“I believe in exaggeration.
People’s noses should be rubbed in all sorts of things – pleasant and unpleasant.”
Organized in collaboration with Graham Steele, Michael Werner Gallery is pleased to present Paul Cadmus: Pleasant and Unpleasant at our East Hampton gallery. With over 60 works on view created over the span of 60 years, the exhibition presents a timely exploration of a career devoted to a balance between traditional techniques of representation and a radical assault on the heteronormativity of the pre-War New York society.
Cadmus (b. 1904 in New York, d. 1999 in Weston, CT) was an accomplished painter who became infamous for his controversial, gritty, urban scenes that pushed the boundaries of acceptability in both subject matter and style. While he worked slowly in the meticulous Old Master technique of egg tempera painting, producing only two to three paintings a year, his subjects ranged from drunken soldiers to prostitutes to raucous locker rooms-- the most contentious of which were done with the support of the WPA. Alongside his painting, Cadmus was a prolific master draftsman in the tradition of the French School (his father from whom he inherited his talent was a student of Robert Henri). The vast majority of his drawings depict the male nude and balanced the dual needs of income from a wealthy Queer collector base as well as allowing him to explore, without constraint, his life-long love affair with the male form. His poses, gestures and expressions helped to create a Queer visual language used by a generation of artists who celebrate and revel in this culture.
Jonathan Katz, co-curator of the exhibition “Hide/Seek” at the National Portrait Gallery in 2010, explored these themes in a discussion about Cadmus’s work, in particular the painting “What I Believe” from 1947-1948.
“What's striking is that it's a picture in which gay and straight are literally cleaved into. Its title comes from an earlier work, a work of literature by Cadmus's friend E.M. Forster, the great closeted novelist [and author] of one of the earliest British gay novels, Maurice. In “What I Believe,” Forster wrote an essay smelling the winds of war. He begins by saying that if there's to be survival of Western culture in the coming conflagration, it's going to be because, as he puts it ‘an aristocratic ‘Community of the Sensitive’ will keep culture alive.’ And then he goes on to say, ‘how do you know the sensitive?’ And he says, oh, well ‘they know each other. They catch each other's eyes in the street.’ And the more he talks about this elite of the sensitive, the more the clued-in reader comes to understand that he's talking in coded terms about homosexuals. That was in 1938.
In 1948, Cadmus makes this picture using the 1938 title. “What I Believe” is of course, after the second World War, after the largest loss of life humanity has ever known. And there, what Cadmus gives us is a divided world. On one side of the canvas, the left side of the canvas, you see a kind of homosexual Arcadia: images of arts, painting, literature, music, architecture in a beautiful peaceful world. You see actual portraits: there's E.M. Forester wearing a banner… Paul Cadmus, the artist himself, next to him his partner, Jared French, behind them Margaret French.… But what is central about this work is, that the other side of the image, the straight side is one of death and destruction. You notice that even the ground sustains no life: Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini stand at the top reigning destruction down…. What Cadmus is trying to suggest is that Western culture can only survive in the hands of the Elite of the Sensitive. And so he divides these two worlds, gay from straight. A phallic lighthouse of Alexandria in the middle, and the clouds making a question mark, as if to ask, ‘will culture continue?’
While several of the works on view at Michael Werner Gallery, East Hampton are studies for paintings, they are undoubtedly works of art in their own right. In technique and subject, Cadmus’s drawings connect him with a long line of Old Master painters, like Signorelli, Mantegna and Michelangelo, who portrayed the beauty of the muscular male body, and the artist’s surface treatments, stains, washes and color choices demonstrate the delight in the materiality of drawing itself.
"I specialize in male nudes. I’ve done many more males than females. I like to do females too, but they’re sort of hard 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.
I don’t know if your feelings are at all erotic towards the model whether that would make a better drawing or not. It might make it worse, I’m not sure. I supposed either way, the cooler you are maybe the better you draw. I’ve been drawing Jon [Anderson] for seventeen years.
I mark everything so that the models can get back into the exact position, because, ideally, they should pose like apples or pears, except that they don’t rot – at least not as quickly."
Perhaps most seductive to the historically-oriented viewer, these drawings create, in their multiplicity, a portrait of the artist himself. From his relationship with Jared French and George Platt Lynes to his depictions of famous friends and gay-friendly locations from Fire Island to Mallorca, to 40 years of loving examinations of his last lover Jon Anderson, these works on paper build a map of a complete life lived out on and in paper.
Cadmus’s work can be found in the permanent collections of museums across the United States, including the Art Institute of Chicago; Carnegie Institute Museum of Art, Pittsburgh; Dallas Museum of Fine Arts; Detroit Institute of Arts, Los Angeles County Museum of Art; The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; The Morgan Library, New York; Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; Museum of Modern Art, New York; National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC; Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC; Philadelphia Museum of Art; Whitney Museum of Art, New York; among many others.
“However forward these works are—and they were, extremely—the art is still rather arrière-garde. This is not what art in ‘Western Civilization’, which has always been a naff, stupid concept, is supposed to be doing. There should be robots or the machine aesthetic or Leger, and if they’re going to be figures they should be very presciently parodic and hedonistic like in Picabia or Dali or those other off-brand surrealists. But they’re not. Instead, they’re aspiring to a classical mode of figure drawing, a received lexicon of gesture and pose that might incorporate Degas’ ballerinas. Yes, these daring iconoclasts were all into the ballet, which is another way of saying: they were different within being really conventional.
What I mean is that this is not the modern realist painting of Edward Hopper…. These drawings are looking to the past and trying to dignify forms or attitudes toward form with the visual majesty and almost corpulent replete-ness of the past, of the Renaissance, of the Baroque, of the 18th century.”
-David Rimanelli, art critic