Speaking for Vice -- Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and the First American Avant-Garde by Jonathan Weinberg

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Jonathan Weinberg. Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and the First American Avant-Garde. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993. 260 pp.; 13 color ills., 78 b/w. $40.00

In 1987, during a visit to the Charles Demuth retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art, I happened upon a docent tour of the show. There is only one fact that I now remember about the tour, a fact that has erased whatever other content (or merit) it might have had. The docent concluded, rather abruptly, in the penultimate gallery of the show by noting that she would leave us to "discover" the last room on our own. The final gallery, devoted to erotic watercolors of sailors, was thus divorced from the "official" narrative of Demuth's career. Unlike every other suite of images in the show, the watercolors were displayed without accompanying wall text, an absence that resonated with the docent's silence on the same work. Even as they were exhibited by the Whitney, the pictures of sailors were denied the legitimacy and depth of explication granted to, say, Demuth's Precisionist paintings of industrial architecture or his poster portraits of fellow avant-garde artists. At the very moment when the homosexual content of Demuth's work was admitted into the museum, it was also (politely) overlooked.(1)

It is against such structuring silences, such delicate constructions of the closet, that Jonathan Weinberg advances his new book, Speaking for Vice: Homosexuality in the Art of Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and the First American Avant-Garde. The first published study of either Demuth or Hartley (indeed of any early twentieth-century avant-garde painter) to situate gay desire at the center of its art historical inquiry, Speaking for Vice contests the conventional wisdom that "dwelling on the issue of sexuality, and in particular homosexuality...threaten[s] the integrity of the work of art" (pp. xiii-xiv). Weinberg argues that for selected Demuth and Hartley paintings, the issue of sexual identity, however suppressed by critics or contemporary viewers, was precisely constitutive of pictorial meaning.

Weinberg considers homosexuality in a historically specific way, not as a stable identity or codified set of behaviors but as a practice necessarily veiled in secrecy and suggestion. This applies not only to the biography of each artist but to their painterly production and reception: "One of the prevalent modes of being homosexual in America between the wars was to appear not to be a homosexual....Paintings about homosexuality made use of certain disguises that were meant to be uncovered only by a particular audience" (pp. 18-19). Weinberg is adept at analyzing such disguises, especially when discussing Demuth's work. He argues that pictures that appear openly homoerotic today (e.g., men receiving massages at a Turkish bathhouse or sharing moments of private domesticity) could "pass" as acceptable to a mainstream audience of the time while signaling other or extra connotations to a subcultural one. Those that could not pass under any circumstances, such as Demuth's sailor watercolors (see fig. 1), were never exhibited by the artist. (Figure 1 omitted) If such pictures mark powerful moments of same-sex fantasy and self-inscription (in Three Sailors on the Beach [1930; private collection], Demuth draws his own initials as a tattoo on the biceps of a seminaked sailor),their severely restricted circulation attests the danger of such moments in the interwar period.

In the opening chapter of Speaking for Vice, Weinberg seeks to answer the question, "What exactly did homosexuality mean in Hartley's and Demuth's day?" (p. 3), a question examined through period texts in sexology and psychoanalysis. Such clinical discourses did not, however, neatly coincide with popular knowledge or individual self-conceptions of sexual identity at the time. Weinberg, sensitive to this problem, writes:

One of the difficulties involved in writing the history of homosexuality h being forced to rely on. …