The Measure of a Man

As Depression-era art centered on the heroic male figures rebuilding America, Paul Cadmus infused his public work with overt expressions of gay desire.

Then

Paul Cadmus, 1934

New York City

Detail from Paul Cadmus, The Fleet’s In, 1934. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

Then

Paul Cadmus, 1934

New York City

Detail from Paul Cadmus, The Fleet’s In, 1934. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

Paul Cadmus was born into a family of artists on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1904. His mother, Maria, was a book illustrator, while his father, Egbert, was a commercial lithographer and a watercolorist. Neither made a fortune this way; in a 1988 interview, Cadmus recalled the lean times they had living in a tenement building, marked by bedbug bites and malnutrition. Poverty did not dissuade Cadmus from pursuing a career in the arts, though. He cut his high school education short to attend the National Academy of Design in New York—then, at age 19, left without a degree to live in Europe with the artist Jared French, who would eventually become his lover. The pair returned to New York in 1933, where Cadmus joined the ranks of unemployed artists at the Public Works of Art Project—the predecessor to the better known Federal Art Project, Roosevelt’s New Deal job generator for the creative class.

Cadmus stayed at the agency for just a few months in 1934 and completed two paintings, Greenwich Village Café—which, in Cadmus’ own words, depicted a rowdy restaurant filled with “beatniks, delinquents, minor gangsters”—and The Fleet’s In!, a scene showing Navy men on shore leave. In this painting, one sailor appears passed out in the lap of another, who reaches across him to accept a cigarette from a man in a suit, locking eyes with him in a moment that reads as mutual attraction. The painting is executed in what would come to be known as Cadmus’ signature style, with facial and bodily features exaggerated to a sometimes-grotesque degree.

Paul Cadmus, The Fleet’s In, 1934. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

The Fleet’s In! was selected for a 1934 show of Works Progress Administration art at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. However, a photograph of the painting fell into the hands of Admiral Hugh Rodman, who wrote to the secretary of the Navy that the painting was “an unwarranted insult” to American sailors. Rodman’s ire finally reached the WPA, which withdrew the painting from the exhibition. The controversy turned Cadmus into an overnight art star. He started to receive regular invitations to the big fetes at New York’s newly founded Whitney Museum and his work was frequently exhibited, to much critical attention—although those critics often echoed the Navy admiral’s concern that Cadmus highlighted the unsavory aspects of life.

Criticism didn’t keep Cadmus from painting in his exaggerated style, or from creating artworks that were even more overtly homoerotic, depicting idealized male bodies, often nude or in states of undress. The 1938 etching Two Boys on the Beach, No. 1 is based on his own 1936 painting Two Boys on the Beach; both depict two muscular young men relaxing on a waterfront—one naked, the other with his pants undone. By the time he created that painting, Cadmus was a fixture at the gay vacation bastion Fire Island, which likely inspired this scene.

Paul Cadmus, Two Boys on a Beach, No. 1, 1938. Smithsonian American Art Museum © 2019 Estate of Paul Cadmus / Artists Rights Society (ARS), NY

Historically, American men had been encouraged to find self-worth in their capacity to work and earn money for a family. With these options stripped away or drastically reduced for many during the Great Depression, historians often describe this era as a time of identity crises for men. In response, many of the murals and other works created by Federal Art Project artists depict muscular men in overalls: laborers, scientists, and designers, all hard at work making things.

How, in a culture that was scrambling to re-center traditional ideas of masculinity, did Cadmus rise to fame by making homoerotic art? It is possible, posits Tony Morris, an associate professor of art history at Tennessee’s Austin Peay State University, that many audience members simply couldn’t see it. Even many modern day viewers, Morris writes in his doctoral thesis on Cadmus’ work, are surprised when the gay overtones of the artist’s work are pointed out to them. “If the homosexual content is often missed by a 21st century audience,” writes Morris, “it stands to reason that it would have been easy to miss in 1934.” The hidden nature of gay life in the 1930s left many audience members ill-equipped to detect its presence in a painting. When contemporaneous viewers looked at images like Two Boys on a Beach, perhaps some just saw two young, healthy, seemingly carefree men—so unlike many of the men they knew who had lost jobs, or who they had passed waiting in breadlines on the street.

Then

Paul Cadmus, 1934

New York City

Detail from Paul Cadmus, The Fleet’s In, 1934. Courtesy of Naval History and Heritage Command.

Now

Xavier Schipani, 2019

Austin, Texas

Now

Xavier Schipani, 2019

Austin, Texas

Paul Cadmus and I share common interests in our artistic work—namely, in our investigations of identity and “maleness.” As I was transitioning and began “passing” as male, my fascination with embodying a male body—and presenting that body to the world—forced me to explore what masculinity really meant. When Cadmus was making his work in the 1930s, it was groundbreaking, exciting, and sort of risky. It felt natural to delve into Cadmus’ world for this project.

The image I chose as my inspiration—his 1938 etching Two Boys on a Beach, No. 1—made me think about cruising culture and the public spaces that have hosted queer sexual encounters for years, from beaches to bathhouses to dirty night clubs. I think that in a lot of queer male work, there is a male body type depicted that tends to be athletic and strong and fit. In my work, I want to create visible narrative for the trans male body in a way that is desirable, strong, and present. What I am most interested in is presenting a trans male body that exists in the world.

I thought about my own experience as a passing man in the queer community and the lack of representation that sometimes exists for trans men in gay culture. I seek to create a culture in which we ask ourselves, “What makes a man?” and “What type of man do we want to see?” I’ve spoken to a lot of my friends who are trans males, and for a lot of us who transitioned later in life, we already had an idea of what made a man; we just didn’t necessarily have the rules, or the structures of maleness, placed on our own bodies by observers.

I see an opportunity for myself as an artist, and as a man, to act as a steward for those struggling with their masculinity—to create work that is tender and shows alternative forms of strength. It is important to me that men experience love in ways that are vulnerable. Much like Cadmus, I strive to create things that need to be seen, felt, and examined in a timely way. It is very important for me to discover and uncover works from my queer ancestors so that I feel inspired and encouraged to tell my own story, and so I can create a visual history for the trans male body.

Xavier Schipani is an artist operating out of East Austin, Texas. His work explores urgent sociopolitical themes, with a specific focus on sex and gender, and shows how society’s restrictive approach to these subjects causes dysfunction and incites fear. He has participated in exhibitions at MaNay Museum in San Antonio, Lora Reynolds gallery in Austin, New Image Art Gallery in Los Angeles, Superchief Gallery in New York, and Art Basel in Miami.

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