My husband and I recently visited the Cincinnati Art Museum and had the good fortune to see the exhibit "The Total Look: The Creative Collaboration Between Rudi Gernreich, Peggy Moffitt and William Claxton". Neither of us were familiar with Gernreich's work prior to our visit, and we were completely bowled over by the exhibit. Gernreich was a women's fashion designer of the fifties and sixties, and was obviously a genius and a scion of his times. The pieces were beautiful, creative, and completely different from anything we'd ever seen before. I only snapped one picture because photography was forbidden inside the exhibit hall, so here's a peek:
When we got home, we wanted to know more about Gernreich, so we googled him. We were both pretty surprised to find out that not only was Gernreich gay, but he was involved with Harry Hay, the founder of the early gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society. Via Wikipedia:
Well, I wanted to understand if this had been intentionally left out of the exhibit, so I tweeted at the Cincinnati Art Museum:
I wasn't around in the 1950's, but from what I gather, it wasn't so easy to be an out gay person back then. Gay people couldn't work for the US government or teach in the public schools, and the risk of losing one's friends, family, and career by openly admitting to homosexuality was very real.
[Aside: As to whether or not an artist's sexuality defines their work, I suppose it all depends. I would guess that sexuality is a defining characteristic for some artists, and not for others. To take just one (glib) example, was Picasso's love of women not a "defining" characteristic of his work? It figures strongly throughout his oeuvre and viewers' knowledge of Picasso's (hetero)sexuality will help them to contextualize and understand his work.]
Anyway, I replied:
To which Amneus replied by assigning me some reading, The Rudi Gernreich Book by Peggy Moffitt, to learn about "Rudi's own thoughts about sexuality and its irrelevance."
So I found the book at the Boston Public Library and took it out. From the Introductory essay by Marylou Luther, "Looking Back at a Futurist":
"In July 1950, while watching a rehearsal at [Lester] Horton's studio, Gernreich met Harry Hay, founder of the Mattachine Society, a 1950s forerunner of today's gay movement. From 1950 to 1952, Gernreich and Hay were lovers and Gernreich became one of Mattachine's seven founding members... He and the other founders resigned from the society in 1953 after an ideological schism. In accordance with the Mattachine oath of secrecy, Hay never revealed Gernreich's membership in the society until after the designer's death in 1985...
"That the man who tore up so many closets with his revolutionary clothes never came out of the closet during this lifetime says a lot about Gernreich and his times. In those years homosexuality was illegal and Gernreich himself had been entrapped before joining the Mattachines. Oreste Pucciani, Gernreich's life partner for thirty-one years, recalls, "Rudi told me he was stunned when a guilty verdict was returned. He had insisted on pleading innocent and demanded a jury trial. He told me that he looked in the face of every jury member, and one woman, who had seemed sympathetic earlier and whose support Rudi thought he could count on, turned to the wall to avoid his eyes." [emphasis mine]
WOW. Gernreich had been entrapped and convicted by a jury of his peers for homosexual acts. No wonder he never came out. I can only imagine the shame and fear he felt after this incident. (Oh, and by the way, he had a partner of 31 years! Who knew?)
Back to the essay in Moffitt's book:
"Peggy Moffitt, the designer's model/muse, says she and Gernreich "talked about sexuality a lot. His clothes were about sexuality. He told me about having belonged to the Mattachine Society, but not in a this-is-a-big-secret kind of way. He often told me that he felt a person's sexuality was understood and there was no way to hide it. I've known many gay men who seemed compelled to underscore their homosexuality, as in 'I'll-order-the-roast-beef-but-of-course-I'm-gay.' Rudi was not that sort of person. I don't think it ever occurred to him to come out of the closet because his sexuality was self-evident. He wouldn't have called a press conference to discuss his sexuality any more than he would have called one to discuss his brown eyes." [emphasis mine]
I can see how curator Cynthia Amneus could read this quote and decide that it was right and proper to omit the fact of Gernreich's sexuality (no longer a secret) from the exhibition at the Cincinnati Art Museum. But I disagree with the decision, and I believe that this interpretation is a misreading of Moffitt, and of Gernreich.
The fact is that omission is commission. The failure to overtly state Gernreich's sexuality in the exhibit is, in fact, to (intentionally or unintentionally) mislead viewers, because sexuality is always assumed and automatically ascribed. Since most people are heterosexual, that is our default assumption, unless stated otherwise. Amneus' interpretation of Moffitt's quote is anachronistic and ahistorical; it must be taken in context. For a man like Gernreich at his time, to declare that sexuality didn't matter was in fact to claim something like the following: although I may be sexually deviant, I am not a monster to be abhorred and ostracized. Nowadays, thankfully, the situation is far different. Today, we can make a far more sincere claim to the idea that "sexuality doesn't matter" because gay and straight people are treated much more equally in the eyes of the law (though not everywhere yet, including in Ohio) as well as in society more broadly. Information about one's sexuality can still be an important component in understanding a person's experience. It just need not be the only, or defining, one.
Gernreich's sexuality is also important in order to fully understand the exhibit: he played with women's bodies in ways that would read differently if he were a heterosexual man. Take the provocative monokini (1964):
It's hard not to think that there are other cultural forces at work here. In 1990, another Cincinnati art museum, the Contemporary Arts Center, was brought to trial on obscenity charges for exhibiting the photographs of Robert Mapplethorpe -- the first time in American history that criminal charges were brought against a museum for obscenity because of a public exhibit. (The museum was found not guilty.) I wonder to what extent the memory of this trial still burns, consciously or not, in the minds of those charged with creating new exhibitions for the public.
But the times, they are a-changing: though gay marriage is still illegal in Ohio, the marriage equality case heard just a few weeks ago by the Supreme Court (Obergefell v. Hodges), originated in Cincy. A recent NY Times cover story highlighted this case, and the shift that Cincinnati is making from a traditionally Catholic, conservative city to a modern, more progressive metropolis. I'm sure that there are some growing pains there. Perhaps some of the more monied folk in town still have more (ahem) traditional values.
Despite an otherwise thrilling exhibit, Amneus and the Cincinnati Art Museum have done their public a disservice by omitting this crucial piece of information, which holds the key to understanding Gernreich's work, his commitment to sexual liberation, and his relationship to Peggy Moffitt and William Claxton. Blithely ignoring it is not to follow in Gernreich's spirit, but rather to recloset him and to keep his identity a shameful secret -- the opposite of the bright, bold, exclamatory and joyous notes so clearly revealed by this exhibit.
I'll end with one more quote from the essay in Moffitt's book:
"Pucciani explains Gernreich's reluctance to "out": "To 'out' yourself is one thing. To be dragged out is something else. Rudi never came out officially. He never felt the need. Until I retired from the University of California at Los Angeles in 1979, I lived by the principle of never make a point of it and never deny it. Intelligent people knew by the way I lived... When I asked Rudi why he had never come out, he said with that lilt in his voice he always got when he was joking: "It's very simple. It's bad for business."
I wonder if, in their decision to withhold this basic information about Gernreich from the exhibition, Amneus and the Cincinnati Art Museum didn't make a similar calculation.