Books

Born To Be Cheap: Gossip as Queer Art History

9780822334989_p0_v1_s260x420As the saying (and the Keith Richards album) goes, talk is cheap and if talk is cheap, then gossip is even cheaper. If you know anything about the New York art world, then you know that gossip reigns supreme in this unexpectedly small yet hugely competitive industry.  In Gavin Butt’s fascinating and revolutionary Between You And Me: Queer Disclosures In the New York Art World, 1948-1963, Butt elevates this bitchy and queeny mid-20th century gossip to art historical importance.

Wedged between the Kinsey Reports’ release in 1948 and the proliferation of more open discussions about homosexuality in the art world in 1963 as the Sixties began to swing, Between You And Me reveals how gossip may be integral to understanding the place of queer sexuality in the art of the 1950s and 1960s from Larry Rivers to Andy Warhol to Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.

With recent exhibitions such as Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture and the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art’s incredible Paul Thek and His Circle in the 1950s, the queer art world has started mining the years before Stonewall as a source of both study and inspiration. While most assume that queer life before Stonewall was entirely a time of closeted repression and institutional homophobia, these exhibitions and publications such as Between You And Me highlight the coded language and whispered gossip as sites of historical and  genealogical importance to both art and queer history.

Even though queer culture during the mid-20th century is being revisited, research on these queer circles, subcultures, desires and lives continues to be a difficult process, particularly because of the stigma of homosexuality under McCarthyism and the Lavender Scare. Even in the New York art world, which was undoubtedly more liberal and bohemian, as well as inherently connected with queerness in the eyes of many during this period, homosexuality continued to be a taboo subject. As Butt reveals, “to speak of an artist’s homosexuality was to be seen as engaging in a slanderous mode of address” (4) and so gossip became the main means of communication about sexuality and the sexuality of artists in particular.

Jasper Johns, Target With Plaster Casts, 1955, encaustic and collage on canvas with objects (via artchive.com)

Jasper Johns, Target With Plaster Casts, 1955, encaustic and collage on canvas with objects (via artchive.com)

Even though gossip holds an unstable relationship with the truth, gossip and rumor are the main sources of knowledge about queer sexualities in this period, which raises important questions about its importance to art history. How can we understand the importance of sexuality in this period if sexuality can only be hinted at through gossip? Does gossip affect art history? Should it be able to?

According to Gavin Butt, the answer is an unwavering yes. His thrilling book takes a good look at the power gossip has and should have in art historical understanding beginning with the destabilization of homosexual stereotypes by the Kinsey Report.  After connecting queer and artistic identities, Between You and Me dives into specific artists and their relationship to gossip from Larry Rivers’s love of camp to Warhol’s transformation from a swish commercial artist to a dandy-ish art star and finally Jasper John’s art world-horrifying erotic peep show painting, Target With Plaster Casts.

Rivers of Camp

frank

While I enjoyed all of the book and found each chapter enlightening in their own way, I want to focus on one chapter that I found particularly captivating, Butt’s study on the influence of camp on the art of Larry Rivers.

Quite frankly, I was never really a huge fan of Rivers’s work, preferring Andy Warhol’s cold, silver-60s gaze. However after reading Between You and Me, I have a new appreciation for Rivers’s gossipy and thoroughly campy paintings.

Rivers was notable in the 1950s New York art world for two things: his gossipy love life, rumors which he went great lengths to spread himself, and his proto-Warhol celebrity artist persona. As Butt describes, “For what fascinates me about Rivers, and what leads me to take him as a subject for this book, is the way in which he appears as a kind of star persona in the art world where Hollywood values would have been fairly explicitly and routinely reided as superficial and insignificant” (75).

Using Rivers’s own memoir, amazingly titled What Did I Do? as a valuable resource to access Rivers’s artistic vision, Butt delves into Rivers’s place in post-war queer New York, the influence of camp speak on his art and his own sexuality. Identifying as a straight man who had sex with men, Rivers’s same-sex relationships, most notably with poet Frank O’Hara, were, according to Rivers, more connected to his fascination with bohemia and artistic life.

Much of Rivers’s art blatantly revels in his sexual relationships from his beautiful portrait of Frank O’Hara in fuck-me boots to his portrait of his mother-in-law, who, yes, he had sex with (AWKWARD). For Rivers, gossip proved one of his biggest artistic subjects. Even more than a frank depiction of his sex life, Rivers transformed his paintings through linking them with camp.

