Statistics are notoriously unreliable markers of historical experience. Their claims to numerical objectivity, to bedrock truth, are ones we have come increasingly to distrust. There are times, however, when a statistic may reveal something else or something more: a snapshot of collective perception, a fragment of otherwise forgotten experience, a part of a history that has not been fully told. Consider the following as a case in point: Paul Cadmus has participated in thirty-seven Whitney Museum Annual and Biennial exhibitions of contemporary art, making him one of the most frequently exhibited artists in the history of that ongoing curatorial project.' Cadmus's repeated, indeed almost serial, inclusion in the Whitney's signature exhibitions of the 1930s, 1950s, and early 1960s marks both the centrality and the longevity of this artist's contribution to twentieth-century art. Until quite recently, however, Cadmus's achievement has been neglected, obscured, even denied outright by historians, critics, and curators of American art, including (paradoxically enough) the Whitney Museum, which declined to mount the artist's 1981 retrospective.
The neglect to which Cadmus has been subject in the past cannot be rectified by compensatory glorifications in the present-by casting the artist, as did one speaker at a recent symposium at Yale University, as a "modern day Michelangelo." Covering Cadmus in the cloak of greatness distorts his career no less dramatically than does dismissing it altogether.2 Rather than frame the artist in terms of either failure or mastery, we might consider the challenge his work presents to conventional understandings of realism, satire, sexuality, and the "modern" with respect to modern American art.
Throughout his career, Cadmus has held artistic allegiances to the erotic idealization of the male body, to the painterly traditions and techniques of the Italian Renaissance, and to the pictorial protocols of social satire. Satire, as a form that "diminishes a subject by making it ridiculous and [by] evoking toward it attitudes of amusement, contempt, indignation, or scorn,"3 would seem singularly ill-suited to the work of eroticization. Yet it was Cadmus's surprising dialectic of satire and the ideal-of denigration and delectationthat enabled him to depict homoeroticism as early as the 1930s, a time when it was virtually invisible within the public sphere of American painting and all but unspeakable within the official discourses of art criticism. Through the combination of seemingly incompatible pictorial modes, of the classical and the contemporary, of the carnal and the carnivalesque, Cadmus wrought an utterly original vision of the human body and the volatile forces of desire that swirl around it. It is this vision which the present essay seeks, however briefly, to consider.
Cadmus's conception of the human form, of its mass and musculature, its mobility and torsion, is inspired by Italian Renaissance artists such as Luca Signorelli, Andrea Mantegna, and Marcantonio Raimondi-artists who were themselves reclaiming the classical forms and themes of antiquity. Yet Cadmus's work is never a simple borrowing of Renaissance sources. Instead, it fuses Renaissance forms with contemporary satire, creating a pictorial dialogue between classicism and American vernacular culture.
The treatment of the foreground figure in Cadmus's Horseplay (1935) (fig. 1), for example, is strongly reminiscent of Agostino Veneziano's Soldier Attaching His Breeches to His Breastplate (1517) (fig. 2). In Cadmus's picture, as in the Venetian print, the muscular body of a young man, framed from behind, assumes a contrapposto stance. With their downturned heads, cocked elbows, and twisting, spread-legged postures, both figures convey a sense of vigorous physicality and convincing athleticism. And in both prints, an act of personal grooming or dressing (the soldier putting on his armor, the young man toweling off) provides the narrative justification for the eroticized exposure of the male body. …