From the 1930s through the 1950s, a group of rich, white gay artists and writers in New York painted, drew, photographed, collaborated and had love affairs with each other. This exhibition, curated by Jarrett Earnest, brings together their work, along with that of female fellow travelers, to resurrect a vanished world of privilege and a half-opened closet.
Many in the group cultivated a figurative style indebted to the Old Masters and to ’30s Social Realism. Unsurprisingly, portraits and male nudes abound. Some, too explicit for the period, still startle, such as George Platt Lynes’s photo of Monroe Wheeler’s erect penis, a drop glistening at the tip (Lynes had a ménage à trois with Wheeler, a publisher and MoMA administrator, and the writer Glenway Wescott). Paul Cadmus’s magisterially crosshatched graphic drawings of all-male orgies were commissioned by Alfred Kinsey for his sexology institute, and share a vitrine here with similar subjects rendered in aqueous black ink by Russian émigré Pavel Tchelitchew.
Homoeroticism wasn’t the only subject, however. Real-world events, for instance, found their way into works like Cadmus’s Herrin Massacre, a 1940 painting about the strikebreakers murdered during the eponymous event by a mob of Illinois coal miners in 1922. Surrealism figures into Tchelitchew’s Fidelma, a portrait of Cadmus’s sister who was married to the mainly gay impresario Lincoln Kirstein. With her head depicted as a writhing knot of interconnected capillaries, she’s an anxious vision of a subject defined by the networks that form her—a synedoche, perhaps, for the artists in this revelatory show.