Frequenting many parties thrown by figures in the queer New York art world such as lesbian painter Nell Blaine, Rivers was inspired by the campy discussions at these parties. Butt quotes at length Rivers’s remembrance one of these conversations at, which is worth re-quoting here for its influence on Rivers and its downright hilarity:

“My Dear I’ve been reading Dostoyevsky’s Raw Youth. It’s marvelous. I found the spirit of the book to be—“

Spirit, my ass,” someone interrupts. “He filched it all from Dickens, who has everything Dostoyevsky has, plus being–“

“What, a social historian? How about the honorable Honore? You’re not telling me that Dickens had more balls than Balzac.”

“Ronald Fibank held more balls than Balzac”

“Where?”

“In a ballroom, honey. Where do you hold balls?

“I don’t hold balls in a ballroom. I hold them in a bedroom.”

“I hold them in a men’s room,” someone chirps up from the end of the couch” (84)

Explaining that camp treads the line between the serious and the trivial, focusing on artificiality and style, Butt finds camp in Rivers’s historical paintings such as his Washington Crossing The Delaware and my personal favorite, his Napoleon portrait, The Greatest Homosexual.

Larry Rivers, The Greatest Homosexual, 1964

Larry Rivers, The Greatest Homosexual, 1964

Unlike the “great” history paintings Rivers sources these images from such as Jacques-Louis David’s neoclassical portrait of Napoleon, Rivers’s historical figures are hazily rendered with the exception of their extremely detailed clothing.  Looking at The Greatest Homosexual, Rivers represents Napoleon standing in a somewhat swishy stance as he juts his hip out.

As Butt details, “It is quite plain, however, that Rivers’s painterly manipulation is not meant as a serious or ‘scurrilous’ accusation. Judging by Rivers’s own words, as well as the work’s title, it appears to me that the painting should perhaps be best taken as a kind of campy observation: ‘Look at her!’ Rivers might be construed as saying ‘Have you ever seen such a big Mary?’ Moreover, when considered in the form of a question (‘If he wan’t history’s Greatest Homosexual who was), Rivers’s painting can be seen to playfully engage with questions of ‘greatness’ in a similar manner to the bitchy infighting at Blaine’s loft about the virtues, whether artistic or erotic, of the great figures of literature” (103).

Queering Art History

Despite being a supposedly liberal field of study, I have always found art history to be very conservative, particularly when it comes to sex and sexual identity. The art historical field, particularly what comes out of universities or major museums, prefers to cling to the ancient notions of the narratives of “great” artists and art that remains independent from both sexuality and popular culture. With his suggestion of using gossip as a means to understand art, Butt throws a much-needed wrench into the art historical machinery, one that privileges hard truths over shakey ambiguous grounds (as if art history wasn’t all subjective anyway).

As Butt reveals, “This leads me into murky epistemological waters indeed. By adding in gossip to the category of evidence, by allowing it to supplement the ‘hard facts’ of history, I offer a rethinking of the evidential which deconstructs the bases of authoritative constructs of truth. This I do by allowing the dangerously supplemental nature of gossip to displace so-called verifiable truths from their more positivistic frames of reference and to render them instead like gossip’s narratives, as projections of interpretive desire and curiosity” (7).

Even though recent exhibitions and publications have begun placing art in conversation with sexual identity, the dominant art historical narrative continues to deny or willfully ignore the sexuality of some of the artists discussed in Between You And Me, particularly the relationship between Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg.  Considering this silence, Butt’s book is a significant step forward and hopefully will be a launching point for queer scholars who want to shake up the field.

As Butt describes, “Insofar as I am hoping to reappraise such degraded forms of meaning here, I hope to bring about a queer turn in the writing of art history” (8).

While I adore the thought of creating a queer turn in art history through the use of gossip, my one main disappointments in the book is that Butt did not focus at least some of his text on women. While admittedly Butt acknowledges the place of lesbians and queer women in the New York art world of this period and the need for a similar study in regards to women, women consistently get glossed over in both the art world and the queer studies, making the history of queer women artists an even more murky and difficult endeavor.

 As I said in the beginning of this never-ending essay, gossip is cheap and as Divine says, “I was born to be cheap.” Hopefully art history was too.
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