Steven Jenkins

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In the gorgeous, occasionally garish, always gratifying works of the great American artist Paul Cadmus, sailors and sunbathers, models and mannequins, nitwits and nudes all are suffused with a sensuality born equally of idyllic splendor and urban squalor, natural grace and graceful artifice. Active since the 1930s as a renderer of pretty boys and ugly ploys, Cadmus has spent many remarkable decades honing a singularly complex style of idealized sexuality and vivid displeasure in justly celebrated paintings, drawings and etchings of nude figures, fantastical scenes and supercharged allegories.

While often working quite deliberately in the genres of social satire and community critique, Cadmus is just as compelling when exploring the personal and political proclivities of bodies in rest and motion. Male bodies, that is. More than most artists of his substantial stature, Cadmus has detailed with exquisite tenderness and unblinking bluntness the manner in which gay males--and the gay male gaze--represent the polemics of aesthetics.

Think of it this way: Cadmus's nudes--and, to a lesser yet still relevant extant, his studies of societal strata--offer us an opportunity to consider that beauty, though woundingly, agonizingly, deliciously seductive, also can be a ruthless guise, a four-letter word, an escape from Alcatraz, and a narcissistic, velvet-lined trap. Beauty, in fact, is everything your parents told you was bad for you as a child. Cadmus, to our enormous benefit, understands that beauty is bodies, brains, buttocks, bathtubs, bicycles, Bach, bravado and bad behavior; beauty is all things B.

Born in New York City in 1904, Cadmus was encouraged by his parents (artists both) to pursue his creative desires. After abandoning a career in advertising, Cadmus studied fine art and traveled throughout Europe in the early 1930s with his lover and fellow painter, Jared French. While gallivanting about Mallorca in an expatriate fever dream, Cadmus learned much from French, who tolerated his pal's slavish devotion to the means and methods of the Old Masters yet also encouraged him--quite wisely--to transcend the trappings of art-historical tradition and hone his own unique style.

What should we call it, this strangely anachronistic blend of neoclassical composition, Renaissance brush strokes (a la Luca Signorelli), figurative verisimilitude and surreal displacement? Cadmus's style is peculiar: his technique is exacting, his figures are elongated or oddly foreshortened, he's equally adept with charcoal and egg tempera, and his tableaux reflect realities of the wrong side of the tracks and fantasies of the right side. He's also, I'd venture, a leftist.

So what do we call Cadmus's style? Let's continue to ponder as we follow him back from Europa to the U.S., where he signed on as an employee of the federally funded Public Works of Art Project. His first major work for the PWAP was the infamous "The Fleet's In!," which answers the musical question: what can you do with a drunken sailor? In this extraordinary canvas, a gaggle of randy sailors on leave strike deals with hookers, ogle t and a, and get a little too friendly with each other, all while wearing (or planning to strip out of) unusually tight trousers.

When 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--where, fifty years later, Mr. Mapplethorpe's pictures suffered the same indignity--on the grounds of obscenity, Cadmus's name was splashed across newspaper headlines as savvy critics rallied behind him. With faux-naïve self-effacement, Cadmus did his best to appear nonplused by the brouhaha, though in retrospect it seems that he basked in the scandal and recognized it as a kick-start to his career as a serious artist. All this for an image of sailors who had never heard of--and never would have heeded--the "don't ask, don't tell" policy.

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 tony 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.

The Fleet’s In! 1934
Oil on canvas
30 x 60 inches
Collection: The Navy Museum, Washington, D.C.
Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, NYC

Preliminary Study for
Aspects of Suburban Life: Main Street, 1935
Oil and tempera on paper
5 1/8 x 7 3/8 inches
Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, NYC

Portrait of Monroe Wheeler, 1937
pencil and pen & ink on paper
12 x 9 inches
Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, NYC
Portrait of George Platt Lynes, 1938
Oil and tempera on linen
12 x 9 inches
Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, NYC

Hinky Dinky Parley Voo, 1939
Oil and tempera on linen
36 x 36 inches
Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, NYC

Bathers, 1939
ink, wash & white watercolor on blue paper
14 1/2 x 22 inches
Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, NYC

Aviator, 1941
Egg tempera on pressed wood panel
12 x 6 inches
Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, NYC
Sunday Sun, 1958-59
egg tempera on gesso panel
30 1/2 x 10/ 14 inches
Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, NYC

Manikins, 1951
Egg tempera on paper
13 x 16 inches
Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, NYC

Male Nude TS5, 1954
pencil & casein on paper
14 1/2 x 11 7/8 inches
Courtesy DC Moore Gallery, NYC

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