February 21 — April 13, 2019
The group exhibition The Young and Evil at David Zwirner looks at an artistic moment, foremost in Downtown New York, during the first half of the 20th century, when homosexuality and figurative painting were equally frowned upon. In his spirited painting, Shore Leave (1933), Paul Cadmus lusciously illustrates a nautical affair, in which the depiction of male physique overshadows the often-times bombastic representation of female sexuality, traditionally placed to stand in for subjects of sexual yearning in maritime life. With their moon-shaped buttocks and Adonis-like visages, Cadmus’s sailors, however, steal their girlfriends’ and our gazes of desire, at a time when sodomy was, and would remain for almost 30 years, a criminal act until 1962.
In the 1940s, Pollock, de Kooning, and other ringleaders of Abstract Expressionism were busy splashing aggressive dollops of paint onto canvas with a celebrated machismo, but a group of queer libertines looked back in art history to discover traces from their own lives in mid-century America. There, they encountered a sense of rebellious humanism and salvation from dogmatism. They painted men, women, animals, and nature in scandalously bucolic and, in most cases, openly queer fashions. Joining Cadmus—whose lesser-known drawings of gay orgies are not to be missed in the exhibition’s one of five vitrines—was his long-time lover Jared French, who married Margaret Hoening, while Cadmus dated George Tooker. The most vivid display of these intertwined relationships and affairs is a salon style wall of portraits the artists made of each other for, again, one another to keep. Among these are not only artists, but writers, dancers, patrons, and muses. These lines and circles of relationship, whether sexual, amicable, professional or familial, bore the birth of a cultural moment on the periphery of the mainstream, yet influential enough to make its impact last into the present. “I wanted to make an exhibition about relationships—between artists and friends who influenced each other emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically—and that allowed intimacy to emerge from the juxtapositions of the objects themselves,” explains Jarrett Earnest, the exhibition’s curator. “This is opposed to the narratives that traditionally propel art history, which lists the stories of individual heroes.”
In Prose (1948), French paints a robust male nude so stoic in his posture that he stands like a piece of architecture seen from behind, invincible within a surreal de Chirico-esque setting. But such a vision is the artist’s fantasy since the world outside his studio or over the borders of downtown would deem such a provocative male nude as criminal. A similarly blond stallion type appears from the front in Pavel Tchelitchew’s The Lion Boy (1936-37), showing off his muscles which the artist accentuates with casts of shadow. The figure dares to ogle his gazer, akin to Manet’s Olympia, with a scandalously unapologetic expression. Of many jewels of the exhibition, George Platt Lynes’s gelatin silver prints of male intimacy offer a glimpse of gay love experienced behind closed doors among this tight circle of friends. Discovered in Monroe Wheeler’s personal archive following his death, the images chronicle the relationship between Wheeler and Lynes through close-ups of mouths, penises, and hands, conveyors of the dense sexuality between two men.
Make sure to pay attention to the five vitrines dispersed around the gallery not only to enjoy intimate depictions of the male form, but also to encounter materials from the Kinsey Institute archives. Alfred Kinsey spent time with the group in 1949 and observed their everyday lives as part of his research on human sexuality. The holdings of the Institute, including drawings by Cadmus and Tchelitchew, come to light and anchor the show, demonstrating, as Earnest puts it, these artists’ “efforts to push for cultural redefinitions of sexual identity.” Today, look no further than paintings of Sam McKinniss, photographs of Paul Mpagi Sepuya, or drawings of Louis Fratino to observe the legacy of the uncompromising search for beauty, communal bonds, and redefinition of sexuality of the young and the evil.