Sunday, April 3, 2011

The Last of the Magic Realists

George Tooker died last week at the age of 90. He was the last of 3 artists grouped around the writer and impresario Lincoln Kirstein who were known as the Magic Realists. The group was made up of Tooker, Paul Cadmus, and Jared French. All three were gay men, and Kirstein himself was famously bisexual. They were all figurative painters whose sexuality appeared openly (and unapologetically) in their work. All three found themselves on the margins of society and the art world for most of their careers.
Their careers all had rocky starts and long dry spells. Cadmus’ fame began with a public scandal that would be familiar in our own time. He created an uproar with his painting for the WPA titled The Fleet’s In showing sailors in New York’s Riverside Park carousing with girl friends, prostitutes, and one gay man offering a sailor a cigarette (who accepts knowingly). The painting outraged the general public (and titillated them too), putting an impoverished artist rescued by the WPA into the spotlight.

Paul Cadmus, The Fleet's In!, 1934

Kirstein became close friends with all three artists, who formed lasting friendships among themselves. Cadmus and French were lovers for many years. Kirstein married Cadmus’ sister, Fidelma, and financed the artist’s career. All of them traveled and spent holidays together frequently. French later married, though remained friends with Cadmus and Kirstein. Tooker converted to Roman Catholicism later in his life.

George Tooker, Jared French, with Monroe Wheeler in the foreground at Provincetown, photographed by George Platt Lynes

This small group of painters found some measure of public and critical notice mostly in the late 1940s and 1950s. At that time, the art world was in the middle of a transition from dominance by the Regionalist painters to domination by modernism and abstraction, neither of which welcomed gay figurative painters. There was a brief revival of interest in their work in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but now they seem to be fading back into obscurity.

I’ve always had very mixed feelings about these artists. I’ve long enjoyed and admired their work, though with a lot of serious reservations. I don’t think that any of them were really great artists, though they were very good and very interesting artists. Their work was a strange mixture of formal conservatism, caustic satire, daring sexual candor (even by our standards), and occasional flights of adventurous imagination. They all used that most conservative of painting media, egg tempera (which was conservative as early as the 15th century). I get the impression that Cadmus was the instigator. He used egg tempera most of his life and persuaded both French and Tooker to use it. Cadmus was far and away the best draftsman of the group, in my opinion. His drawing hand got stronger and surer as he grew older. I’ve always admired the sexual candor and humor in his work. It’s not the deepest and most thoughtful work in the world, but it is a lot of fun, and incredibly brave considering the time and place he worked. Sometimes Cadmus’ work can be remarkably beautiful when all of his driving passions come together. Sometimes, it can be really vulgar, for lack of a better word, and drift into very shallow sensationalism.

Paul Cadmus, Sunday Sun, 1958 - 1959, The man clearly is the focus of attention. I saw this in the original in a commercial gallery in New York years ago. The painting of the brickwork is remarkable, a beautifully luminous little painting.

Paul Cadmus, Playground, 1948, a painting that still startles with its none too subtle homoeroticism.

Paul Cadmus, The Bath, 1951, a great "morning after" painting, again that still startles us with its candor about a gay tryst, and what's more, a tryst between 2 men who appear to have enjoyed each other. This was painted during the McCarthy era witchhunts that targeted gay men in particular.

Paul Cadmus, Bar Italia, 1953 - 1955 to my mind, Cadmus at his best and worst in one painting.

Paul Cadmus, Jonathan Removing a Splinter, 1993, Cadmus was in his 90s when he made this remarkable drawing.

Paul Cadmus photographed by George Platt Lynes

George Tooker was the dark poet of the group, famous for his paintings of floating anxiety in an over rationalized bureaucratic dystopia meant to reflect the collective alienation of mid 20th century life. I love the luminosity of his pictures, but they have a mannered quality that really puts me off. His work can sometimes drift into a kind of mawkishness worsened rather than mitigated by the mannerisms and affectations of his style, in my opinion.

George Tooker, Subway, 1950, his most famous painting.

George Tooker, The Waiting Room, 1957, my favorite of his dystopian paintings. The light and the color are beautifully done, and are used to create the cold anxiety in this picture.

George Tooker, Window I, 1955, from a series of paintings inspired by a crowded boarding house across from where Tooker lived at the time. I love the color and the luminosity, but the figures verge on broad caricature.

George Tooker, Window XI, 1999

George Tooker, Dark Angel, 1996, a late self portrait reflecting Tooker's religious convictions.

George Tooker photographed by George Platt Lynes

Jared French was the most withdrawn of the group, and painted works that shade into surrealism with their stiff figures and stillness. His most famous work from the 1950s is a series of allegorical paintings made up of very still emblematic figures supposedly derived from early Renaissance painters such as Piero della Francesca and Andrea Mantegna, as well as Greek Archaic sculpture.

