PRINT Summer 2019


Paul Cadmus, Untitled, n.d., ink on paper, 10 × 14".

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED in the left-leaning tabloid PM, Ad Reinhardt’s 1946 cartoon How to Look at Modern Art in America is a mordant and enlightening diagram of aesthetic positions and politics in the immediate postwar period. Rooted in the French Post-Impressionists and supported by a sturdy trunk inscribed with the names Braque, Matisse, and Picasso, the avant-garde tradition is represented as an enormous tree branching into discrete movements and tendencies. Foliated with leaves bearing names like Albers, Davis, Motherwell, Pollock, and Rothko, the left-hand, upright sprigs represent the efflorescence of nonobjective and abstract art in the United States. Below and to the right, a thick bough sags under a weight labeled “Subject Matter,” threatening to break from the tree of modernism proper. Its offshoots carry the names of figurative Surrealists like Pavel Tchelitchew and Salvador Dalí, realists like Ben Shahn and Edward Hopper, and aging Stieglitz-circle habitués like Georgia O’Keeffe and Marsden Hartley. Below these pendulous branches, Paul Cadmus’s surname is planted in “the cornfields,” a backwater where, Reinhardt’s caption tells us, “no demand is made on [the viewer]”—the milieu of regionalism, pinups, and calendar art.

Paul Cadmus, What I Believe, 1947–48, tempera on panel, 16 1⁄4 × 27".

Identifying abstraction with rectitude and growth and figuration with flaccidity and decadence, How to Look at Modern Art in America is a waggish, if patronizing, masterstroke of art-world satire and a revealing document of period biases. The hierarchy of value encoded in Reinhardt’s tree has been under revision for decades, and two 2019 exhibitions in New York focusing on writer, philanthropist, and impresario Lincoln Kirstein may represent the watershed moment at which the minor is fully recognized as major. These shows, “The Young and Evil” at David Zwirner (which was on view from February through mid-April) and “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” at the Museum of Modern Art (which closes in mid-June), adumbrate a history of twentieth-century American art that does not merely foreground but actively centers prescient investments in intermedia, queerness, and embodiment.

Once a thorn in MoMA’s flesh—his balletomania, classicism, and taste for homoerotically inflected figuration repressed as eccentric detours from modernism’s forward progress—Kirstein returns as a champion of “an alternative modernism.”

Best known as the cofounder (along with George Balanchine) of the New York City Ballet, Kirstein was a giant of the dance world, but he was also a spirited interlocutor in the visual arts and an impassioned apologist for realist painting, even as mainstream postwar tastes turned decisively toward the gestural and improvisational methods identified with the New York School. The Harvard-educated son of the vice president of Filene’s Department Store, he marshaled his social and economic resources to advocate for the art of his confidants—many of them gay or bisexual men—who pursued an often homoerotic figuration that, like ballet, emphasized the physicality of the body in space. “The Young and Evil” offered an intimate group portrait of this circle of friends and lovers—among them Cadmus, Jared French, George Platt Lynes, Tchelitchew, and George Tooker. Uptown, “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” treats Kirstein’s often unofficial but instrumental work at MoMA, where he organized and consulted on exhibitions, wrote catalogue essays, and donated artworks to steer the young institution toward his ambitious vision of a cosmopolitan realism.

Fidelma Cadmus Kirstein, Cat in Landscape, ca. 1930–39, color pencil on paper, 8 × 10".

