Fact and Fiction in a Famous Photo
On view in the exhibition Lost and Found: The Lesbian and Gay presence in the Archives of American Art is a photograph by George Platt Lynes taken between 1945–48 of the painters George Tooker, Paul Cadmus, and Jared French in a studio in Greenwich Village. In the foreground Cadmus is in the midst of painting What I Believe, an allegorical picture that, like Lynes’s photograph itself, conjures up an ideal artistic community. (It is currently on view in the exhibition Hide/Seek at the National Portrait Gallery.) Behind him, in the next room, is Tooker at his easel, and in the far distance is French.
Lynes’s picture seems to reveal three kindred spirits harmoniously working in harmony. The only problem with this utopic vision is that, as Tooker wrote me in a letter, the photograph was a fabrication; Tooker never made art in this studio which was shared by Cadmus and French. And yet knowing the fictive nature of the picture does not so much negate its message of artistic community, as make it more complex. Any concept of community has to encompass shared aspirations and disappointments, conflicts and compromises, intimacies and betrayals.
Above all, Tooker’s disavowal of the picture makes us wonder about the precarious position he found himself in that day, consciously posed by Lynes between two older and more experienced artists as if he were a bridge or barrier between them. In fact, Tooker was Cadmus’s current lover, but Cadmus had been lovers with French and, despite French’s recent marriage to the painter Margaret Hoening, Cadmus and French continued to be intimate (supposedly Cadmus once boasted “I had Jerry in the daytime and George at night.”) Apparently neither Tooker nor French were as enthusiastic about the arrangement as Cadmus later claimed to be. Tooker remembered that French refused to shake his hand when they met for dinner in public. Yet, as Tooker himself admitted to me, French’s painting was as crucial as Cadmus’s in forging Tooker’s own personal style.
This story about Lynes’s photograph is a perfect example of why archival material such as artist’s letters are so crucial to the history of art. Without Tooker’s recollection of the circumstance of the taking of the picture we would assume that Lynes’s photograph documented the actual working habits of the three painters.
Artist and art historian, Jonathan Weinberg is guest curator of Lost and Found. He plans to donate his letter from George Tooker to the Archives of American Art.