Jared French, The Double, 1950

Jared French, Women and Boys, 1947

Jared French, State Park, 1946

Jared French photographed by George Platt Lynes

Strange as it may seem, I’m not a fan of allegory, and all three of these artists painted a lot of allegory. I much prefer stories that reveal meaning in action rather than puzzle pictures where meaning is embedded in a kind of code language of symbols. Allegory is fine for Dan Brown and his readers, but not for me. God forbid that I, or any artist, should paint a picture titled What I Believe. What an artist believes should inform every stroke of the brush. I don’t fault Cadmus for finding a message of inward liberation from repression and an outward liberation from social hierarchies in EM Forster’s writings, but I think his painting about it was unnecessary. Forster’s concepts of liberation and his generosity of spirit inform Cadmus’ best pictures already.

Paul Cadmus, What I Believe, 1948

I share a common purpose with these artists, a determination to breath a new life into figurative painting. I share a conviction with them that the old figurative forms of Western art still have a lot of life left in them just waiting to be let out. Despite the Painting-Is-Dead crowd who’ve been around since the invention of photography 150 years ago, a painted image of a face will always have a fascination that that a photographed image, or a digitally created image, of a face will never have. There is a kind of magic and drama in that coming together of vision, thought, and skill of hand that mechanical processes may never be able to imitate or excel. I believe that painting will be dead when Marcel Duchamp’s prophecy about using a Rembrandt for an ironing board really does come true. It will be dead when painting from all periods and cultures no longer speaks to us, and when that happens, we may no longer be human, but something else.

Figurative painting has a directness and communicative power, which a lot of modern and postmodern form does not have. The violence in Max Beckmann’s work has a power that Picasso’s violence does not have. Beckmann may stretch and distort figurative form, but he never breaks it like Picasso does. That refusal to break apart the figure appeals to our sense of empathy. In the end, Picasso’s distortions of form and space distance us from the victims in his famous Guernica. To my mind, it’s no accident that corporate HQs have so much abstract painting and sculpture in their lobbies and boardrooms; it’s not threatening. It makes them look civilized and announces to all the world that they are legitimate businesses and not bands of pirates. Abstraction goes with the furniture while not making too many demands on viewers. I think the same reasoning is behind the generous corporate sponsorships of big international art festivals, biennials and dokumentas of all sorts, even controversial ones (I notice that there’s lots of sex in these shows, but it’s a downright Calvinist attitude toward sexuality that prevails; sex and death, sex and violence, sex and politics, sex and crime, sex and power, sex and conflict, and no one anywhere seems to make art about the pleasure of a really good fuck). Such corporate support for these events makes the companies look benevolent, brave, and hip at the same time.

The homosexuality of the Magic Realists was always up front and unapologetic. There was never any need to tease out “tendencies” in their work. I’ve always noticed that “tendencies” is always an issue with gay artists, but never with hetero ones. That sexuality informs creative vision is an issue only about gay artists, and a commonplace unspoken assumption for hetero artists. Sex fills Titian’s work, all of it including his religious work. The friars of the Frari Church in Venice were quite right to complain about its presence in the famous Assunta when it was unveiled. Rubens’ religious work is as sensual as the carvings on the temples at Khajuraho, and maybe more so. He didn’t need the explicitness of those sculptures. There’s an erotic charge in all of his work, even in the way he lays down paint. Sexuality is never an issue in Rubens’ work, but it always is in Michelangelo’s work or Caravaggio’s. By the way, the very hetero Titian and Rubens were not entirely indifferent to the beauty of men.

The Regionalists proscribed homosexual passion from their work. Homosexuality led to Communism and moral turpitude. Grant Wood buried his feelings deep in the closet. Only occasionally did those passions flicker to life beneath the dry surfaces of his paintings. Modern art usually buried homosexual desire under mounds of metaphor and clever associations. Johns and Rauschenberg began their careers deep in closets. All the buried references to homosexual desire in their work are clear now, but escaped viewers 60, and even 20 years ago. To my mind, going through those long series of associations and significations in so much modern and postmodern work has all the thrill and passion of a seminar in ontological empiricism at the New School. I might as well spend my Saturday night at Vespers.

The Magic Realists used figurative art to put homosexual desire, and its pleasures, up front for all the world to see. That bluntness, even now, is a recipe for marginalization.


JCF said...

Wow. I'm going to be digging into this entry for a long time... [Thanks, Doug!]

it's margaret said...

I love! the Bar Italia... the pillar scrawled with go away americans!! Is the young man in the pillar a self portrait?

JCF said...

So many thoughts.

I'll start w/ this:

no one anywhere seems to make art about the pleasure of a really good fuck

FTW! :-D

I think I like the subject matter of these painters, than their styles. You call them "conservative", but I guess I like even more conservatism, in their styles. Too cartoonish. Cartoons are fine for pen&ink, but if you're going to paint, your style should be worthy of paint. I want more texture, more depth.

