Through the Peephole
In 1919, a 15-year-old boy from the Upper West Side trekked to the National Academy of Design. The boy's parents had studied at the academy 20 years earlier, and they were determined that their children would, too. They had moved as close to the school as they could West 103rd Street, then a teeming Irish block so that Paul Cadmus (and later his sister, Fidelma) could make a life for themselves in art.
Cadmus began by studying antiques, but he was drawn to the class next door where older students worked with nude models. One day, he found a peephole in the wall, and through this opening he saw his future in the form of a naked woman. "I had never seen a stranger in the nude," Cadmus recalls. "It was a revelation." Naked men would follow and Cadmus would follow them, painting the male body with more sensuality than any American artist of his generation and ours.
Sitting for an interview at DC Moore, his midtown gallery, Cadmus is remarkably spry for a man of 94. Though the major monographs on his work including a book by the late Lincoln Kirstein are cravenly unwilling to discuss his homosexuality, Cadmus is not, and he has kept up with the progress of gay culture (though when he mentions Michelangelo and Signorelli, he means the two Renaissance artists). Cadmus lives in the Connecticut woods with Jon Anderson, the much younger man with whom he has had a 35-year relationship. He hasn't painted recently even in his prime, the elaborate process of preparation and execution he followed led to only several completed canvases a year but he still sketches. And last month, he traveled down to Philadelphia to be honored at a gathering called PrideFest America. Cadmus limited his remarks to a few minutes. "People talk too much," he explains, "and they don't see enough."
Last week, Cadmus also received an honor from the school where he encountered that formative peephole, when a show he had curated from its permanent collection opened at the National Academy. "Men Without Women" is a provocative title for a rather sober survey; a few bulbous buttocks are the only sign of what is called homoeroticism today. But in the front room, all decorum departs. Here are some of Cadmus's most notorious works, including The Fleet's In!, the 1934 painting that made him an art star. In this knowing study of carousing sailors, there are not only buns and baskets on proud display but loose ladies admiring the briny trade and even a fey gentleman offering a cigarette to an eager gob. The navy was not amused. An outraged admiral had the painting removed before it could be shown at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. A sequel, Sailors and Floosies (1938), featuring an angelic seaman in slumber, grasping his crotch, fared no better in San Francisco; "in the interest of national unity," it was taken off the wall.
Fifty years before Robert Mapplethorpe became a catalyst of the culture wars, Cadmus was a symbol of the enduring American conflict between artists and puritans. It's a sad sign of the times that Mapplethorpe was largely lambasted while, back in the '30s, the press mostly sided with Cadmus and the artist ultimately prevailed. Of course, unlike Mapplethorpe, who challenged both conservative and liberal morality, Cadmus is a committed humanist but of a certain sort. His fleshy appreciation of the male body may echo the Renaissance, but in the context of modern culture it signals a sensibility that is very gay.
In the era before Stonewall, Cadmus was part of a tight-knit circle of gay artists and writers who shared an attitude that was progressive but far less puritanical than the straight-on Commie orthodoxy. Their celebration of the common man was infused with a physicality that enobled even as it sometimes objectified. Like E.M. Forster (who passed the time while posing for Cadmus by reading him passages from Maurice, the famous gay novel Forster never dared publish during his lifetime), Cadmus was definitely taken with the working man. Also like Forster and for that matter Christopher Isherwood there's a sense in Cadmus of the artist standing apart from his own ideal. A gay figure, sometimes Cadmus himself, appears in the recesses of many of his paintings, observing or sketching but never joining in the action. This outsider stance is also very gay or was until the peephole became a pridefest.
My work was never in the closet for people with eyes to see," says Cadmus. "But in the '30s I guess, people were much more naive about the subject. The word homosexual was never used; they just said, 'He's an artist.' And artists were forgiven a lot. In fact, it's much more clever to be an artist than to be an ordinary citizen. People forgive you for eccentricities that they would never tolerate in a businessman."
This may explain why Cadmus was able to get away with a point of view that's as close to out-and-proud as any artist of his era dared to go. In Shore Leave (1933), for example, a gay man is clearly propositioning a willing sailor, but what one notices first is the ripe women in the foreground and a recumbent swab with his bulging crotch in full view. Sometimes the queers come out to play, as in Fantasia on a Theme by Dr. S (1946), which is set on Fire Island. But usually the artist's eye is drawn to what is often ignored in modern painting: a casually muscled male physique and an utterly open attitude. Looking at this pantheon of locker-room studs, seafood Sampsons, and young waifs lounging in the playground with baseball bats jammed between their legs, one sees a quality beyond the ideologically mandated worship of the working class. Call it longing.
"I was fascinated by the sailors, and I used to sit on a bench and watch them all the time," Cadmus recalls. In fact, Riverside Park around 96th Street was a prime cruising ground in the 1930s, largely because it was where the warships docked. "The uniforms were so tight and form- fitting that they were an inspiration. I was young enough to be propositioned by the sailors, who would offer to take me back to the boat, but I never went. They were too unattractive, or maybe I was too timid. I don't know."
His later work is almost pastoral. There are many nude portraits of Jon, often with Cadmus in the background sketching or getting a haircut. These images could easily grace a Larry Kramer screed on gay monogamy. But the older paintings remain provocative, and not just because of the artist's remarkable skill at rendering. Here are people of all types the bad, the beautiful, and the god-ugly all deeply involved in sex: looking for it and usually finding it. This evocation of a time before the body (especially the queer body) became the seat of human perfectibility lifts Cadmus's work above the current tropes of gay iconography. It's not a Tom of Finland fantasy complete with cannon cocks, or a California beefcake king cruising you from above the word January. This is so real you want to lick it.
Yet the aura of sex is cut by something else a sense of awe that makes you feel like a child in the presence of crude but vital adults. When was the last time gay art conjured up that combination of horror and fascination? For that matter, when was the last time a gay artist had the temerity to proclaim what Paul Cadmus does. "My penis is not the most important organ in my body," he says with a toss of his ponytail. "My eyes are."
"Men Without Women: Paul Cadmus as Curator" can be seen at the National Academy of Design, 1083 Fifth Avenue, through August 29.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Village Voice's biggest stories.