San Francisco

Curt McDowell

[ 2nd floor projects ]

Curt McDowell worked in San Francisco from the late 1960s until his death in 1987—a period that witnessed the Summer of Love, gay liberation, and the onset of AIDS, to which he succumbed at the age of forty-two. The author of numerous films that recast the American dream of plenty in pansexual terms, McDowell, like so many artists of his generation, indulged in the era’s carnal abundance, and his appetites and experiences are reflected in the work, which alternates between the revealing and the puerile. His short films, such as Weiners and Buns Musical (1972) and Loads (1980), celebrate sex as well as genre riffing and autobiographical narratives (McDowell’s insatiable desire for seducing straight men is explicitly documented in his 16-mm works), and bear the influences of Jack Smith’s lush, DIY camp aesthetic, Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s explosive melodrama, and Nan Goldin’s glimpses of countercultural bohemia.

An intimate, biographical exhibition, 2nd Floor Projects’ “Curt McDowell—an uneven dozen broken hearts,” featuring forty-five works made between 1965 and 1985, had the air of a freshly opened time capsule. Presenting drawings, paintings, and photographs culled from the artist’s archive, it did a fair job of capturing McDowell’s polymorphous perversity in the matters of flesh and art. Surprisingly, none of his films appeared in the show. Even the inclusion of clips would have considerably enriched the presentation.

Still, you got a sense of the man, particularly as seen in an untitled photocollage from 1983, a double self-portrait that formally resembles David Hockney’s cubistic experiments in the medium. McDowell juxtaposes two nearly identical images of himself shot from above on a bed, wearing only a striped sailor shirt, dirty gym socks, and handcuffs. In one image, he is lying on his stomach, head turned to the side, as if sleeping; in the adjacent photo, his naked ass is slightly tilted as he gazes up at the camera with sly pleasure, surrounded by a sea of open porn magazines and various accessories (cassette tapes, marijuana, small suitcases, and books) along the perimeter of the bed.

The collage faced a salon-style arrangement of illustrative works on paper in a range of modes, from life-drawing exercises to bawdy caricatures that might have been lifted from the pages of Zap Comix. The display was a rogues’ gallery of friends, family, lovers (fellow filmmaker and ex-beau George Kuchar appeared repeatedly), and a troubling R. Crumb–style, female alter ego—a bald, buxom character named Loretta, whose depraved flirtatiousness encapsulates a disturbing undercurrent in McDowell’s work. There’s a low-rent resourcefulness to the drawings, which were rendered on velour, corrugated cardboard, and Pepsi advertisements (one work has text indicating that it is a “cum wad” drawing), and many appear to be props and sketches from his films; for example, a cardboard cutout mounted on a gallery wall had been used as the exterior of the dark, old house in his 1975 erotic-schlock feature film Thundercrack!

A second gallery was arranged more sparely and dominated by Untitled (the Beatles in autopsy), 1968, a large provocative painting in which the Fab Four lie serenely, each of them nude on an autopsy table, their chests flayed open like sardine cans. The picture verges on acid-trip surrealism, yet is rooted in Pop realities: McDowell was enamored of the band, as well as of a certain doctor friend, whose name is barely legible on the dead musicians’ toe tags.

The René Magritte–meets–Alejandro Jodorowsky painting style of Untitled (the Beatles in autopsy) seems to be an anomaly, and, given the early date and the Zap Comix inflection of the drawings, perhaps a revealing art school experiment. Nearby on a pedestal was a crumbling album of snapshots by a twenty-something McDowell. There are candid images of friends and unclothed lovers, who later would appear in his paintings, as well as documentations of art school antics—including photos of the San Francisco Art Institute courtyard jam-packed with naked students, perhaps enacting a performative assignment for class. The young people in the latter shots radiate a kind of ebullience and rich possibility, characteristics one might have attributed to McDowell himself, who, from the vantage point of our lean times, seems both an enviable and a cautionary figure.

Glen Helfand