By Jacob Feige
It’s easy to be overwhelmed at the Barnes Foundation’s Philadelphia space. With each gallery arranged salon style with tens or even hundreds of works according to Dr. Albert Barnes’s (undying) specifications, the amount of art in any given room would likely be displayed in four or five galleries at any other institution. As crowds gather around paintings by Renoir, Cezanne, and Van Gogh, an unlikely confederacy of disinterested spouses, folk art enthusiasts, and agoraphobics lurks on the margins, taking in smaller works by highly notable but non-blockbuster artists. Among these physically peripheral works at the Barnes are inconspicuous watercolors of Vaudeville and circus scenes from the 1910s by Charles Demuth (1883-1935), an artist with whom Dr. Barnes developed a relationship of personal patronage and friendship. Easily missed and slightly out of place, these small gems of color and bygone entertainment are endearingly awkward, full of a strange anemic energy; they are a rare note of levity in an otherwise fairly stern collection. Nearly a hundred years on, Demuth’s watercolors from this period express gender and sexuality in ways that are now an essential aspect of contemporary art practice. The physicality of bodies, androgyny, and abstraction inform one another as they do in works by Kai Althoff and Leidy Churchman, contemporary artists whose projects take on such issues in direct lineage of Demuth.
In Demuth’s Count Muffat’s First View of Nana at the Theatre, a nude figure stands turned away from the viewer, arms confidently on her head. Presumably Nana, her stature and muscular build call to mind Atlas holding the globe more than a demure beauty on the Vaudeville stage. The curve of the theater’s proscenium, represented with a quick slash of color, becomes a warm aura of yellow and brown radiating from her body, as if she gives off energy. A teetering, pudgy man leers at her from the lower right, dwarfed and belittled in comparison to Nana. Perhaps by accident, the man—presumably Count Muffat—is enveloped in a blue haze of watercolor, representative of the tension in these works between loose, playful abstraction and narrative figuration. Nana’s gender isn’t straightforwardly male or female, so Count Muffat’s desire for her isn’t quite gay or straight. Abstraction and off-kilter perspective work in tandem with this ambiguous sexuality, offering viewers a sensual experience set apart from cultural norms, a surprising feat for a hundred-year-old genre painting.
Perhaps it was an interest in popular entertainment that liberated Demuth to take on gender and sexuality in his work of the 1910s. After all, drag was a part of the theatrical productions that he depicted, so his muscular women and thin-waisted men may not have been unusual. Still, sexuality was likely just under the surface at these events, and he made it more overt, if weirder, in his paintings. Bicycle Acrobats shows a woman standing on the shoulders of a man as he pops a wheelie, the bicycle extending out in front of him as an obvious phallus. Both acrobats strike awkward stances, legs akimbo and weight thrown unnaturally to one side. Rich pours of abstract watercolor envelop them as they peddle around the ring, making it difficult to differentiate figure from background. The piece deliberately lacks a center of gravity and straight lines in general. Movement, bodies, and flat color fold together in the characteristic floppy sensibility of this work.
Demuth is now best known as a practitioner of Precisionism—a Cubist-inspired movement of painting in the 1920’s and 30’s glorifying American industry with straight, masculine lines. In the context of these later crisp works, his Vaudeville and circus watercolors made two decades earlier are incongruous and puzzling. The artist’s biography helps to bridge the gap between the small watercolors and the precisionist works: Demuth was a sickly gay painter whose complex relationships to wealth, morality, and masculinity led him to pursue widely disparate projects over the course of his life.
At the same time that he made the Vaudeville and circus works in the Barnes Foundation collection, Demuth made overtly homoerotic paintings that showed clear desire between men—especially sailors. He was a frequent visitor to Turkish baths in New York, where he painted the gay visitors lounging, massaging, and more. He may have been open about his own homosexuality with many of his friends, but he is thought to have been an observer at the baths, participating only through his paintings. His life as an aloof gay artist, equally Lancaster momma’s boy and New York scenester, is strikingly similar to Andy Warhol’s half a century later. Indeed, Warhol—a fellow Pennsylvania native—presumably must have seen Demuth’s watercolors when he made his own early watercolors of shoes and flowers.
In the context of the Barnes Foundation, where Dr. Barnes’s working-class skepticism towards flamboyant intellectualism is still manifest in the wrought iron 18th century hinges hung between paintings, sexuality is mostly an undercurrent in Demuth’s watercolors. What Barnes knew or thought of Demuth’s personal life isn’t part of the historical record. What is known is that, despite their apparently differing personal habits and dispositions, their relationship was a friendship beyond mere patronage. An early postcard from Barnes to Demuth appears to read: “To Phila old man for Gods sake and art sake, Have a Beer No? –Barnes”