An installation shot of Hide/Seek at Tacoma Art Museum with the carpet of Felix Gonzalez-Torres's candies, and AA Bronson's photograph of his artistic collaborator Felix, moments after he died of AIDS. courtesy of tacoma art museum

Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture is advertised with an enormous pink and purple banner on the facade of Tacoma Art Museum facing Interstate 5 that reads "THE SECRET IS OUT." This is the art exhibition that its organizers call the first-ever official queering of the canon—organized and first displayed in the rarefied rooms of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

"This is not a bunch of queer art that nobody's seen before," cocurator Jonathan Katz said on the occasion of its opening at Tacoma Art Museum, its final tour stop (after DC and Brooklyn). No, this is art you already know, but may not really know. The idea goes further than gaystreaming—this is the idea that there can't even be a straight without a gay. And while the exhibition leaves one wanting even more explanatory text, embedded in the paintings, photographs, video, and sculptures is a vital American story the likes of which rarely comes together in an art exhibition.

Joey Veltkamp and Jeffry Mitchell, two gay and out artists in Seattle of two different generations—Veltkamp in his 30s, Mitchell in his 50s—took in Hide/Seek for the first time last week. The exhibition begins with a face-on meeting of the bare, 19th-century male ass of a skinny boxer; that's in a painting by Thomas Eakins. From that pallid, glowing skin, the show roams through images of magical pansexuality (a photograph of Walt Whitman as flowing-haired god/dess), of emptying self-hatred (Warhol's stabbingly repetitive fan-love of Troy Donahue), of the operatic (Paul Cadmus's threesome in which a man in a purple suit is being kissed by a silver fairy muse, held up by a faun, and ejaculating sheet music), and of the sorrowful, alienated, and furious (Grant Wood's lonely Arnold Comes of Age, the AIDS-related work of the 1980s and 1990s). Blues songs play overhead for Ma Rainey, who made the hit song "Prove It on Me Blues" to taunt the authorities after they threatened to arrest her for hosting an all-female orgy.

A handful of pieces—and not the expected ones—provoked especially passionate conversations.

1. Charles Demuth, 1918, Cabaret Interior with Carl Van Vechten (watercolor on paper, 19 by 27 inches)

This painting is blushing. The watery paint—predominantly in hot reds, pinks, and browns—spreads blotchily across the paper like fever, smearing outside the pencil outlines of the figures who are dancing, embracing, talking, guitar-playing, taking no notice whatsoever of our looking. The weather in this cabaret is the kind that makes limbs loose, and this is a painting of a safe private space, made by an insider. Everyone and everything is mixed, men and women, men and men, tenderness upon tenderness.

"It's awfully hard not to love this painting," says Veltkamp.

Love. Pure love. That's what this painting is about, Mitchell agrees. You find it in both Veltkamp's and Mitchell's works, too, that openness. Behind these cabaret doors, there is no need for anxiety or secrecy. Gayness is allowed its full range of postures and costumes: cosmopolitan, cowboy-hatted, pre-disco (shirts unbuttoned down to there), sailors in butt-hugging uniforms. This is the urban version of the utopia Walt Whitman had in mind, a "life of joy" where "your body has become not yours only nor left my body mine only."

"It's the opposite of Cadmus, which is yummy but mean," Mitchell says, looking across the gallery toward Cadmus's candy-colored manifesto depicting a segregated landscape separating straights from gays. One of the great unacknowledged breakups in American history, Hide/Seek proposes, is the one between straights (so-called "normals") and gays (so-called "deviants"). With the rise of the term "homosexual" in the 20th century, suddenly you were either one or the other, and never the two could meet. Sexuality became a binarism, and everyone got a new prison.

2. Larry Rivers, 1954, O'Hara Nude with Boots (oil on canvas, 97 by 53 inches)

"It's really hard to make a portrait that's larger than life-size," Mitchell says, standing with a faceful of Frank O'Hara's partly erect penis, trying to be kind about the awkward, eight-foot-tall painting in front of him.

"It's a chub!" Veltkamp blurts out, the thought on all our minds.

The exhibition is divided into two rooms, chronologically, and we'd just emerged from history into the postwar period. On the walk between rooms, Veltkamp had said, "For people who grow up in a liberal bubble without shame, like in parts of Seattle, what will the art look like? What will the art look like now that everything's out in the open?"

And now we were seeing one answer. Rivers and O'Hara were not free from oppressive homophobia, but they were putting everything out in the open in this painting. It reveals more than it means to, more than just a turn-on.

"It's almost like he wouldn't let himself paint his normal way with the face—there's this conflict between the face and the body that we also saw back in the other room, with the John Singer Sargent painting of his butler on the couch," Mitchell says.

Sargent's butler's face is relaxed, familiar. But the body is contorted. Same here.

"The painting of the body is so awkward," Mitchell says. "Internalized homophobia. It's classic, right? We can't just love our bodies. There's this problem."

3. Robert Mapplethorpe, 1979, Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter (gelatin silver print, 16 by 20 inches)

"I went home with a guy one time in New York—he looked like a garbageman," Mitchell says, after standing in front of Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter for a few silent moments. "But his apartment was ensconced in figurines, just shelves and shelves of figurines. This"—Brian and Lyle in full leather gear in a well-appointed Manhattan sitting room—"is an elegant apartment. It's New York culture. But this is a different time of day."

Next to Mapplethorpe's photographs, there are several by Peter Hujar, a contemporary of Mapplethorpe's, but a far less stylized picture-maker. "Why was Mapplethorpe so prominent as opposed to Hujar, who I think is totally underappreciated?" Mitchell says.

The agreed-upon answer is Mapplethorpe's formalism, the prettification he uses to make the medicine go down. He doesn't so much present content as smuggle it across in a polished package. It raises the question: Who are the biggest smugglers in the history of gay art? Are they cheaters? Heroes?

4. Yayoi Kusama, 1968, Homosexual Wedding (photograph from Happening)

The grainy picture—depicting two (or maybe three?) bodies in a pile on the floor, naked except for painted-on polka dots that match the wildly polka-dotted room they're in—was snapped at a Happening in New York by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. She declared it the "first Homosexual Wedding ever to be performed in the United States."

This document is nothing like a wedding photograph. The participants lie rather than stand. They are so entangled that you can't even tell whether they're men or women.

"'The purpose of this marriage is to bring out into the open what has hitherto been concealed,'" Mitchell reads out loud from the wall label, quoting Kusama.

That purpose is very different than simply a "homosexual wedding," Mitchell points out. "Look at the nudity—the opposite of getting all dressed up to get married," he says.

This is not just a straight wedding with gay personnel. Is it a radical version of post-gay? How do out-and-proud and post-gay coexist? Is it important to be gay or straight anymore?

"I like this world where the label gay or straight doesn't matter anymore," Veltkamp says. "It's just not the way I think anymore."

Mitchell, from another generation, takes longer in answering. Both Veltkamp and Mitchell are sucking on hard candies they picked up from a sculpture by the late Felix Gonzalez-Torres, a sculpture that is regularly replenished so that it weighs 175 pounds, the weight of Felix's partner before he died of AIDS.

"I'm still thinking about this question: Is it important to be gay or straight?" Mitchell says. "I used to be homophobic around super-effeminate men. Now I'm so glad people have the strength to be who they are. So: Yes. For me, personally and politically, it is important to be gay." recommended