PRINT March 2000


Paul Cadmus

MERCILESS CARICATURIST, gruesome fantasist, homoerotic moralist, and above all maker of wonderfully crafted drawings and paintings: Paul Cadmus worked in many modes throughout his life and created so many surprising and often disturbing varieties of art that even those most passionate about his work are seldom unequivocal in their assessments. About Cadmus him-self, however, all agree: This enormously talented artist was also the kindest, gentlest, most self-deprecating of men.

A scholarship student at the National Academy of Design, Cadmus became a printmaker, following in the steps of the Ashcan School, before a 1931 trip to Europe in the company of his bisexual lover, the painter Jared French, changed his life forever. Cadmus returned to America a satiric painter and muralist who dared to take on the manners and morals of any number of institutions, including, in his 1934 work The Fleet’s In!, the United States Navy. The resulting scandal—the painting, ejected from the Corcoran, caused public outcry and tabloid sensation for its depiction of full-crotched, sex-hungry sailors accosting female prostitutes (and in one instance accepting a cigarette from a well-dressed gay man) along New York’s Riverside Drive—made Cadmus’s name. But the notoriety came at the cost of his privacy and at the risk of his physical safety. Several more gleeful, caustic paintings of the American scene (Coney Island, 1934; Sailors and Floosies, 1938; and the series “Aspects of Suburban Life,” 1936) only added fat to the fire. Writer Donald Windham recently recalled the intense privacy Cadmus, French, and French’s wife, Margaret, were forced to cultivate as a result: “He and Jared and Margaret never answered their door, no matter how long you knocked, and never answered the phone either. I’ve never known anyone to live in such secrecy.” That habit for private living remained with Cadmus to the last; he told me, just a year before he died, that he was glad that the better part of his life story was not documented, since he wanted such details to stay private even after his death.

Cadmus’s early work was remarkable for its moral satire, but in hindsight it is not the quality or content of the satire itself so much as the brazenly homoerotic undercurrents (those round asses, packed “baskets,” and come-hither looks) that are so outrageous. None of the paintings was politically revolutionary or propagandistic, and none held out the possibility for a better way of life: Rather, they defined Cadmus’s outlook as libertarian, antiestablishment, and (implicitly) moralist, despite his (supposedly amoral) sexuality. Cadmus was tough, prickly, and skeptical of the institutions most of us take for granted––the government, the military, and American consumer culture—but no ideal vision balances his raucous satires, perhaps because he took such deliberate pleasure in the anarchy (and liberty) his free-for-alls pictured. Some people had a hard time squaring this artist’s outwardly genial manner with the bitter visions he portrayed, particularly in his later works. But Cadmus’s darker tableaux like Subway Symphony, 1975–76, had artistic precedents in the apocalyptic visions of Matthias Grünewald and Luca Signorelli, as well as in those of more recent artist-visionaries like James Ensor, Otto Dix, and George Grosz.

Cadmus was a consummate craftsman, and one of a group of artists (including Jared French and George Tooker) who deliberately sought out the Renaissance technique of egg tempera, which, though time-consuming and difficult to work with, provided results of remarkably transparent, light-catching color. Their movement, known retrospectively as American Magic Realism, defines an emerging gay consciousness in New York painting from the ’40s onward, and despite being for the most part critically ignored during the heyday of Abstract Expressionism, this work can be seen as part of a tradition of highly finished figurative painting in the twentieth century (a tradition that includes Balthus, Magritte, and Lucian Freud). The work of the Magic Realists consists of psychologically charged meditations on an inner reality, and as such is related not only to Surrealism and Abstract Expressionism but also to developments in a number of artistic disciplines: to the erotic photography of Cadmus’s friend George Platt Lynes; to innovations in dance, both modern and classical, being championed by Cadmus’s brother-in-law Lincoln Kirstein; to experimental film, including works by Maya Deren and Kenneth Anger; and to literary explorations of an “out” gay consciousness, including the writings of Cadmus’s friend and admirer E.M. Forster.

Though sexuality was central to Cadmus’s intellectual and artistic development, he was no great advocate of homosexual manners or lifestyle: His work abounds in beautiful nude men, but also features any number of gay caricatures. Throughout his life, Cadmus remained a visual agent provocateur, a man whose honesty in ambivalence often makes his work quite challenging even to those most prepared to love and honor it. Equally paradoxical is the fact that, while Cadmus detested falseness and hypocrisy on any level, he was also drawn to its portrayal. And his implicit equation of physical beauty with merit or worth gives one pause. But Cadmus did not invent the unfairness of physical beauty and, if it makes a difference, he was troubled by his attraction. Nonetheless, he once told me, he continued to be attracted. Which is why he lived with such paradoxes in his art: because he lived with them in life.

Cadmus had exceptional drawing skills, and his renderings of provocative male nudes with an Ingres-like quality of line brought together technical brilliance and social taboo. The most brilliant of his male nudes and portraits were, to my mind, those he created of the working-class young men who populate much of his middle period. They seem godlike beings today, free from social obligation, highly sexed and freely sexual, more compelling for their flaws—small eyes, thick lips, or chipped teeth. Cadmus’s unique contribution to the myth of working-class sexuality—a preoccupation of ’40s and ’50s homosexual culture—was in the boy-scout earnestness he brought to the endeavor. For he did not condescend to the objects of his desire; he knew them as people and gave them human identities in his art. Whether of friends or lovers or strangers, these intimate, personal drawings may have a classical nobility; but one reads them, always, as earnest tributes to the sitter’s individuality.

In later life, Cadmus lived simply and well, surrounded by friends and well-wishers. He continued to make beautiful drawings, mostly of his handsome young lover, and in so doing challenged yet another socially stigmatized relationship, that of an older man to one much younger. Meanwhile his ongoing associations with the ballet and other performing arts gave him a perfect situation in which to observe all that was most beautiful and grotesque in the human form—and his delight in both remained constant. His battle for artistic acceptance long over, he made a point of encouraging young figurative artists whose work needed help gaining public recognition. Always a valued presence at openings—ready and eager for good conversation—he nonetheless carried a grand aura. With his ponytail and craggy profile, he was a man both artists and journalists recognized, rightly, as a living history of bohemian New York.

A few days after a dazzling ninety-fourth birthday party held in his honor at DC Moore Gallery—a tableau so vivid that it might well have come from one of his paintings—Cadmus left the world gently, on a Sunday night, in the privacy of his studio-home. Jon Anderson, his model, lover, and companion of thirty-five years, was with him when he died.

Justin Spring is the author of Fairfield Porter: A Life in Art (Yale, 2000).