Friday, 31 May 2013


On Sunday 30th June my good friend, the poet and art critic Cherry Smyth, and I will be leading an LGBT tour of the newly unveiled re-hang at Tate Britain. We’re going to Queer the Collection and, believe, it’s not been difficult to find material to talk about – in fact, the issue has been which artworks to leave out, such are the riches on offer.

Portrait of David Hockney in a Hollywood Spanish Interior (1965), Peter Blake.

How important is it to offer up queer readings of large public collections in this way? Do we even need to do it given that contemporary audiences for art have surely seen it all, and most don’t much care about the sexuality of an artist or their subject? Well, it’s surprising to me how often large art institutions gloss over gay relationships that are relevant to an artwork’s conception, execution, or provenance, either choosing not to mention them at all, or neutralizing relationships by referring to them as 'intimate friendships' or to lovers and partners as 'companions.' As Arts Editor of Polari Magazine I've also come across the same kind of unease in the commercial sector. It’s not hard to guess at the motivations for this – they’re the same as the motivations in wider society for running scared of discussing sexuality – fears of offending people's religious and/or moral sensibilities or worries particularly around children asking awkward questions. It can dis-comfort people, un-settle them, marginalize the artwork and the artist as a result – but these aren’t necessarily bad things. 

An Athlete Wrestling with a Python (1877), Frederick, Lord Leighton.

Even those institutions with a reputation for being more 'cutting edge,’ can indulge in the practice of placing artists back in the closet. Recently, the Museum of Modern Art in New York put on a small exhibition entitled ‘Rauschenberg and Johns,’ using works from the 1950s in their permanent collection to explore the relationship between the two great American artists, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, describing them as being ‘in dialogue with each other.’ What the show’s curator failed to mention was that the two men were lovers for over six years during this time, even referring to them at one point as ‘friends.’ Johns and Rauschenberg were themselves coy about discussing their relationship and you could argue that MOMA was really just respecting this, but art history and art curators are not obliged to go along with the ‘authorized version’ of an artist’s personal history. They don't do it elsewhere, so why should they here?

The complicated nature of John and Rauschenberg’s relationship when discussing and contextualising their art is probably compounded by the fact that neither they, nor their work, fit into a pre-established stereotype of what ‘queer’ means in art. Young men showering in California, that’s obviously queer, right? But Rauschenberg’s Bed, his seminal work of 1955, is also queer, it's just that it doesn't immediately appear to be so, lacking the usual 'signals.' 

Bed (1955), Robert Rauschenberg

Bed is queer in form, breaking through conventional bounds of representation when, in 1955, Rauschenberg apparently took his own bedding and stretched it across a wooden frame, in place of, and so becoming, a canvas. Bed also explicitly references Rauschenberg’s two lovers, Cy Twombly and Jasper Johns, the first with looped scribbles in pencil drawn on the pillow - a direct reference to Twombly’s drawings - and the second with patches of bright paint on the quilt that mirror the colours of Johns’ famous Target paintings.

Bed (1955) Robert Rauschenberg (detail)

Drawing, Cy Twombly

Target with Four Faces (1955), Jasper Johns

By incorporating such artists into the queer canon, you blow open exactly what it means to categorize artists as queer and take it beyond the purely figurative, which is where the emphasis tends to be. But in order to do that, the institution and its curators need to give the relevant biographical information, just as they might tell you which of Picasso’s mistresses appears in a particular painting. MOMA’s website gives none of this information and you realize how far there is to go when even the biographical entry for Andy Warhol on the same MOMA website makes no reference at all to his sexuality, as if that wasn’t an intrinsic part of his art, a large part of which was explicitly gay and given that Pop Art is, arguably, intrinsically queer.

Jasper Johns
Could you imagine MOMA, or any other institution, failing to mention an artist’s gender or ethnicity (if those things were not immediately obvious) when that was a large part of their work’s thematic concerns? Rauschneberg’s Bed is considered an intimate portrait of him, and so it is, but it is one in which Cy Twombly’s head shares his pillow while Jasper Johns lays on the bedclothes – this shouldn’t be ignored and neither can it be separated from the work. Rauschenberg himself said “painting relates to both art and life…[and] I try to act in that gap between the two.”

Robert Rauschenberg
Cy Twombly

Rauschenberg, Twombly and Johns all hung out in New York with that other A-List Avant-Garde gay couple John Cage and Merce Cunningham, and at times they even collaborated on performances and artwork. This gives me an excuse to include a video here of Rauschenberg talking about creating 'Automobile Tire Print' with Cage in 1953.

John Cage, Merce Cunningham & Robert Rauschenberg
At Tate Britain they've taken the decision to remove all but the minimum information about works on display from the labels that sit alongside them and that’s a decision I support and which has been carried out consistently across the collection. You can, of course, find out any more information you’d like about a work or an artist on their excellent website and at appears that Tate, at least, have not closeted any of their artists. As Cherry and I prepare our talk I’ll be blogging occasionally on the works we’re researching and may well talk about - works such as this one, John Singer Sargent's Portrait of W.G.Robertson from 1894 - and it would be great if you came along.


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