|About Paul Cadmus|
(December 17, 1904 - December 12th, 1999)
A sharply focused realist style executed in the meticulous medium of egg tempera and a partiality to controversial subject matter characterize Cadmus' approach to his art. He is also well known as a printmaker and as a superb draftsman. His paintings have been included in many important exhibitions - most notably the American Realists and Magic Realists exhibition held in 1943 at The Museum of Modern Art. Works by Cadmus can be found in major public collections including those of the Whitney Museum of American Art; National Museum of American Art; Smithsonian Institution; Los Angeles County Museum of Art; Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; and The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
As much as some younger artists would have liked to see Cadmus adopt the persona of nonagenarian poster boy for Gay Y2K, he was generally content to let his images speak for themselves. That was his choice to make; more perplexing, frankly, is the majority of critical writing on Cadmus that blatantly ignores his gay perspective and homoerotic imagery.
Lincoln Kirstein, founding director of the New York City Ballet - and the artist's self-defined bisexual brother-in-law (married to Cadmus's sister, Fidelma) - wrote the "definitive" Cadmus monograph with nary a mention of the artist's crucial homoeroticism, preferring to tiptoe around the truth with statements like, "As for sexual factors, he has without ostentation or polemic long celebrated somatic health in boys and young men for its symbolic range of human possibility. His addiction to aspects of physical splendor has never been provocative, sly, nor ambitious to proselytize."
We wish Kirstein had taken a more careful look at the slender lad sporting a box kite and a noticeable bulge in Aviator, or the "mine's bigger than yours" posturing and relentless cruising on display in Y.M.C.A. Locker Room. Even more telling is Manikins, in which two small artist's models lovingly do the nasty atop a copy of Corydon, André Gide's plea for queer rights. Never before or since has the body politic been represented so charmingly.
Despite what Kirstein and others have - or haven't - said, Cadmus's work clearly has been heavily informed by his sexuality; his male nudes and satiric swipes exude a coolly palpable sensuality. Cadmus isn't homogenic, however. In Sunday Sun, a hetero couple seek out precious rays of light amid the Dickensian grime of their oppressive urban sprawl.
In Subway Symphony, Cadmus trains his compassionate yet keenly wicked eye on a sideshow of grotesques, from ridiculous hippies to religious zealots, all of whom are having a bad hair day. While some viewers object to Cadmus's cruel reduction of the masses to broad stereotypes, the artist insists on his secular humanitarianism: "Will it be said that I am anti-Semitic, anti-black, anti-white, anti-hard-hat, anti-all, anti-people? I am not. I am anti a society that makes people this way, that makes humanoids of humans, an environment that causes this... I am for human beings as individuals."
Cadmus achieved renewed appreciation late in life, justly attributed to the greater tolerance about sexual orientation in the last decades of the twentieth century. He said: "If only my works could become better known without me as a personality becoming better known, then I could enjoy my enlarged reputation more than I do." Though never hiding his homosexuality, Paul was often torn between public and private issues of sexual intimacy versus politics. Instinctively, he fought intolerance by donating his valued drawings to AIDS benefits and by receiving honorary awards on behalf of numerous gay alliances.
He denounced "the labeling of artists-black artists, women artists," and loathed terms such as "gay composer Tchaikovsky, anti-Semitic composer Wagner" and called labels "a kind of gossip." He declared, "Gayness is not the raison d'être of my work." He pleaded to those engaged on the frontlines of militant gender politics to respect that he was from a generation for which reticence and discretion signaled an unspoken ethical code. And he thought that we should keep our attention focused on what really matters-the art.
His friends were people such as W. H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood, George Balanchine, George Platt Lynes, George Tooker, Lincoln Kirstein, and E. M. Forster (who, while posing for a portrait, who passed the time reading aloud passages from Maurice).
Cadmus, who in 94 years completed over 120 paintings, delighted in such observation. "I do love Michelangelo's male forms", he has said, adding that "Michelangelo's women often look like males with grapefruits attached."
"It seems that genitalia", Cadmus lamented about the public taste, "equal pornography." But not for him personally: "My penis is not the most important organ in my body. My eyes are."
