In his lecture on Wednesday, Jonathan Katz argued that pop art is an inherently queer form of self-expression, an idea originally censored in a now fully-published interview with Andy Warhol.
Katz—founder of the Harvey Milk Institute and director of the visual culture studies doctoral program at the State University of New York at Buffalo—presented his interpretation of Andy Warhol’s pop artwork through a unique lens of queer studies and censorship in his lecture, “The Unknown Queer Warhol.”
Flowing from an analysis of a resurrected version of this formerly censored interview with Warhol, Katz argued that Warhol’s pop imagery provided no less commentary on modern homosexuality than his blatantly queer early works. In fact, many of his most popular pieces employ a careful critique of American individualism to shed light on queerness.
Katz provided a brief historical context to the rise of postmodern art—art that speaks to the audience about itself—which gave Warhol a medium to intimately interact with his viewers.
This style formed the underpinning of Warhol’s pop artwork. As Americans began to repress their sense of self, Warhol exploited this rejection of difference by presenting queerness solely in reference to the non-queer world.
“[Warhol’s pop art] not only promotes an engagement with the other culture, [but] it speaks to the language of that culture, references its codes while critiquing and internalizing its standards,” said Katz.
Katz’s personal scholarship in queer studies explores this irony of focus.
“I’m using the word queer not because I’m trying to be anachronistic to any historical period, but because I’m trying to say that—like feminism isn’t about women, it’s about men, and critical race studies is not about blacks, it’s about whites—that queer studies is about the construction of heterosexuality,” said Katz in an interview with the Orient.
Working at the intersection of art and queer studies, Katz is himself irritated with the conservative representation of artwork within museums.
“We can’t just harvest and claim the work that fits our contemporary categories of identity,” he said.
The pursuit of queer studies has a storied past with Katz. Like Warhol, he has had to confront personal instances of censorship.
As a doctoral candidate, he was kicked out of three elite universities for proposing a dissertation on queer studies in the visual field. Later, a video piece was removed by the Smithsonian from his exhibition in the National Portrait Gallery over claims of “anti-Catholicism.”
“This was an era when Reagan was office, there was a new rising tide of Christian conservatism in this country, and what I did was almost by definition seen as not only beyond the pale, but quite literally impossible,” said Katz.
“What I came to realize is that again and again, institutional authority is enthralled to social and cultural hierarchies that have nothing to do with art but that nonetheless very aggressively determine what gets seen and what gets heard,” he said.
Anne Goodyear, the co-director of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art, was instrumental in bringing Katz to campus. Prior to her work with the College, Goodyear worked as a senior fellow and curator for the Smithsonian Institution. And it was in the National Portrait Gallery where she first met Katz. At the time, he was working with the Smithsonian to curate his exhibit “Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture,” and he worked with Goodyear to find connections within the Portrait Gallery.
With her past interactions with Katz in mind, Goodyear recognized the powerful impact he could have on campus.
“I think Jonathan will also help us to think precisely about this question of histories, plural, versus history, and to help us think about, what are the larger social, intellectual, political structures that cause us to think in certain ways,” said Goodyear.
This lecture represents a broader goal of the art museum to incorporate lectures that shed light on the museum’s extensive permanent collection.
“It’s really important for us to develop a body of programming that…[brings] vantage points to campus that help us to reflect more broadly on the histories that we’re constructing through the permanent collection,” said Goodyear.
Moving forward, Katz has proposed a new exhibit to the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn., entitled “Queering the Museum.”
“What ‘Queering the Museum’ is going to do is essentially articulate the centrality of sexual difference to the very formation of the American museum and why museums became places that were safe for queer people at a historical period where other parts of the world were not safe,” said Katz.