The two shows complemented each other beautifully. With its wealth of portraiture and densely imbricated relationality, “The Young and Evil” felt like peering into a walled garden, a near-heterotopia where queer sociality bloomed decades before Stonewall. As curator Jarrett Earnest puts it in the catalogue, the artists and writers on the show’s roster were “playfully and boldly homosexual at a time when it was both criminalized and pathologized”; together, they created “a world that doesn’t nicely fit any subsequent narrative of modern American art.” “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern,” curated by Jodi Hauptman and Samantha Friedman and drawn mostly from the museum’s collection, chronicles Kirstein’s MoMA career via representative objects and judiciously selected documentation. Six months after MoMA opened in 1929, Kirstein became a founding member of its Junior Advisory Committee. In 1948, he would publicly break with MoMA in the pages of Harper’s Magazine, criticizing what he saw as the entrenchment of a “modern Abstract Academy,” which had enshrined “improvisation as method” and turned painting into an “amusement manipulated by interior decorators and high-pressure salesmen.” In his nearly twenty-year association with the museum, he curated Walker Evans’s 1933 solo debut as well as the 1932 exhibition “Murals by American Painters and Photographers.” The latter presented Shahn’s The Passion of Sacco and Vanzetti, 1932, and bourgeoisie-bashing agitprop by Hugo Gellert and William Gropper, much to the consternation of the museum’s trustees and of reviewers, one of whom attacked the show in the New York Times for subjecting its audience to “class struggle orgies.” In “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern,” leftist works by Gellert and Shahn evoke these polemics. Kirstein also played a crucial role in the retrospectives of Gaston Lachaise, Elie Nadelman, and Tchelitchew and in the group exhibition “Americans 1943: Realists and Magic Realists.” In 1942, he undertook a five-month collecting tour in South America, where he acquired nearly 150 works that would become the foundation of the museum’s Latin American art collection (and engaged in wartime espionage on behalf of the US government’s Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs).

Fidelma Cadmus Kirstein, Two Seated Women, ca. 1930–39, color pencil on paper, 8 1⁄4 × 7 3⁄4".

Kirstein also tried to persuade his MoMA colleagues to devote more resources to the performing arts, although he seemed to realize he was swimming against the tide. “I am practically sure that all the works I would like to present would either irritate or downright antagonize a number of influential people in the museum,” he wrote in a lengthy 1937 proposal for a Department of Theatrical Arts and Technics. In 1940, his donation of rare dance books was institutionalized as the museum’s Dance Archives, furnishing the nucleus of MoMA’s short-lived curatorial Department of Dance and Theatre Design—established in 1944 and dissolved in 1948, the same year as the Harper’s polemic. In his foreword to the current exhibition’s catalogue, director Glenn Lowry cites this abortive entrée as a precursor to the Studio, the dedicated performance space slated to open in the fall, when the museum will unveil its expansion after a four-month closure. The program is to be expanded, too: MoMA has promised that its XL incarnation will feature more diverse, heterogeneous, and temporally layered histories of modern art. Strategically scheduled on the eve of this four-month hiatus, “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” is thus a weather vane, finding in its protagonist both a usable past and an agent of inoculative self-criticism as it vows to blow open the linear, limited art history the museum codified long ago. Once a thorn in MoMA’s flesh—his balletomania, inveterate classicism, and taste for homoerotically inflected figuration repressed as eccentric, if not reactionary, detours from modernism’s forward progress—Kirstein now returns as a champion of what Lowry calls “an alternative modernism.”

Pavel Tchelitchew, Portrait of Fidelma, ca. 1947, oil on canvas, 45 3/4 × 21 1/2".

For Cadmus and French, anachronistic technique and subjects could mediate queer desire in a way that abstraction could not; their art still needed the beautiful body.

At “The Young and Evil,” social networks provided the organizing structure, as Kirstein’s imposing figure ceded ground to a web of intimate relations. The show’s cheekily diabolical title was a nod to poet Charles Henri Ford and critic Parker Tyler’s banned 1933 novel of the same name, a Steinian, semiautobiographical portrayal of New York’s queer demimonde. Ford’s partner, the White Russian émigré and painter Tchelitchew, whose irradiated anatomies and optical imbroglios of nesting images once enjoyed an acclaim rivaling that of Matisse and Picasso, was a fixture of both exhibitions. So were the delectably contrived, high-camp photographs of George Platt Lynes, who for over a decade lived in a ménage with writer Glenway Wescott and MoMA’s director of exhibitions Monroe Wheeler. At “The Young and Evil,” the throuple appeared together in Cadmus’s group portrait Stone Blossom: A Conversation Piece, 1939–40, idling in dishabille amid the bucolic acreage of their weekend home, a New Jersey farmhouse.

PaJaMa, Perlin, Cadmus, Margaret French, 1939, gelatin silver print, 4 1/4 × 6 1/2".

