In LACMA. Definitely see Large
Paul Cadmus (1904-1999)
In the gorgeous, occasionally garish, always gratifying works of the great American artist Paul Cadmus, sailors and sunbathers, models and mannequins, nitwits and nudes all are suffused with a sensuality born equally of idyllic splendor and urban squalor, natural grace and graceful artifice. Active since the 1930s as a renderer of pretty boys and ugly ploys, Cadmus has spent many remarkable decades honing a singularly complex style of idealized sexuality and vivid displeasure in justly celebrated paintings, drawings and etchings of nude figures, fantastical scenes and supercharged allegories.
While often working quite deliberately in the genres of social satire and community critique, Cadmus is just as compelling when exploring the personal and political proclivities of bodies in rest and motion. Male bodies, that is. More than most artists of his substantial stature, Cadmus has detailed with exquisite tenderness and unblinking bluntness the manner in which gay males--and the gay male gaze--represent the polemics of aesthetics.
Think of it this way: Cadmus's nudes--and, to a lesser yet still relevant extant, his studies of societal strata--offer us an opportunity to consider that beauty, though woundingly, agonizingly, deliciously seductive, also can be a ruthless guise, a four-letter word, an escape from Alcatraz, and a narcissistic, velvet-lined trap. Beauty, in fact, is everything your parents told you was bad for you as a child. Cadmus, to our enormous benefit, understands that beauty is bodies, brains, buttocks, bathtubs, bicycles, Bach, bravado and bad behavior; beauty is all things B.
Born in New York City in 1904, Cadmus was encouraged by his parents (artists both) to pursue his creative desires. After abandoning a career in advertising, Cadmus studied fine art and traveled throughout Europe in the early 1930s with his lover and fellow painter, Jared French. While gallivanting about Mallorca in an expatriate fever dream, Cadmus learned much from French, who tolerated his pal's slavish devotion to the means and methods of the Old Masters yet also encouraged him--quite wisely--to transcend the trappings of art-historical tradition and hone his own unique style.
What should we call it, this strangely anachronistic blend of neoclassical composition, Renaissance brush strokes (a la Luca Signorelli), figurative verisimilitude and surreal displacement? Cadmus's style is peculiar: his technique is exacting, his figures are elongated or oddly foreshortened, he's equally adept with charcoal and egg tempera, and his tableaux reflect realities of the wrong side of the tracks and fantasies of the right side. He's also, I'd venture, a leftist.
So what do we call Cadmus's style? Let's continue to ponder as we follow him back from Europa to the U.S., where he signed on as an employee of the federally funded Public Works of Art Project. His first major work for the PWAP was the infamous "The Fleet's In!," which answers the musical question: what can you do with a drunken sailor? In this extraordinary canvas, a gaggle of randy sailors on leave strike deals with hookers, ogle t and a, and get a little too friendly with each other, all while wearing (or planning to strip out of) unusually tight trousers.
When a certain uptight Admiral Hugh Rodman ordered the removal of the painting from an exhibition of government -sponsored paintings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art--where, fifty years later, Mr. Mapplethorpe's pictures suffered the same indignity--on the grounds of obscenity, Cadmus's name was splashed across newspaper headlines as savvy critics rallied behind him. With faux-naïve self-effacement, Cadmus did his best to appear nonplused by the brouhaha, though in retrospect it seems that he basked in the scandal and recognized it as a kick-start to his career as a serious artist. All this for an image of sailors who had never heard of--and never would have heeded--the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.
Continuing to play the role of observer rather than participant, Cadmus gained confidence as an arbiter of moral judgment with his "Aspects of Suburban Life" series, commissioned in 1936 by the Treasury Relief Art Project as murals for a post office in the tony Long Island suburb of Port Washington. Not surprisingly, given their ruthless critique of noblesse oblige slumming and socioeconomic inequality, the murals were deemed "unsuitable for a federal building" and Cadmus was politely shown the door. "Hinky Dinky Parley Voo," in which the dregs of society drink to the dregs around a bar, didn't exactly endear Cadmus to the no-nothings, either.
