Memorial to a Marriage – Patricia Cronin and Deb Kass.
Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Portraits Gallery.

Sometimes you go to a museum to see one thing, and bump into another entirely unexpectedly.

A few months ago I went to see the recently unveiled Obama portraits at the National Portrait Gallery. It has become NPG’s practice that presidential portraits join their counterparts on the second floor, while the portrait of a first lady enters the hall of recent acquisitions. Just beyond the queue to see Amy Sherald’s painted portrait of Michelle Obama was another work of significance, lying in state: Memorial to a Marriage, by Patricia Cronin. The work depicts Cronin and her wife, artist Deborah Kass, nude on a bed, tastefully shrouded by a sheet. They rest in an embrace, Kass’s head nuzzled against Cronin’s neck, their toes touching.

It’s a feminist work, an LGBTQ work. And it was donated to the museum by Chuck Close, who in December became another famous person embroiled in #MeToo allegations.

First produced in marble in 2002—13 years before same-sex marriage was recognized nationwide—the sculpture was placed on a burial plot in Woodlawn Cemetery that Cronin shares with Kass. At the time, the couple’s relationship did not have legal status, which created many difficulties, as they discovered during an emergency hospital visit Cronin paid to her niece (on Kass’s side of the family). Since Cronin was not “legally related,” she was barred from entry. Similar issues existed with international travel, estate planning, and so on. Cronin created the sculpture out of protest, as a way to declare that, after death, yes, their relationship in life was a marriage.

A decade later the marble was showing signs of weathering. Cronin initially made a rubber mold of the marble, but it too was beginning to deteriorate. With perpetuity a concern, the marble was replaced by an 84-inch cast bronze. Additional 53-inch bronze editions—a scale that fit in Cronin’s studio freight elevator—were made.

The National Portrait Gallery acquired the work in 2017, after Curator of Painting and Sculpture Dorothy Moss paid a studio visit to Cronin. “I was… looking at some of her recent work and she mentioned that Chuck Close had acquired Memorial to a Marriage,” Moss said. Now, Close wanted to give it to a museum.

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Memorial to a Marriage – Patricia Cronin and Deb Kass. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Portraits Gallery.

The sculpture isn’t the first representation of LGBTQ identity in the National Portrait Gallery’s collection. “There is a portrait of Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky. A portrait of Sylvia Rivera. The list goes on,” Moss indicated. Cronin’s double portrait of her and Kass, however, is more overt than other depictions. It’s also a departure from the type of portraiture museum-goers so often see: seated figures overly aware that they were subjects of an artwork. Although funerary portraiture is a tradition that dates back millennia, it’s not a form that is top of mind for most people. “We are always looking to expand definitions of portraiture and to broaden our visitors’ conception of what a portrait can be,” Moss explained, speaking of both the formal nature of the Cronin sculpture, and its significance as a work of activism.

That activism has resurgent value. Despite campaign promises to the contrary, since President Trump’s inauguration he has been unfriendly to the LGBTQ community. To date, the Trump administration has dismantled protections for LGBTQ employees, attempted to remove transgender soldiers from active military duty, and made allowances for health workers to invoke religious objection to treating members of the LGBTQ community. Same-sex marriage may remain the law of the land for the near term, but as anti-LGBTQ judicial nominees get confirmed, its security may be threatened.

For all its value to the museum collection, however, the donation by Close remains an awkward footnote in the history of the work. In December 2017, one month after Memorial to a Marriage was first displayed at NPG, news surfaced that four women alleged Close had sexually harassed them. By January, four more women had come forward. The National Gallery of Art, located half a mile from the National Portrait Gallery, indefinitely postponed an exhibition of paintings by Close as a response to the allegations.

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Allen Ginsberg (with Peter Orlovsky) by Raphael Soyer, oil on canvas, 1980. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mary Soyer © Raphael Soyer

“It was sad news to us,” Moss declared of the allegations against Close. She spoke of Close’s significance to the genre of portraiture, and noted that during conversations with Cronin about Close, Cronin would reinforce Close’s support of her as a female artist and as a lesbian artist. “So I am keeping those allegations separate from this particular portrait because I can only go by what Patricia Cronin has said about her direct relationship with Chuck Close.”

Cronin, who sold the work to Close in 2014, noted by email that they are good friends. “Actually he tried to buy it the year before, but I dropped the ball,” she said. She recalled an event where he said he was looking at Japanese bronzes. “I said that’s interesting and asked him why. He said, ‘because you won’t sell me yours!’”

Once purchased, the sculpture was installed in the garden at Close’s home on Long Island. “The minute we installed it… he told me he felt guilty that not enough people would see it there and that he wanted to donate it to a museum,” Cronin recalled.

When it came to describing how she felt learning that her friend had been accused of inappropriate behavior, Cronin took a broader view. “We are witnessing a seismic shift in our culture. Women now feel emboldened enough to say that sexually harassing language and behavior is no longer socially acceptable. Abraham Lincoln famously said, ‘You can’t escape history.’ And we are in such a moment.”

You can’t escape history, but evidently you can deflect the question.

It seems with most #metoo celebrities that are outed, stories of their generosity and charity also bubble up to the surface. The ability to help others, or to give charitably, doesn’t make the powerful immune to bad decisions, or criminal behavior; sometimes charity is a cover. While it’s clear that Cronin is grateful for the level of Close’s support, it’s unclear if she ever had knowledge, or was ever a target, of Close’s comments.

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Memorial to a Marriage – Patricia Cronin and Deb Kass. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian’s National Portraits Gallery.

It’s also none of our business. Not until she says it is. Presumably, as has been the case with other high profile accusations—most notably in the entertainment industry—it takes time for friends to process.

And that relationship might take a while for others to process as well. Noticing that Close donated Memorial to a Marriage adds something to the work: something that was never intended to be there, but not unimportant. One could choose to ignore it, or take two photos and plop them on Twitter with an unhelpful, “Hmmm.” But it’s a situation that requires more than a careless Tweet. Undoubtedly, as years go by, more intersections—like those between Cronin and Close—will emerge. They will involve artists, curators, administrators, collectors, and critics; and they will provoke discussions about power and visibility.

“I think it’s fascinating that Memorial To A Marriage provoked interesting and, for some viewers, uncomfortable conversations about homosexuality, marriage equality and lesbian visibility,” Cronin wrote in one of her replies. “And 15 years later the same work can again encourage another important conversation.” How deeply that conversation unfolds as a #metoo story, of course, depends on whether or not the museum-goer notices the identity of the donor, and has knowledge of his alleged misdeeds.

However, despite the ironic twist, when most people end up seeing Memorial to a Marriage, it’ll probably only provoke the conversation over marriage equality. Only a few might discover there is a conversation to be had in the fine print on the wall alongside the artwork. Like so many issues, it’s right there in front of us, but we might not choose to face it.

By John Anderson