HARTFORD — A new exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art features 27 major artists who have used portraiture to challenge, subvert, and play with societal norms of gender and sexuality since the 1969 Stonewall Riots — an important turning point in the LGBTQ+ rights movement. Leveraging the “reality effect” — the prevalent belief that photographs accurately depict reality — artists including Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, Robert Mapplethorpe, Catherine Opie, Cindy Sherman, and Andy Warhol respond to how gender identity and sexual orientation were viewed historically and how they are lived today. The over 50 works of art in “Be Seen: Portrait Photography Since Stonewall” compel us to consider how we perform our identity through our clothing, accessories, speech, and bodily expression, in an effort to be seen. The exhibition will be on view through Sept. 15, overlapping with Hartford’s celebration of Pride Fest on Sept. 14.
“This summer at the Wadsworth we have seized the opportunity to celebrate the artistic accomplishments of many artists working in portraiture,” says Patricia Hickson, Emily Hall Tremaine curator of Contemporary Art at the Wadsworth. “The majority of the portraits in ‘Be Seen’ are part of our collection, including ten new additions initiated by the exhibition with the purpose of diversifying our holdings.”
Offerings in conjunction with “Be Seen” include a companion tour program, “Out on View: LGBTQ+ Persepectives on the Collection,” which connects visitors with queer subject matter throughout the collection galleries highlighting works of art from antiquity to contemporary. The tour takes place at the Wadsworth on August 24 with Professor Andrew Lear who has curated an accompanying “Out on View” mobile audio tour. There is also a mobile audio tour of works in “Be Seen” titled “Be Heard,” which provides insights from the exhibition’s artists and the local LGBTQ+ community. Both audio tours are available online via www.tap.thewadsworth.org. Photography sourced from an Instagram campaign and juried by Ricardo Reyes, Edith Dale Monson Gallery curator and director at University of Hartford, and Judith Thorpe, Professor and MFA program director at University of Connecticut, will be displayed as an adjunct to the exhibition.
Anchoring the historical context for “Be Seen” is the short film “Happy Birthday, Marsha!” (2018), written and directed by Tourmaline and Sasha Wortzel. The film, which includes archival material, imagines transgender artist and activist Marsha P. Johnson’s life in the hours before she ignited the Stonewall Riots. Historically, in the early morning hours of June 28, 1969, four policemen raided the Stonewall Inn, a gay bar and dance club in Greenwich Village, N.Y. The resulting demonstration soon escalated into a violent riot that lasted for six days and drew national attention. In the United States and around the world, societal attitudes and laws that discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community have changed drastically since the Stonewall Riots. Yet, from the landmark 2015 Supreme Court decision on marriage equality, to the #MeToo movement, and the ongoing battle over transgender rights, recent cultural flash points have exposed the ways in which gender and sexuality still determine how we think about ourselves and each other, and how we move through the world.
“This summer, when we’re looking at the complexities and opportunities of portraiture from across the ages — from Giorgione’s ‘La Vecchia’ (1502-08), to the portrayal of the founding fathers in John Trumbull’s ‘The Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776’ (1832), and Tom Burr’s Minimalist sculptures dotting the museum — ‘Be Seen’ is a timely and important examination of the rich variety of portrait photography in the past five decades,” says Thomas J. Loughman, director and CEO of the Wadsworth.
“Be Seen” examines portrait photography through four themes: Picturing Community, Warhol and His Legacy, Performing Identity, and Reclaiming Art History. Works by Nan Goldin, Mark Morrisroe, Zanele Muholi, Catherine Opie, and others, capture the every-day lives of their subjects in Picturing Community. Their portraits make visible people and communities that were — and still are — often silenced and unseen. This section includes significant work by artists of the Boston School. Warhol and His Legacy acknowledges the influence of Andy Warhol, an artist who was famously queer at a time when most LGBTQ+ public figures were still in the closet. Following Warhol’s example, younger artists such as Robert Mapplethorpe, Patti Smith, and Peter Hujar created portraits that celebrate queer individuals and in some cases their own queer identities. In Performing Identity, gender and sexuality are just two of the many identities depicted in self-portraits by Martine Gutierrez, Cindy Sherman, Iké Udé, Chris Verene, and Ana Mendieta. Reclaiming Art History shows how contemporary LGBTQ+ photographers are forming an alternative art history to include bodies and communities that rarely appear in works of art from the past. Yasumasa Morimura, John O’Reilly, Paul Mpagi Sepuya, Mickalene Thomas, and others, challenge the history of art directly by restaging or appropriating famous paintings.
Tours of the exhibition take place on Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 p.m. through Sept. 15.
Wadsworth Atheneum is located at 600 Main Street, Hartford. For more information visit www.thewadsworth.org.