Was Abraham Lincoln gay?
That’s the question that drives the newest installation by New Orleans artist Skylar Fein. The Lincoln Bedroom opened earlier this month at New York’s C24 Gallery. The work is a life-sized recreation of a two story wood frame house from the 1830’s that once stood in Springfield, Illinois. The bottom floor is a replica of the general store run by Lincoln’s close friend Joshua Speed, and the upstairs is the bedroom where Speed and Lincoln lived together for four years. Historians and biographers readily admit that Lincoln and Speed were sharing a bed during these years, and there’s plenty of evidence that Speed isn’t the only man with whom Lincoln shared a bed. Fein says it’s a detail that’s often glossed over, but he believes it’s worth a closer look.
“There’s something going on with Lincoln and same-sex bed sharing, and Lincoln scholars want to make sure you don’t find it interesting,” say Fein. “Lincoln scholars have put a high priority on making sure that you don’t dare to ascribe anything to Lincoln’s same-sex bed sharing other than necessity.”
For the most part, Fein addresses the questions of Lincoln’s bed sharing in an indirect way. There’s nothing overtly sexual about the installation. Instead, it’s more like a living history museum, a room people can walk through to get a glimpse of daily life for two men living in the 1830’s in Springfield, Illinois. There are historically accurate letters and newspapers scattered around the room. There’s tobacco and pipes, whiskey, and half-eaten food. The room smells of leather and horse manure. And there’s the bed, with a straw-filled mattress.
“It looks like a bachelor pad. We made sure it’s a little messy in there. Two dudes live there,” says Fein. “But there’s nothing in the room that would suggest that two lovers live there. Because, in fact, I don’t know that they were lovers.”
Fein says there’s only one “propagandistic” piece in the room, a text panel that states, “From 1837 to 1841, Abraham Lincoln and Joshua Speed shared this bed. Not by necessity, but by choice.”
For the artist, it’s an important distinction. While he acknowledges that it was not--and is not--uncommon for people to share beds out of economic necessity, Fein insists that this is not the case for Lincoln and Speed. He says Lincoln actually turned down an offer to stay with a family friend in Springfield, preferring instead to bunk with Speed. And Speed, the scion of a wealthy plantation family from Kentucky, “did not lack for beds,” says Fein.
“If there was a necessity to these men sharing a bed, it’s not the necessity that historians are referring to,” he says. “It was some necessity that drove them to share beds, and that drove Lincoln to continue to share beds later. That’s a necessity that almost no one has ever dared to address.”
The Lincoln Bedroom recalls an earlier installation by Fein, Remember the Upstairs Lounge, which premiered in 2008 in New Orleans at Prospect.1, the citywide contemporary art biennial. That piece was another life-size recreation, this time of a popular New Orleans gay bar, the Upstairs Lounge, circa 1973. Viewers walked through a pair of swinging saloon doors, leaving the gallery behind and entering a crimson-tinged barroom decorated with lights, signs, and portraits of '70s icons like Burt Reynolds and Marc Spitz. The installation was a memorial of sorts, commemorating a fire, most likely set by a disgruntled patron, that tore through the building and left 32 men dead. Both pieces include very little commentary from the artist, existing instead to provide a setting that viewers can walk through and experience for themselves, confronting, and perhaps even coming to terms with, the spectre of complicated history contained within.
In The Lincoln Bedroom and Remember the Upstairs Lounge the ideas are in the things, and Fein takes great care in their construction. For this new piece, he rented a double-height warehouse in New Orleans and built the two story house in pieces that could be broken down and reassembled. He had to make sure it would fit the space at the C24 Gallery, and he had to make sure the pieces would fit through the front door. He found high resolution images of Lincoln’s letters and other documents that he printed and aged. And the furnishings were all built or found and aged to resemble period pieces.
Fein is quick to point out that the room is not a direct copy of the actual room that Lincoln and Speed shared, but a facsimile of what it might have been like. It's not "real," he says, but its plausible enough to make viewers question their own relationship with the art. He talks about a patron who came to the show on opening night and walked through the gallery and into the atrium where The Lincoln Bedroom is installed. He walked out amazed at work’s “realness.”
“What’s funny is that it isn’t real, of course. The Lincoln Bedroom as we built it is more fake than the white-walled gallery that’s around it, but people read it as more real,” he says. “It’s a strange commentary on the art world that we all seem to feel that the places where art is shown are somehow not real, that it doesn’t look to us like real life.”
Fein says that part of the fun of installations like Remember the Upstairs Lounge and The Lincoln Bedroom is subverting the conventions of how most people see art.
“Artists don’t usually get the whole ‘velvet rope’ thing,” he says. “And I think a lot of us like breaking that, what feels like a very pinched, precious atmosphere.”
Rather than dwell on the precious, The Lincoln Bedroom is remarkable in its depiction of the banal. Visitors are free to walk through the room, touch and feel things, pick up objects for closer examination, and even lie in the bed. Instead of elevating Lincoln and Speed’s relationship to the grand proportions of classical myth, the Lincoln Bedroom is content with real life.
Which leads to another essential question: If Lincoln was gay, who cares?
Fein doesn’t elaborate on the topic of Lincoln’s sexuality because it’s unlikely we’ll have have a definitive answer and, ultimately, it’s not that important. Lincoln’s sexual orientation is just another thing in the room. It doesn’t--or it least it shouldn’t--alter the legacy of arguably the country’s most important and beloved president. By putting the question out there, viewers might realize that it doesn’t matter whether he was or was not.
“Someday a future generation will find this story completely mystifying, why anyone thought this was interesting,” says Fein. “They’ll be mystified why anyone thought it was scandalous.”