be in the accurate portrayal of a sitter.

Katz’s definition of the genre is elastic, however. While the show includes fully identifiable portraits by the likes of Carl van Vechten and Robert Mapplethorpe, there are also some more oblique choices: Untitled (Portrait of Ross in L.A.), 1991, one of Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s candy piles memorializing friends lost to AIDS; photographs of faceless, anonymous figures by Yayoi Kusama (a “gay wedding” before gay marriage existed) and Tee Corinne (an erotic tableau); and abstractions by O’Keeffe and Hartley. Some of these are truly superb, like the two Hartleys: Painting No. 47, Berlin (1914-15), a “portrait” of a slain World War I German officer, Karl von Freyburg, one of Hartley’s unrequited loves, and the haunting Eight Bells Folly, his homage to Hart Crane, who killed himself in 1932, the year before Hartley painted it.

Katz argues convincingly for reading issues of sexuality into works that might not, at first sight, appear to be “gay,” given the covertness of sexual identity during most of the period covered. By this line of reasoning, the old arguments about Thomas Eakins’s proclivities do not prevent us from reading queerness into his paintings. “How can we discuss Eakins’s sexuality in advance of the very words that convey it?” asks Katz, reasonably. The brightly lit body of a young boxer in Salutat (1898) is pretty frankly erotic, his rippling back muscles and firm buttocks scrutinized by the crowd of men as he enters the arena. Speculation has abounded for years about Eakins, along with many of the artists on view here, but pursuing that line of inquiry is not the curators’ aim. Rather, it is the subtle codes or not-so-subtle eroticism embedded in the works themselves that is of interest. “The wistful youth set against the homoerotic scenes in the background suggests the tension and difficulties faced by gay men who stayed behind in Middle America” (as opposed to gravitating to urban centers), reads the entry on a painting of a prim, somewhat melancholic young fellow in a river landscape by Grant Wood (Arnold Comes of Age, 1930); more blandly, about a painting of a virile, naked blond youth in a field by, of all people, Andrew Wyeth, the entry reads “[the artist] imbues his subject with an undeniably homo-erotic, as well as heterosexual, appeal” (The Clearing, 1979). For better and worse, such an approach liberates researchers from the restraints imposed by scant—even nonexistent—biographical evidence.

There are some real coups. Jasper Johns assented to the inclusion of Souvenir (1964) from his own collection, a piece that is on long-term loan to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. It is hung in proximity to several works by Rauschenberg, including a small, rare self-portrait collage from 1965. Thus, in effect, the show is a coming out of sorts for the circumspect Johns, who was, for a time, Rauschenberg’s lover. On the other hand, the curators scared up an extremely rare figurative painting from the late 1940s by Agnes Martin, who did her best to destroy all of her pre-abstract work. It depicts a naked young woman whose identity—self-portrait or lover—is unknown. Martin may have lived as a lesbian, but this fact was not manifested at all in the work we know best—and perhaps not in this one, either. It was the mere biographical fact of her sexuality that seemed the pretext for the inclusion of the painting.

There are plenty of open, uncloseted images in the show, some depicting figures who appear in more than one work by more than one artist. Who can resist Larry Rivers’s famous life-size, lusty portrait (1954) of his sometime lover Frank O’Hara posing naked except for his boots? O’Hara makes other appearances—in a side-view portrait (1960) by Alice Neel that exaggerates his beaked nose; and in an amusing diptych, Poets (Clothed) Poets (Naked), 1964, by Wynn Chamberlain, depicting four poets of the New York School—O’Hara, Joe Brainard, Joe LeSueur and Frank Lima—posing on a bench against Albersian nested rectangles. On one side they are subdued, clothed in suits, and on the other nude, grinning broadly. Such recurrences give us insights into entire milieux.

For all the show’s discreetness, one can’t help, in places, wondering over the censors’ hysteria about a few seconds in Wojnarowicz’s video, or their condemnation of a rather mundane 1997 photograph by Annie Leibovitz of Ellen DeGeneres clowning in whiteface. They don’t like it that she’s cupping her breasts—actually, she’s wearing a fairly successfully concealing bra; the men’s underwear peeping out below seem to entirely escape their notice. By comparison, a painting by Paul Cadmus from 1947-48, What I Believe, based on a 1938 essay by E.M. Forster, is downright outrageous, though it requires precisely what the show’s opponents did not give it: more than an instant of attention. At the center of Cadmus’s Rubensian allegory is a naked couple, man and woman, surrounded by a landscape symbolizing the forces of good and evil. To the viewer’s right, ever the domain of evil in Western art, are vignettes of war and heterosexual life—all ugly groping and squealing babies—while to the left, the realm of the blessed, a homosexual paradise luxuriantly unfolds. Cadmus had his own share of censors in his lifetime, but my guess is that House Speaker John Boehner—one of the most strident critics of the show—will likely not join their posthumous ranks.

It comes as no surprise that there are fewer entries by women than men, since much of the work was made in an era when there were fewer women artists in general. Moreover, in the early days, a doubly erased identity—woman artist and lesbian—made for a very low profile to be sure. Nonetheless, among the strongest works on view are paintings by Romaine Brooks (1874-1970) conveying the cool, fashionable elegance of lesbian expatriates in Paris between the wars. I do not understand why, however, there is no painting by Nicole Eisenman among the few post-AIDS works on view in the last section, titled Postmodernism. Eisenman has often portrayed herself and friends, since the start of her career in the mid-’90s, in a style that would have resonated very effectively with that of Brooks.

Indeed, beginning in the 1990s and continuing today, there has been an efflorescence of high-spirited, cutting-edge art by lesbians dealing with gender identity. You wouldn’t know it from this show. The curators chose, for example, a 2003 portrait by the hipster scene celebrity photographer Cass Bird of an ambiguously gendered adolescent, when Collier Schorr, who has been treating the same subject matter for nearly 20 years, has been so much more influential among artists. Catherine Opie’s Being and Having (1991), showing tattooed young women masquerading in fake facial hair, is present. Yet one instead longs for her portraits of lesbian family life, given the pressing issue of gay marriage.

Ward told me in a conversation that they did not wish to end on the sad note of AIDS, and that is understandable. All the more reason, then, to have included maquettes or drawings for Patricia Cronin’s memorial of herself and her partner, the artist Deborah Kass, embracing in bed, nude and forever young, which was unveiled at Woodlawn National Cemetery in the Bronx in 2002. (Both artists are alive and well.) Cronin’s 3-ton monument is remarkable, a very public affirmation of lesbianism and, in addition, a joyous alternative to the sober images of death that saturated the art world during the AIDS crisis and are very well represented here. It should have been in this show.

Perhaps the only answer is a sequel—at a major museum, again, one hopes—focusing on the new queer identity in contemporary art, which is much less bound to stereotypes of gayness, and ever more heterogeneous and unpredictable in its manifestations. Until then, “Hide/Seek” offers a good historical survey with its own subtle twists. Hopefully the curators will have proved sufficiently clever to foil any further efforts by today’s culture warriors to censor a timely show.

Currently On View “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” at the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C., through Feb. 13.

“Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture” is accompanied by a 295-page catalogue by Jonathan D. Katz and David C. Ward.