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The reluctant hero.

Famed gay artist Paul Cadmus tells us he's not an activist, But his life's work paints a different picture

Few applaud those "passivist" creatures who nudge us forward with steady, quiet commitment, often intellectuals and artists with honest, fresh insights and interpretations. Involuntary activists, they are thinkers and creators more comfortable with a keyboard or a paintbrush than a placard or a Molotov cocktail.

At 94, Paul Cadmus, through his pioneering art, has been an active passivist for nearly seven decades. Cadmus has frequently loaded his paintings, drawings, and etchings with provocative aspects of the male physique: natural musculature, crotch bulges, and, most prominently, well-rounded tushes. (He generally eschews genitalia.) His paintings have confronted viewers with homoerotic imagery as far back as the early 1930s, in an era when such bawdiness was unseen in legitimate art. He did so even when his subject matter went beyond appreciative portraits and into finely detailed pastiches on unionism and urban life, often detailed in the painstaking medium of egg tempura.

But if his art has been anything but subtle, the still-sharp-as-a-tack Cadmus himself prefers not to make ripples. "I don't like pumped-up bodies; they are too exaggerated," he says, speaking on the phone from the Connecticut home he shares with his lover and model of 35 years, Jon Anderson. And despite his blatantly alluring renderings, he insists he has not been a man with an agenda. "I wasn't trying to foster gay rights," says the self-proclaimed "lazy" artist (he's produced only some 150 canvasses) and high school dropout. A voracious reader who befriended E.M. Forster in the '40s, he comes off precise, polite, even a bit coy. "I recorded what I saw and thought and knew," he adds. "[The gay angle] was unintentional. I never thought of gay art, except for the gay art of the Renaissance, like Caravaggio and Michelangelo. I don't care if art is gay or not, as long as it's genuine." He pauses. "I don't go in for confrontation, you know."

Not that Cadmus has hidden his homosexuality, says artist Chuck Close, who has served on several art-show juries with Cadmus in recent years and has photographed and painted him. "For Paul, it's just not such a big deal," says Close. "It's just there. I don't think he wants to be the poster boy of homoeroticism. He's not Tom of Finland."

Cadmus's way with men is currently on view in a small exhibition of his work at New York City's National Academy of Design, which also offers a 60-odd-piece show titled "Men Without Women: Paul Cadmus as Curator," with works selected by the artist from the academy's extensive holdings. The latter show's title alone reveals Cadmus's comfort with the subject of men. "What can I say?" says Close with a chortle. "He likes boys."

And the truth is, Cadmus has often blended his boys with social satire. Take Public Dock, one of four Aspects of Suburban Life panels painted in 1936: Packed tightly on a pier, shirtless and undershirted young men ooze the unself-conscious virility of guys who would seem at home in a natural paradise out of Rousseau or Whitman. They are, in fact, trapped in an appallingly dull, homogeneous satellite community.

"I was trying to do themes of a suburban life that I didn't know," says Cadmus, who was born and raised in Manhattan and whose parents were both commercial artists. "There wasn't as much beauty around as I would have liked. If I was doing a picture exposing the foibles and ugliness of daily life, I also did the other side, showing the beauty of the male body."

But repression played no part in his work. At 27 he tossed aside a career as an advertising artist and headed to France with his friend Jared French, a fellow artist who was the subject of his first painting (Jerry, 1931); French is shown in bed without a shirt, a then-banned copy of Ulysses in his hand. ("I always considered myself to be the loving one, not the beloved," Cadmus says easily of French, who later married.) Two years later Cadmus titled an etching Y.M.C.A. Locker Room. You can figure out that one yourself.

Cadmus's controversial work has been in and out of favor with critics through the years, often contradicting the prevailing progressive zeitgeist--what would later be known as political correctness. He admits that his overtly gay characters--especially in his early crowded canvasses--are often nelly, lecherous, frivolous. An effete blond man hovers over an inebriated sailor on one side of the infamous The Fleet's In! (1934)--the painting that pushed the buttons of Navy brass because of its drunken sailors and loose women, not its faggots. "I don't think I was complimentary, generally speaking, about gays, including myself," says Cadmus unapologetically. "When I included myself in my paintings, I tried to be as unflattering as possible."

But Cadmus's grotesque characterizations have agitated a variety of factions, not just his own. One of his most challenging pieces was Herrin Massacre (1940), a rendering inspired by the actual 1925 killing of 26 company-hired strikebreakers by armed union members in Herrin, Ill. The work was done just after the beginning of the Second World War and the formation of the House Un-American Activities Committee but before Joseph McCarthy and the expose of Joseph Stalin's horrendous doings in a Soviet Union that had been much idealized by artists and intellectuals on the Left. The maniacal union men are clad in unappealing garb; the dead or pleading scabs are virtually undressed, their torsos spread quasi-erotically on the ground.

The painting represents the perfect marriage of Cadmus, freethinking social critic, with Cadmus, adorer of the male form. Not needing to be the beloved, he fearlessly offers us a sharp, controversial, critical look at ourselves. And in his finely realized images of the more sympathetic male figures, he finds a space to show his compassion. To be the loving one.

Feinstein contributes to Detour and London's The Guardian.
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Title Annotation:gay rights activism of artist Paul Cadmus; exhibit of works at the National Academy of Design, New York, NY
Author:Feinstein, Howard
Publication:The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:Aug 17, 1999
Words:998
Previous Article:Kramer vs. Kushner.
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