On one occasion when it was said that he was the only artist to draw so many male nudes, the then 92-year-old Cadmus quipped, "Well, there was Michelangelo."
Biographer Charles Kaiser quotes Cadmus as having been interviewed by Alfred Charles Kinsey: "He took homosexuality just as calmly as he did his work with wasps. He interviewed me about my sex life - how many orgasms, how big it was, measure it before and after." Kinsey even went to dinner at Cadmus's house following the interview.
There have been many artists throughout history that have had greater skills and technical acheivements, but there are few who created works endowed with such remarkable vitality, bringing to life a world of startlingly diverse characters from all facets of society.
Paul Cadmus was born in New York City on December 17 1904. His father was a commercial lithographer, and his mother illustrated books. Cadmus was encouraged by his parents to pursue his creative desires, and at the age of 15, he left high school and began his art studies at the National Academy of Design. At Amherst College, Paul Cadmus met Jared French, a painter and photographer, who was briefly his lover and who became a life-long friend. Completing his studies in 1926, he found employment as a layout artist in a New York advertising agency.
While growing up in Manhattan, Cadmus said, "I was fascinated by the sailors around the Soldiers and Sailors Monument. I was young and was propositioned many times. But I was afraid to go with them, and we just talked while sitting on the benches."
In 1931, abandoning his career in advertising, he traveled throughout Europe with his lover Jared French. They visited Italy to study in the museums, where Cadmus learned the technique of egg tempera, combined with oil, in the Italian Renaissance painting style. Returning to the United States in 1933 Cadmus signed on as an employee of the federally funded Public Works of Art Project.
In 1934 his first major work for the PWAP, The Fleet's In!, precipitated considerable controversy in the ranks of the U.S. Navy. A certain uptight Admiral Hugh Rodman ordered the removal of the painting from an exhibition of government - sponsored paintings at the Corcoran Gallery of Art (also the site of the Robert Mapplethorpe controversy 55 years later) - on the grounds of obscenity. The furor created by the censorship of this controversial painting only brought more attention to the painting, which depicts drunken sailors in tight pants passing out in the arms of slatternly floozies - not exactly what the WPA had in mind. It did, however, catapult the painter to fame. From this point on, notoriety seemed to follow Cadmus and he firmly established his reputation as a social satirist.
Apparently, President Roosevelt's cousin, Henry Latrobe Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy, lifted the offending work from its hook at the Corcoran and sequestered it in his home. At his death in 1936, the painting was bequeathed to an elite all-male bastion, the Alibi Club. For more than forty years, the painting was installed over a fireplace mantle in the club's I Street townhouse.
Continuing to play the role of observer rather than participant, Cadmus gained confidence as an arbiter of moral judgment with his Aspects of Suburban Life series, commissioned in 1936 by the Treasury Relief Art Project as murals for a post office in the Long Island suburb of Port Washington. Not surprisingly, given their ruthless critique of noblesse oblige slumming and socioeconomic inequality, the murals were deemed "unsuitable for a federal building" and Cadmus was politely shown the door. Hinky Dinky Parley Voo, in which the dregs of society drink to the dregs around a bar, didn't exactly endear Cadmus to the no-nothings, either.
But if the government wouldn't have him, friends and lovers were plentiful and uniformly supportive. Writer Monroe Wheeler and photographer George Platt Lynes were close associates of Cadmus's for years, as were E.M. Forster, Tennessee Williams, Christopher Isherwood and George Ballanchine. Excursions to Fire Island were not uncommon. Once there, Cadmus utilized his close-knit group as subject matter for portraiture. Sometimes they'd pose for him in the modest glory of their soft skin.
From the 1930s on, Cadmus steadfastly has painted the male nude within a milieu in which, as he says, "heterosexuality has always ruled." Given his clear-cut understanding of this identity-based power dynamic, perhaps the queerest thing about Cadmus and his work is his (and its) reluctance to fully acknowledge the queer content that appears so overt to contemporary viewers who know all the insider signs. While Cadmus always has been "out," his reluctance to speak at length regarding the recognizably gay aspects of his oeuvre stems both from his reluctance to be pigeonholed and from the fact that he came of age among a generation of gay men who typically didn't have "we're here, we're queer, get used to it" tattooed on their foreheads.