In 1935, Kirstein commissioned Lynes to photograph the principal dancers and productions of his newly founded New York City Ballet (then the American Ballet Company). In his gauzy images of Orpheus and Eurydice, Lynes captured the title characters dancing a pas de trois with the boy-angel Amor, outfitted by Tchelitchew in enormous feathered wings. In his studio, Lynes often dispensed with such frippery, draping the classically trained and toned bodies of his subjects in nothing but light and shadow. From the mid-1930s until his death in 1955, he took several thousand male-nude photographs. In Untitled (Nude with Pavel Tchelitchew’s Golden Leaf), 1955, an unidentified male model, photographed from behind, gazes at the titular painting hanging over a sofa. His muscular back and buttocks find their uncanny double in the decorticated backside of the painted figure, its skin etherealized to expose a skeleton buzzing with some mysterious synaptic energy. The image, taken the year of Lynes’s death, holds the center of a large wall at MoMA displaying twenty of his photographs. Some feature men of color and play their darker skins off white bodies and mannequins in dubiously fetishistic juxtapositions that prefigure some of the work of Robert Mapplethorpe, who became an early admirer of Lynes’s nudes when Jack Woody’s Twelvetrees Press first made them publicly available in 1981. (Woody’s tireless championship of Lynes and his circle is indispensable to the current recuperation of this “alternative modernism.”)

Does this work’s sudden timeliness risk effacing its historicity and difference, its unique social forms and aesthetics, which remain incommensurable with our own?

In Lynes’s Portrait of Paul Cadmus and Jared French, 1937, the two artists—clad in ripped T-shirts and naked from the waist down—pose in an immaculate white studio stripped of particularizing props or features. Asleep like a modern Endymion, Cadmus spreads his thighs and reveals his sex to the camera. French, shown in profile, reclines on a ledge above, his head cropped, his genitals occluded, and his leg oddly elongated to appear coterminous with his slender body, here abstracted into elegant androgyny. Appearing in both shows, this image numbers among the more than six hundred erotic photographs Lynes sold in the last decade of his life to the sexologist Alfred Kinsey. At “The Young and Evil,” a selection of these was on display in a dedicated vitrine, alongside Tchelitchew’s aqueous ink drawings of all-male orgies and Cadmus’s wryly academic figure drawings of anal intercourse, self-fellatio, and anilingus.

Paul Cadmus, Untitled, n.d., ink on paper, 14 1⁄4 × 10".

Cadmus and French became artistic and romantic partners soon after meeting at the Art Students League in 1926, working side by side in a shared studio in Greenwich Village. Cadmus’s Herrin Massacre, 1940, and French’s Murder, 1942—both included in “Realists and Magic Realists” and at the Zwirner exhibition—make for a revealing comparison. Cadmus portrays the violent outcome of a 1922 labor dispute at an Illinois strip mine with Caravaggesque gore. After an exchange of gunfire between armed guards and striking members of the United Mine Workers of America took the lives of three union men, workers retaliated by killing a superintendent and at least nineteen scabs. Commissioned by Life magazine but never published, this heretical work of social realism lavishes erotic attention on the strikebreakers’ seminude, martyred bodies (French posed for the stigmatic central figure, who is seconds from receiving a lethal blow with a bloodstained lead pipe) in a ferocious negation of the affirmative and relentlessly upbeat representations of labor endorsed by Popular Fronters and New Deal Democrats alike. French’s Murder likewise treats the theme of homicide, but extracts it from any historical vicissitudes. The work belongs to French’s “Aspects of Man” series, 1940–63, which—influenced by Jungian archetypes and Yeats’s esoteric cosmology—sought to distill all human activity into forty-nine primal attitudes. Two kouros-like male nudes are rigidly posed in a sere, gray landscape. Facing the viewer frontally with blood-soaked hands, the murderer stands over his victim. On the plateau behind the pair stand two phalanxes of naked soldiers centered on a pair of beaked, totem-like effigies. There are no wounds on the body, no murder weapon, no clues as to where we are in time or space.

Paul Cadmus, Untitled, n.d., ink on paper, 10 1⁄2 × 14".

