Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
September 19, 2007
Gavin Butt Between You and Me: Queer Disclosures in the New York Art World, 1948–1963 Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2005. 232 pp.; 4 color ills.; 44 b/w ills. Paper $22.95 (0822334984)

The initial premise of Gavin Butt’s Between You and Me is that new ways of looking at the New York art world of the 1950s and ’60s can be found by examining the gossip of queer men within that circle. To many the idea that queer men run the art world, while insatiably gossiping with one another, seems to support homophobic constructions of queer identity. I am relieved to say that Butt presents his material in such a way that the artificiality of such stereotypes is fully acknowledged, occasionally celebrated, but mostly subverted. None of the themes of this book are entirely new; Reva Wolf used gossip to investigate the life and work of Andy Warhol over a decade ago, and the way in which sexuality affected the making and reception of the work of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg has inspired a cavalcade of articles and seminar papers since the entry of queer studies into the academy in the 1990s. Butt’s book, however, looks askance at this earlier material and builds a mature model of queer studies that draws on the pioneering work of the 1990s but adds much more nuanced models of thinking about queer performativity that have emerged over the last decade.

The book begins with a chapter that looks at Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior in the Human Male of 1948, which notoriously revealed that nearly thirty-seven percent of men had had some kind of homosexual experience. Kinsey’s book is seen in the context of McCarthyist suspicion in the immediate post-war years and the concern for legible traces in the subversive’s body that would declare his deviancy. He considers statements made by the undisputedly bigoted artist Thomas Hart Benton, whose grotesque paranoia was focused for a time on a phantasmagoric homosexual conspiracy. Butt goes on to examine photographic representations of artists such as Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollock, with their wives as examples of the way in which self-display was governed by heteronormative conventions.

In the second chapter, Butt delves into the archives of the homophile press of the era in order to examine how artistic traits were characterized as homosexual in their pages. Butt describes articles on Walt Whitman, Michelangelo, and other allegedly queer figures of the past, published in magazines such as One, which were avidly read by subscribers in the 1950s. Butt’s presentation of this material is a real highlight of the book, as it illuminates the often vexed question of what we can learn of the queer audience who might have been viewing painting and sculpture during this decade. These modest publishing endeavors allow us a brief glimpse into the way in which an organized homosexual group was beginning to thrash out its own cultural identity through the voices of the past. This investigation forms the basis of an analysis of the self-presentations of the queer composer Ned Rorem and the painter Johns.

The central chapter of the book focuses on the life and work of the painter Larry Rivers. Butt rescues Rivers from relative obscurity and fashions him into a central, almost paradigmatic, instance of the romantic artist being refigured for the Beat era. In contrast to the canvases of Johns, there is nothing hidden in Rivers’s painting that lays his complex world bare: in his heroically scaled The Studio of 1956 he depicts himself surveying a group consisting of his two sons, his estranged wife’s mother, and his sometime lover the poet Frank O’Hara. Butt performs a visual analysis of a number of key works to show how they can be seen as communicating in a campy, gossipy vernacular—comparable to O’Hara’s poetry. One of the key sources in this account is Rivers’s salacious What Did I Do? The Unauthorized Autobiography (New York: Harper Collins, 1992). This book is a frank, hilarious, and sometimes entirely unbelievable account of the painter’s milieu. Butt treats the (at times gloriously vulgar) anecdotal humor of this text with a touching deftness, giving real drive to the call to preserve seemingly trivial and ephemeral aspects of an artwork’s discursive field.

“Dishing on the Swish, or, the ‘Inning’ of Andy Warhol” is the title of a chapter devoted to the painter perhaps most readily equated with both gossip and the queer underground. Warhol’s extensive catalogue of films made from 1965 onwards—including Blow Job, the sado-masochistic Vinyl, and My Hustler, set in the dunes of Fire Island—established Warhol as a frankly queer voice. The artist’s habit of taping daily conversations in the Factory, the tittle-tattle style of his writing, as well as his obsession with Hollywood stars established him as an unashamed gossip. However, Butt turns instead to the years before his emergence as an art-world star. As is well known, Warhol spent years as a successful commercial artist, making window displays and painting shoes. During this time, Butt argues, Warhol was rejected by the art world as an abject sissy boy, an experience that led him to develop a persona molded on that of Oscar Wilde, a dandy king with a court of admirers.

The final chapter is focused on Johns’s 1955 work Target with Plaster Casts, concentrating in particular on the green plaster cast of a penis that sits in a shuttered box above the painting’s central image. Butt retells the story of Johns’s rise to fame through his exhibition at the Leo Castelli Gallery in 1958, and the purchase by the Museum of Modern Art of three works from that show. Butt recounts the story that Alfred H. Barr would not buy Target with Plaster Casts because the painter refused to allow him to cover the penis cast when the work was displayed. This chapter is greatly enlivened by passages where Butt fills in the blanks and ventriloquizes his protagonists. In parodic purple prose, Butt camps it up—as Barr, Warhol, and Johns—voicing their secret desires and anxieties. The fixation on the penis in each of these passages develops Butt’s reading of the work as a representation of queer desire. Butt moves on to see the empty box, which surmounts the work, as standing for the anus. This chapter provides the kind of over-the-top iconographic reading for which ’90s queer writing has been so heavily criticized, but does so with an ironic and self-effacing air that makes such an analysis considerably more convincing and entertaining.

Overall Between You and Me is written in a clear and entertaining prose style. The author alternates between a masterful academic voice and a conspiratorial, confessional whisper in a manner that is rarely jarring. The book is at its best when looking at individual case studies, which are examined with real care and attention. In contrast, the author’s more sweeping assertions often come undone under greater analysis. To pick one example from the opening chapter, Benton’s comments, which are read as being broadly homophobic, are clearly aimed at a specific homosexual milieu. Those Benton calls the “museum boys” are presumably the circle around James Thrall Soby (who writes a letter in reply to the article by Benton that Butt discusses), Lincoln Kirstein, and Everett “Chick” Austin, who are celebrated in Nicholas Fox Weber’s book Patron Saints (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995). This association is never made explicit by Butt, but it is important. In addition to the distinction of sexuality of these men and Benton, there is also a significant class difference between the effete East Coast boys who met at Harvard and the Mid-Western painter of working life. The question of quite who might be allowed to display the marks of sexuality is a topic broached only tangentially. This is a shame, as the complex issue of Warhol’s ethnic and class background and the way in which they tie into his projection of a “queer” self is handled with great dexterity in a later chapter.

While Between You and Me tells us little that is new about the relationships between the artists, curators, and critics it discusses, the book displays a startling freshness nonetheless. The book, at times, seems to echo the “homophile” magazines that it examines—at the level of desire, through a shared campy sense of humor, and of course through its historical focus on queer personalities. Those magazines are a great pleasure to peruse; it’s the tremendous sense of a real conversation that gives them this quality, happening between subscribers and contributors miles apart as they forge a community together. Butt’s book also speaks across vast distances—here the less surmountable distance of time—however, and particularly through his retention of the period’s humor, he manages to carry on a conversation that this reader was glad to share.

James Boaden
Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London