In 1937, Jared French married artist Margaret Hoening, his and Cadmus's mutual friend. Cadmus did not seem upset with the marriage and the three were soon collaborating as members of the PAJAMA photographic group (the name of which was comprised of the first two letters of each of their given names). Along with his ex-lover Jared French and with George Tooker, Cadmus lived and worked in obscurity in Greenwich Village during the 1940s and 1950s, unfazed by Manhattan's burgeoning action painting.
It was in the mid and late 40's that Cadmus would go, with two artist friends, to a then secluded spot on Fire Island. There they could feel free to go without clothes, taking many photographs which Cadmus would use as reference for his paintings and would eventually become published as a volume of their own.
He believed that "overproduction was the characteristic vice of the modern artist." During a long life of uninterrupted labor, he signed fewer than 130 paintings. After 1941 he employed the painstaking Renaissance painting technique of egg tempera and finished an average of two paintings a year.
While Cadmus spent the summers on Fire Island his winters were spent painting the more surreal 1945-49 series The seven Deadly Sins, influenced by Giotto, Bosch, and Bruegel. These paintings are symbolic representations of lust, pride, sloth, anger, envy, avarice, and gluttony. With their powerful imagery they are considered, in concept and achievement a capstone of Cadmus's career. With hermaphroditic figures to represent Cadmus's belief that these conditions were equal in both sexes, he created a universalized iconography of evil which stands unique in our time.
He reduced humanity's malevolence to the seven harrowing panels. These unforgettable paintings symbolically link the fears of the medieval mind with the apocalyptic realities of Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
In 1961, he left Manhattan, eventually relocating his studio to Weston, Connecticut. Cadmus met his lover - model-musician and cabaret singer - Jon Andersson, 27, in 1963 when he himself was 59 joking that his modeling was an excuse for their meeting, and saying that "I never wanted to be with anyone else". Cadmus has been linked with Jon for more than thirty years. In The Haircut, Andersson snips his older partner's distinguished white locks. In an ongoing series of chalk and crayon drawings, Cadmus depicts Andersson as muse, thinker, sleeper, lover and Beauty incarnate.
Recalling portraits by Michelangelo, Ingres and Degas, Cadmus's images of Andersson illustrate his comment on the drawing process: "I specialize in male nudes. I've done many more males than females. I like to do females too, but they're sort of harder 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." In any event, the subtle highlighting of genitals, hands and feet in Cadmus's portraits of Andersson suggest that male beauty is a mystery that the artist never truly desires to solve.
In 1980, threatening to send in federal marshals to reclaim government property, a group wanting to mount a Cadmus retrospective, along with lawyers and General Services Administration representatives-stewards of WPA liberated the painting The Fleet's In! from the club's posh prison. In 1981, when Cadmus was finally reunited with his painting - at his first and only career retrospective, which was organized by Miami University Art Museum in Oxford, Ohio - was seventy-six years old. "The last time I actually saw The Fleet's In! was when I delivered it to Juliana Force [regional head of the Public Works of Art Project and director of the Whitney Museum of American Art] at the old Whitney Museum [in Greenwich Village] in March of 1934," he sighed.
In the 1984 documentary Paul Cadmus: Enfant terrible at 80, Paul demonstrates his use of the egg tempera medium. This ancient practice involves the delicate balance of combining a fresh egg yolk with the pigment for the binder in the paint. Andrew Wyth is another artist who used this technique which, if the combination is not precise the painting could crumble but likewise if done correctly can create an unusually durable paint.
Just before his 95th birthday on December 17th, more than three hundred friends and colleagues were invited on December 1st to a birthday party at the DC Moore Gallery. Eleven days later, and just five days before his actual birthday, after his customary afternoon walk down a country lane in Weston, Connecticut, Paul Cadmus died quietly at home during the evening of December 12th, 1999, while watching television with Jon at their suburban home, without any illness other than advancing age.
Read also the page devoted to Paul Cadmus in our book "Famous GLTB" and visit his room at our Virtual Museum