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arts

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American Art: Gay Male, 1900-1969  
 
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Although Cadmus' commitment to gay subjects limited his public exposure, he benefited from the support of Lincoln Kirstein, one of the most important American patrons of art during the mid-twentieth century.

Kirstein also encouraged the work of George Platt Lynes, a successful fashion photographer. For a limited circle of wealthy clients, Lynes created elegant, titillating photographs of nude men, usually posed and lit so as to conceal their genitals. In official photographs of the New York City Ballet, produced under Kirstein's patronage, Lynes captured romantic and sensual interactions among male dancers.

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Ballet also stimulated the imagination of Hubert Julian Stowitts, whose bold, colorful tempera paintings received international acclaim. However, both poor health and increasing social conservatism contributed to the rapid decline of his career in the postwar period.

The 1950s

In the 1950s, gender and sexual "normalcy" were enforced throughout American society. Jackson Pollock and other leading proponents of Abstract Expressionism, the prevailing avant garde art movement, asserted that their paintings embodied the heroic emotions of the emphatically heterosexual male.

During the 1950s, Betty Parsons was the only leading New York dealer who deliberately fostered the work of gay men, lesbians, and others who refused to conform to the restrictive conventions of the era. Among the artists promoted by Parsons were Alphonso Ossorio, whose kitschy and opulent abstractions challenged the prevailing style; Forrest Bess, who dealt with gay and issues in provocatively titled works (e.g., Two Dicks [1956]); and Walter Murch, who created shimmering, realistic depictions of objects with phallic connotations.

Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, who lived together from 1954 to 1960, cleverly subverted Abstract Expressionism by utilizing its "hallmark" bold strokes within their assemblages of found and made objects. Although Johns has denied that the work has any gay content, his Target with Plaster Casts (1955) seems to articulate the situation of the closeted male homosexual.

Emerging Gay Communities

The repressive mood of postwar America inspired "Beat" writers and artists to reject the mainstream and to advocate sexual and other personal freedoms. Gay men seeking to escape middle-class conformity gravitated to the San Francisco Bay Area and a few other major urban centers.

Amateur photographers recorded many aspects of life in these gay meccas. Through donations to gay historical societies, some of these images have become publicly accessible. The work of Jess (Collins) is especially noteworthy. A nationally recognized Bay Area artist, he created paintings and photographs celebrating gay life in San Francisco and his relationship with poet Robert Duncan.

The emerging gay communities created a market for erotic male images. "Underground" artists, such as "Blade" (Neil Blate) produced stories and drawings that are at once tender and bluntly explicit. Blade's images were reproduced and distributed clandestinely through gay bars.

Pretending to fulfill the ideals of the physical culture movement, physique magazines also responded to the demand for gay erotica by publishing photographs of body builders, with the minimum of covering required by postal authorities. In 1951, Bob Mizer founded Physique Pictorial (published regularly until 1992), which was directed openly and consistently to gay men. In 1957, Tom of Finland's work was published for the first time in the United States in Mizer's magazine.

George Quaintance was among the artists who regularly created drawings for Physique Pictorial. Depicting individuals in fanciful costumes that evoked many different cultural contexts, Quaintance created an appealing gay version of history. The men shown in Physique Pictorial were exclusively athletic, "clean-cut," and white. Yet, despite this limitation, these images contributed positively to the formation of community identity by showing individuals happy about their sexuality.

The 1960s

In the comparatively open 1960s, a few leading artists brought gay concerns to the forefront of the art world and thus helped to provide a foundation for the flourishing of queer art after Stonewall.

Andy Warhol, the most famous of these artists, rejected the macho ideals of the Abstract Expressionists and projected a "sissy" public image. Warhol transgressed gender boundaries by producing countless repetitions of icons of American consumer culture, supposedly the domain of women. Although he largely avoided sexual themes in his paintings and sculptures, he incorporated them in offbeat, low budget films, beginning with Blow Job (1963).

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