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Before pride parades, Stonewall, the It Gets Better Project, and “Born This Way,” a circle of friends, lovers and artists unabashedly embodied and represented their own homosexuality. This group coalesced around Paul Thek, expressing their identity during a deeply conservative era, as seen in the important and enlightening exhibition Paul Thek and His Circle in the 1950s at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
Looking back to this group of artists, based mainly in New York and Miami, the exhibition both asserts the presence of an out-and-proud gay culture and questions the dominant LGBT narrative of progression from closeted isolation in the 1950s to today’s liberated gay community.
Curated by Peter Harvey, a set designer, member of Paul Thek’s circle, and his former lover, and Jonathan David Katz, who was one of the curators of the heavily praised and unfortunately controversial Hide/Seek: Difference and Desire in American Portraiture, this show presents the early artistic experimentations of Thek and his associates, including photographer Peter Hujar and painter Joseph Raffael.
Perhaps best known for his slightly revolting sculptural “meat pieces” from the 1960s, the assembled works reveal a different side of Thek’s art, one that is decidedly less Catholic and more open about his sexuality. Famously beautiful, Thek worked as a hustler in Miami to support his burgeoning art career in the 1950s.
Like the Hide/Seek exhibition, Paul Thek and His Circle in the 1950s displays a large archive of works from Thek and his associates, which exudes not only youthful artistic discovery and experimentation but also an assertion of their gay identities.
In 1953, President Eisenhower signed Executive Order 10450, which prevented gay and lesbians from serving in the US government in any capacity. Despite the dominance of McCarthy’s Red Scare in the collective memory of the 1950s, more people were discharged from their positions for homosexuality than communism. Not only did the US government bar gays and lesbians from employment, but many states prohibited serving gay and lesbian patrons in bars and restaurants.
Living during this era of persecution, Thek and his circle’s self-representation as gay men becomes even more significant, proving that pockets of gay pride and liberation existed particularly in urban areas (in their case, New York and Miami) despite the real threat of homophobia.
In photographs such as Wilbur Pippin’s gorgeous “Untitled (Peter Harvey and Paul Thek in NYC)” (1956), the intimacy and tenderness between Harvey and Thek is palpable. Through the wide range of photographs and contact sheets in the exhibition, including some of Peter Hujar’s earliest photographs, the relationships between these gay artists seem completely modern and certainly counter to the stereotypical view of the closeted 1950s.
Not only did Thek and his circle represent each other through photographs, they also experimented using each other as models through other artistic mediums. Some of my favorite works in the exhibition were Thek’s delicate figure studies of Peter Harvey, which celebrate the body and presence of his friend and lover.
In addition to representing his friends, lovers and fellow artists, Thek also created drawings and etchings of homosocial scenes such as his “Untitled (Portfolio Fashion Drawing)” (1957–58) with three tanned young men sharing a beach towel. Perhaps the most striking of Thek’s representations of gay imagery is his “Still Life” (1953) in which he seems to reinvent the Garden of Eden or paradise with two men.
Through their photographs, drawings, paintings, and prints, Paul Thek and his circle disrupt the progressive narrative of pre-Stonewall isolation becoming post-Stonewall liberation. These men were undeniably already comfortable with their sexuality without the shame and yearning for community that has become the stereotypical view of pre-Stonewall gay life.
Undeniably, much of their sexual freedom was due to their living in progressive urban centers and their stature in the art world. However, many artists in the 1950s remained in the closet for years, like Jasper Johns.
By curating an exhibition such as Paul Thek and His Circle in the 1950s, both Katz and Harvey have asserted the presence of a gay scene through an archive of this circle that has been largely overlooked by art and LGBT history, though some recent shows, like his retrospective at the Whitney in 2010–11, demonstrate that there is renewed interest in the artist.
Not only is the exhibition culturally significant but it is also important art-historically, allowing viewers to perceive the influences that these artists had on one another in their creative development.
While I have always loved Peter Hujar’s photography and attended Paul Thek’s exhibition at the Whitney, I was particularly struck by the similarities in their work at the Leslie-Lohman Museum exhibition. From Hujar’s interest in animals, the catacombs, and the body to Thek’s meat pieces and his own fascination with the human flesh, their influence on each others’ work is unmistakable, evoking the importance of their relationship and even their sexuality to their art.
Though many of the men in Thek’s circle have, unfortunately, passed away, including Thek and Hujar — both died from complications from AIDS in the late 1980s — their work remains, both for the viewing public as well as art and LGBT historians.