Despite their obvious stylistic and temperamental differences—Cadmus tended toward baroque agglomerations of piled, swollen bodies, French toward hieratic compositions of archaicizing ciphers—the couple shared an erotic and aesthetic engagement with the male body that looked back to the Renaissance and to classical Greece. Around 1940, both artists began painting with egg tempera—a laborious medium used by quattro-cento Italian painters and valued for its jewel-like colors and crisp delineation of form. For Cadmus and French, anachronistic technique and subjects could mediate queer desire in a way that Cubist-derived abstraction could not; contrary to the modernist imperatives to dematerialize, fragment, or otherwise renounce it, their art still needed the beautiful body.

George Platt Lynes, Portrait of Paul Cadmus and Jared French, 1937, gelatin silver print, 9 1⁄2 × 7 3⁄4".

Unlike Cadmus, who openly and exclusively desired men, French, as his partner laconically put it, “needed a wife. Homosexuality was not enough.” In 1937, French married fellow artist Margaret Hoening, and the trio formed a close familial and artistic unit. With Margaret’s Leica, they produced photographic work under the moniker “PaJaMa,” posing themselves and their friends—nude, clothed, or somewhere in between—in improvised tableaux, often amid the flotsam-covered dunes of Fire Island. A portmanteau of the first two letters of Paul, Jared, and Margaret, PaJaMa deliberately reflected a fluid and collective mode of authorship. They chose it so that they “couldn’t tell who had taken which picture unless sometimes by the subject matter,” Cadmus recollected. The name also connotes informality, intimacy, and leisure. Distributed among friends in (mostly) low-quality postcard-size prints, these “playthings”—as Cadmus deemed them—were not exhibited or collected as artworks until the ’80s.

George Platt Lynes, Untitled (Nude with Pavel Tchelitchew’s Golden Leaf), 1955, gelatin silver print, 9 1⁄2 × 7 5⁄8".

Like Lynes’s nudes, the PaJaMa photographs were private works, but their unresolved, mixed-gender erotics contrast with Lynes’s programmatic and spectacular homoeroticism. One image by the group (Perlin, Cadmus, Margaret French, 1939) captures Cadmus and the painter Bernard Perlin prone and naked amid Fire Island beach weeds, their buttocks drenched in sunlight. The scene is casual and apparently spontaneous, photographed from a furtive distance and strewn with rumpled blankets and articles of clothing. Lying on her side, a fully clothed Hoening French gazes at the two men: one reading a book, the other cradling his head in his hands. The presence of the female spectator and the question of her desire complicates any simple reading of the photograph’s libidinal dynamics. In another image taken on Fire Island the same year, we see the Rückenfigur of ballet dancer José Martínez standing on a dune, looking down on the diminutive forms of Paul and his sister Fidelma Cadmus on the shore below. Martínez and Kirstein were already a couple when the latter married Fidelma in 1941; the dancer would be the first of many boyfriends to live with the Kirsteins. Fidelma is a keenly felt presence in both shows, her dark, oft-remarked beauty recorded or paid homage in several works. The most compelling of these is Tchelitchew’s ca. 1947 portrait, which dispenses with descriptive likeness, obscuring her delicate features with a system of nervous traceries.

Technically schooled and accomplished painters, Fidelma Cadmus Kirstein and Margaret Hoening French occupy unstable positions in an artistic circle historically defined by its significance as a gay male subculture. When they appear in writing on the group, they do so as supporting characters, and the narrative that emerges is one of sacrificed ambitions and diverted talents. Tooker, for one, believed both women to be “very gifted” and lamented that neither had “much drive,” believing their husbands’ work was “the more important.” Fortunately, “The Young and Evil” included examples of their limited surviving production, among them several limpid colored—pencil drawings by Cadmus Kirstein and Hoening French’s undated tempera painting Untitled (Juggler). In this gnomic genre scene, a fire-dancing female tightrope walker balances above a Chihuahua and a group of melancholic male acrobats, the gendered division of the picture suggesting kinship as well as distance.

Pavel Tchelitchew, George Platt Lynes, ca. 1937–42, oil on canvas, 45 1⁄2 × 33 3⁄4".