But if the government wouldn't have him, friends and lovers were plentiful and uniformly supportive. Writer Monroe Wheeler and photographer George Platt Lynes were close associates of Cadmus's for years, as were E.M. Forster, Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood and George Ballanchine. Excursions to Fire Island were not uncommon. Once there, Cadmus utilized his close-knit group as subject matter for portraiture. Sometimes they'd pose for him in the modest glory of their soft skin.
From the 1930s on, Cadmus steadfastly has painted the male nude within a milieu in which, as he says, "heterosexuality has always ruled." Given his clear-cut understanding of this identity-based power dynamic, perhaps the queerest thing about Cadmus and his work is his (and its) reluctance to fully acknowledge the queer content that appears so overt to contemporary viewers who know all the insider signs. While Cadmus always has been "out,' his reluctance to speak at length regarding the recognizably gay aspects of his oeuvre stems, I think, both from his reluctance to be pigeonholed and from the fact that he came of age among a generation of gay men who typically didn't have "we're here, we're queer, get used to it" tattooed on their foreheads.
As much as some younger artists would like to see Cadmus adopt the persona of nonagenarian poster boy for Gay Y2K, he's generally content to let his images speak for themselves. That's his choice to make; more perplexing, frankly, is the majority of critical writing on Cadmus that blatantly ignores his gay perspective and homoerotic imagery. Lincoln Kirstein, founding director of the New York City Ballet and the artist's self-defined bisexual brother-in-law (married to Cadmus's sister, Fidelma), wrote the "definitive" Cadmus monograph with nary a mention of the artist's crucial homoeroticism, preferring to tiptoe around the truth with statements like, "As for sexual factors, he has without ostentation or polemic long celebrated somatic health in boys and young men for its symbolic range of human possibility. His addiction to aspects of physical splendor has never been provocative, sly, nor ambitious to proselytize."
I wish Kirstein had taken a more careful look at the slender lad sporting a box kite and a noticeable bulge in "Aviator," or the mine's-bigger-than-yours posturing and relentless cruising on display in "Y.M.C.A. Locker Room". Even more telling is "Manikins," in which two small artist's models lovingly do the nasty atop a copy of Corydon, André Gide's plea for queer rights. Never before or since has the body politic been represented so charmingly.
Despite what Kirstein and others have--or haven't--said, Cadmus's work clearly has been heavily informed by his sexuality; his male nudes and satiric swipes exude a coolly palpable sensuality. Cadmus isn't homogenic, however. In "Sunday Sun," a hetero couple seek out precious rays of light amid the Dickensian grime of their oppressive urban sprawl.
In "Subway Symphony," Cadmus trains his compassionate yet keenly wicked eye on a sideshow of grotesques, from ridiculous hippies to religious zealots, all of whom are having a bad hair day. While some viewers object to Cadmus's cruel reduction of the masses to broad stereotypes, the artist insists on his secular humanitarianism: "Will it be said that I am anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-white, anti-hard hat, anti-ALL, anti-people? I am NOT. I am anti a society that makes people this way, that makes humanoids of humans, an environment that causes this…I am FOR human beings as individuals."
One human being in particular who Cadmus has been for as an individual is Jon Andersson, a cabaret singer with whom the artist has been linked for more than thirty years. In "The Haircut," Andersson snips his older partner's distinguished white locks. In an ongoing series of chalk and crayon drawings, Cadmus depicts Andersson as muse, thinker, sleeper, lover and Beauty incarnate.
Recalling portraits by Michelangelo, Ingres and Degas, Cadmus's images of Andersson illustrate his comment on the drawing process: "I specialize in male nudes. I've done many more males than females. I like to do females too, but they're sort of harder to come by in a way. And they don't generally pose as well as men. They have a tendency to faint. I think--and I don't know whether this is just my own idea--that men are vainer than women in that they work harder at their posing. Maybe women think that they're so lovely that they don't have to pose well, I'm not sure." In any event, the subtle highlighting of genitals, hands and feet in Cadmus's portraits of Andersson suggest that male beauty is a mystery that the artist never truly desires to solve.
Paul Cadmus has plumbed the depths of this mystery throughout his long and illustrious career, producing canvases slowly but steadily at a rate of two or three per year.
Beautifully written by Steven Jenkins
Monday, July 9, 2012
Paul Cadmus' painting