But back to their subject matter: LOVE IT! I love how in-your-face it is.

I was particularly struck by "The Playground": kind of a joke, wouldn't you say? Cadmus has set the scene on a school playground, but it seems more like a setting of "The Piers" or "The Bushes." [What is the creature w/ the baseball bat? Baby Drag Queen? I thought the heterosexual couple at left seemed out of place... or are they? Heterosexual? I think the dark-haired person about to devour the tatas is a dyke!]

As far as "the alienation of modern life" goes, more than Tooker's work, I was impressed w/ Cadmus's "Sunday Sun". In it, the couple aren't resigning themselves to the alienation, they're defying it: the little tiny corner of sunshine, and they're grabbing it. "God bless the grass, that grows through the crack."

Re "The Bath": that bathroom? I want it! What a brilliant, brilliant design, those two simple wooden dowels! [Heh: think the young blond just lost his "buginity"? ;-X (Thank you, "Noah's Arc"!)]

Guess I just don't have much to say re Tooker and French, though. Cadmus was the star.

I haven't thought much about the difference between allegory and "stories that reveal meaning in action". Is there really a difference? Being that I'm not inside the (any) artist's head, it seems to me ALL paintings are allegory: some are just more upfront about it than others.

Well, just my thoughts. GREAT post, Doug. Muchas gracias!

Leonard said...

Makes me sadlike--I often wish I knew people that I admire via glimpses (big glimpses).

Captures a little of my heart...the vastness of it all is breathtaking.


kishnevi said...

back up there: the man who painted the Orpheus and Theseus series doesn't like allegory? !! I mean, those paintings are chock full of allegory--not in the way that French's paintings are, but certainly at least as much as those of Cadmus and Tooker, if not more.

Almost any painting can be allegorical. You simply may not notice it because the symbolism is part and parcel of modern life. In the final picture, you dress Theseus in army fatigues, bandaged and on crutches; that immediately conjures all those wounded soldiers returning from Afghanistan and Iraq (and now, I suppose, Libya).
And I wouldn't call those faces in Tooker's paintings caricatures, except for the two in Dark Angel. I've dealt with, even known, people who bear more than a passing resemblance to the people Tooker painted in those Windows.

And I also disagree with you about Guernica: to me that painting depicts violence far more vividly than anything I remember of Beckmann's, because it strips away the physical act and confronts us directly with the emotions of violence being suffered.

I guess I'm being a bit contrarian tonight :)

Counterlight said...

I think that there is a real distinction between narrative and allegory. You could argue that every movie ever made from Grand Illusion to Shrek is an allegory of some kind or another. But, you would make the terms “narrative” and “allegory,” even “symbol,” meaningless.
Yes, I made a series of paintings about Theseus, a mythological character who stood for a lot of different ideas about public morality and political and social responsibility over time. Theseus carries a lot of associations, but is he a symbol? Is he only a vessel for larger meanings who is otherwise empty? Is putting him in military fatigues and on crutches really a symbol, in the same way that a lily in a painting of the Annunciation is a symbol? Or is it a use of associations to direct a narrative? Military fatigues and crutches carry with them a variety of associations in people’s minds, but does that make them symbolic like a Tau Cross or a thyrsis? I don’t think so. A painting of the Virgin and Child by Van Eyck is crammed full of symbolism and associations that work on multiple levels of meaning, but there is no action or conflict. That’s my idea of allegorical. The same with Cadmus’ What I Believe, no story is being told, there is no conflict, no action, just a series of figures whose only role is to stand for some kind of determined meaning and not to stand on their own. A painting by Titian of Diana and Actaeon is a story with action and conflict. Actaeon blunders onto Diana and her followers bathing and suffers the goddess’ anger at being discovered. Maybe Titian might use a symbol or two to direct the understanding of the narrative, but neither Actaeon nor Diana are symbols. They are characters. It is a story that carries multiple associations from the War Between the Sexes to the cruel and fickle nature of the gods and fate. Meaning unfolds in the story and in the conflict between the feckless mortal and the cruel goddess. It does not unfold in a series of symbolic images.
As for Picasso’s Guernica, put that up against Goya’s Third of May and then tell me which one is the more distanced and rhetorical painting.

Counterlight said...

I think JCF's comment about Cadmus' "Sunday Sun" is a great example of what I mean by an artist's convictions informing every stroke of the brush. All of those ideas that Cadmus spells out in allegorical form in "What I Believe" are already there in every aspect of "Sunday Sun." I could say the same thing for "The Bath" and probably for "The Playground" too.

JCF said...

There's the implicit (Sunday Sun) and the explicit (What I Believe). While stylistically I prefer the former (in its simplicity), I see the appeal of both implicit&explicit (and narrative&allegory).