On one hand, this copresence of men and women might prefigure more fluid kinds of desire and sociality-—something cognate to queerness in the contemporary sense of the word. On the other, the marriages of Lincoln and Fidelma Kirstein and Jared and Margaret French might also be understood as compulsory or strategic adaptations to the repressive norms and pervasive homophobia and misogyny
of midcentury American society. This sense of asynchronicity-—the fact that the art of Cadmus, Tchelitchew, and their cohort feels so responsive to present desires and yet, at the same time, is an artifact of a remote past—has marked the work’s current resurgence. Critic Jerry Saltz, in a rave review of “The Young and Evil,” enthusiastically stressed the show’s contemporaneity, drawing parallels with current modes of identity-oriented figuration. The exhibition “connects to things artists are doing now: saying no to the rules of art history; breaking out of their lanes; inhabiting spaces and styles that have been dismissed,” he wrote. “The way the artists in ‘The Young and Evil’ introduced queerness into art connects to the work of lots of young queer artists and artists of color such as Lynette Yiadom-Boakye, Jordan Castile, Njideka Akunyili Crosby, Jon Key, Bianca Nemlec, Louie Fratino, Hiba Schahbaz, and Toyin Ojih Odutola.” Certainly, this work feels resonant today. But does its sudden timeliness also risk effacing its historicity and difference, its unique social forms and aesthetics, which remain incommensurable with our own?

Pavel Tchelitchew, The Lion Boy, 1936–37, gouache on paper on canvas, 30 1⁄4 × 27 1⁄8".

This question came up repeatedly during a panel discussion on queerness and figuration held in conjunction with “The Young and the Evil,” moderated by Earnest and featuring artists Angela Dufresne, Kurt Kauper, Matthew Leifheit, Jennifer Packer, and Michael Stamm. While fascinated by the show, some of the panelists were also troubled by what they saw, variously, as its echoes of fascist aesthetics; the lacuna of female desire; Kirstein’s spying for the US government; the potentially anti-union implications of Herrin Massacre; and the white bourgeois makeup and character of the group. For Stamm, these problems exposed the limitations of constructing a radical community solely through sexual desire. “I don’t think the word radical really expresses the stakes through which this work is productively engaged,” Earnest cautioned.

View of “The Young and Evil,” 2019, David Zwirner, New York.

To both their points, the art of “Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” and “The Young and Evil” demands a correction to reflexive and often ahistorical assumptions about the relations among identity, politics, and form. The Manichaean language of radicality and reaction, when applied to Kirstein and his circle, perhaps says more about our present critical and art-historical investments than it does about their actual politics, which hewed to the liberal humanism of E. M. Forster. The elder Bloomsburyite—who for decades lived in a triadic arrangement with London police officer Bob Buckingham and his wife, May—became a philosophical mentor to the group in the ’40s. In 1947–48, Cadmus painted What I Believe, an elaborate allegorical painting titled after Forster’s 1939 BBC radio broadcast lauding “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky.” “Found in all nations and classes,” the members of this spiritual elite represent “the true human tradition, the one permanent victory of our queer race over cruelty and chaos.” There is real loveliness in this passage, if also an insularity and naïveté that suggest the limits of this politics for contemporary use. In his painting, Cadmus represents Forster’s credo as a pantheon of beautiful bodies, many of them also portraits. The artist paints himself sketching with Jared at his side, with the benedictory figures of Forster and Hoening French presiding overhead. In the background, Kirstein is pictured in a comic mode, playing a pan flute with a cat perched on his head. Fidelma and a male lover nestle their heads on his thighs. This fragile Arcadia is threatened by harbingers of fascism, war, and death. As Cadmus’s painting makes plain, the art of this “queer race” remains its own self-created idyll, defined less against normative artistic production than by its own struggles and compromises, attachments and kinks. The recent exhibitions of this work revealed a “queer modernism” that throws both of those terms into irresolution. Even as it feeds the present desire for alternative histories, it betrays how ineluctably historical desire is. 

“Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern” is on view at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, through June 15.

Chloe Wyma is a writer and Ph.D. candidate in Art History at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.