ANDOVER — “Secrets, Loss, Memory, and Courage: Works by Gay Male Artists” at the Addison Gallery of American Art doesn’t center on the AIDS epidemic. But the disease, and how it catalyzed gay artists, infuses everything.
It’s not that you can anticipate the ravages HIV wreaked in Paul Cadmus’s saucy 1930s drawing “Study for Horseplay,” a locker-room scene in which a nude Adonis preens with his back to us as a buddy snaps a towel toward his beckoning buttocks. In this context, it’s the blithely innocent first scene of a tragedy.
The show features works from the Addison’s collection, including many recent donations made in memory of Phillips Academy alumnus Paul Monette, a clarion voice for gays and AIDS activism in the 1980s and 1990s. He died of complications from AIDS in 1995. The exhibit inevitably frames a story of gay male life in the 20th century, from yearning and closeted to out and proud. The narrative arc resembles a children’s game of crack-the-whip. What begins with small movements gathers force until, with a wild squeal, some kid at the end loses the grip and is flung away.
The small movements, in this case, are signaled by the quiet drawings of George Tooker, who said his work was “only implicitly homosexual, not outwardly so,” according to wall text. The painter, Phillips class of 1936, donated his preparatory drawings to the Addison, including the 1949 “Study for Subway,” a stark depiction of sadness and isolation at an underground station. It revolves around a mournful woman at the center, but to the left, several men tuck singly into isolated compartments. A picture of disconnection.
Cadmus and Tooker were friends, along with Lincoln Kirstein, Chrisopher Isherwood, and the fashion photographer George Platt Lynes. For decades, Lynes made pictures of male nudes but didn’t exhibit them.
His black-and-white photos form a curious group. Several of the male dancers (Balanchine! Robbins!) are sappily romantic and theatrically lit, static and overwrought. However his “Nude Seated Torso,” made in 1954, is unreservedly carnal, an ode to the perfect male form.
This theme of bodily perfection, and with it eternal youth, is anchored by a plumb line that drops through art history to ancient Greece. That classical aesthetic was a force in Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos, and he pushed it to an edge with his extreme formalism. It’s what gave his more erotic and sadomasochistic-themed photographs their charge: Being so gorgeous put their freighted content on a stage that made it acceptable to look at as art. That opened a door many since have walked through.
Gay male artists of Mapplethorpe’s generation showed tremendous grit when they pushed beyond the edges, claiming their sexuality out in the open. This show sidesteps Mapplethorpe’s edgier work, but the velvety silver prints in the “Thomas” series, which depict a lean and muscled black man tensing and posing within the confines of a circle, are to be savored.
Mapplethorpe died in 1989, at 42, from illness related to AIDS. Later that year, the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., pulled out of showing his posthumous exhibit “The Perfect Moment,” due to his explicit imagery.
The bloom was on the rose, and so was the shadow of death. Gay male artists were out, defiantly. In these parts, a group of artists known as the Boston School was taking remarkably candid portraits of friends. One of these artists was Mark Morrisroe, a former prostitute, who died of complications from HIV in 1989, at 30.
Morrisroe’s two types of self-portraits here resonate deeply. One color photo, grainy and ragged, shows him with full lips slightly open, eyes hurt and wary, acne scars on his young face. The other, a diptych, features two X-rays of his chest, a bullet floating in the gray haze near his spine. When he was a hustler, one of his clients shot him. The bullet was never removed. It looks like a time bomb.
David Wojnarowicz, another ballsy artist taken too young, at 37, by AIDS, provides the showstopper. The black-and-white self-portrait “Untitled (face in dirt),” shot when he was already ill, depicts his face emerging from dried rubble and dirt, as if he’s been buried although he’s not quite dead. His eyes are closed and his teeth are bared. It’s a devastating, angry picture, one that says, “I’m still here. You’re not going to get rid of me that easily.”
The show doesn’t end there: Elegies follow, in Eric Rhein’s spare wire-over-paper drawings of leaves; in David Armstrong’s mournful, heart-opening, soft-focus color photographs of trees.
Times have changed. HIV is treatable. Along the road came gay marriage, queer theory, transgender artists, and others who cross sexual boundaries proudly following in the tradition set by Mapplethorpe, Morrisroe, and Wojnarowicz, without the threat of death scouring their populations.
In 2010, a Wojnarowicz video was excised from an exhibit about portraiture and sexual identity at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington following complaints from the Catholic League and members of Congress. Two versions of that piece, “A Fire in My Belly (Film in Progress)” and “A Fire in My Belly Excerpt,” are screened here.
Both are raw, funny, and graceful montages about religion, machismo, and masculinity. A scene of ants crawling over a crucifix, which the artist may have meant as a prod at prominent Christians’ seeming indifference to AIDS, sparked accusations of religious desecration. Was the outcry tinged with homophobia? More than 20 years on, with Wojnarowicz still pushing hot buttons, maybe times haven’t changed as much as we think.
Cate McQuaid can be reached at email@example.com.