NEW YORK — Tolerance of sexual variation has always been part of the folk image of the art world. The idea of Toulouse-Lautrec haunting the brothels of Paris, or Picasso ranging through multiple wives and battalions of mistresses has been envied, scorned or joked about openly for decades. So has speculation about which artists practice any of the other variant forms of amorous behavior, including homosexuality.
Gay behavior among modern artists, however, has tended to remain more a matter of talk than of official acknowledgment for reasons ranging all the way from the conviction that sexual behavior has nothing to do with art to fear of ingrained superstition.
Now we are confronted with an exhibition devoted to an important artist, in an established museum, whose content and catalogue make a significant theme of his homosexuality and the way it reflects in his art. It is something of a landmark, and a welcome one at that, for the serious student of the link between personality and the creative process.
It is certainly also a sign of a sad time when the scourge of AIDS forces the culture to contemplate the crucial creative contribution made by a demimonde sometimes stereotyped as populated by useless parasites and weirdos.
Until Jan. 17, the Whitney Museum of American Art presents a 115-work survey of the painting of Charles Demuth. The show, organized by Whitney curator Barbara Haskell, will visit the L.A. County Museum of Art Feb. 25-April 24.
Demuth has long been known as a key member of the pioneer American modernist circle associated with Alfred Steiglitz's Gallery 291 in the teens and '20s. Sometimes called The Immaculates, the loose-knit group also included Georgia O'Keeffe, Marsden Hartley, Arthur Dove, Max Weber and John Marin. Their principal contribution was in their absorption of advanced European styles, from organic abstraction to Cubism and Futurism, which they recycled into more realistic forms and applied to colloquial American subjects.
For years Demuth's "My Egypt" has been a standard textbook reproduction. It depicts two massive and pristine storage tanks in accents of purist Cubism. In the '60s, his painting "I Saw the Figure Five in Gold" became an icon of the Pop generation with its evocation of a clanging locomotive chugging through the night. He has long been admired for such precisionist works and for exquisite realistic watercolor still lifes.
Haskell's exhibition emphasizes a lesser-known body of work with inescapable homosexual themes: nude men chatting intimately in a bath house, sailors exposing themselves, a group of aesthetes admiring a phallic sculpture by Brancusi--including a sailor and a chap in tails who stand embracing.
The tone of these works is usually satirical, but hints of Expressionist angst seep through in pictures of vaudeville entertainers. A pair of costumed female acrobats smile in a pose suggesting an erotic embrace. An entertainer balances on a bicycle whose handlebar is positioned to read as a penis.
Clearly, Demuth used the vaudeville folks as a metaphor of the gay person's need--in the artist's day at least--to walk a kind of tightrope, putting on a jolly front while hiding his pain and masking his identity. Demuth was so successful in this, in fact, that Haskell says it is not clear how much his gay preoccupation was acted out in fact and how much in the fantasy of his works.
Demuth did a series of "poster portraits" of friends such as Dove. They are not hugely successful, and some of the symbolism is a bit nasty--like depicting Dove as a scythe with a ribbon on the handle. It makes one wonder if "Longhi on Broadway" is not a kind of symbolic self-portrait with its books, slightly agonized plant and carnival mask.
Demuth was born in Lancaster, Pa., and died there of the effects of diabetes in 1935 at age 52 after a life punctuated with cosmopolitan sophistication and dogged by sickness and hidden anxiety.
A successful family gave him the advantage of private means. He could pursue his interests but he was crippled at an early age, and a long convalescence gave him a notion of himself as both an isolated outsider and a special person. He turned a lingering limp to advantage with a jaunty walk and cane that played into his role of the quintessential dandy--charming, handsome, somewhat distant but liked and admired by everyone from Marcel Duchamp to Eugene O'Neill to the denizens of Manhattan after-hours clubs he frequented in the hectic '20s.
He sojourned repeatedly in Paris, where he was welcomed into Gertrude Stein's circle. He characterized himself to her as more of a writer than an artist, and in fact devoted significant time to writing. Examples of his literary efforts reproduced in the catalogue have a gifted natural sparkle and subtlety that make his attraction to Henry James understandable. He illustrated some of James' stories and seemed especially fascinated by that recurrent Jamesian hero--the refined man of sensibility who could not find love.