ON JULY 24, openly gay artist Delmas Howe’s painting The Three Graces goes on permanent display at the Albuquerque Museum. The acquisition and exhibition by a regional museum of work by an artist living in the region may not seem particularly momentous. But in the contemporary world, where art—especially gay-themed art—sometimes comes up against politics in an unpleasant and censorious fashion, the event is in its own way noteworthy.
The theme of the Three Graces in art reaches back to ancient Greece. Most often, in Greek myth and literature, they were identified as the daughters of Zeus and the nymph Eurynome, named Aglaia (Splendor), Euphrosyne (Mirth), and Thalia (Good Cheer). They presided over pleasurable social events like banquets and dances, bringing joy and goodwill to gods and mortals alike. They have been celebrated in sculpture and painting ever since. The Graces have been famously portrayed in the sculpture of Thasos and Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux, and in the paintings of Rafael, Peter Paul Rubens, and Jean Louis David.
Howe’s The Three Graces inverts the myth by replacing the female figures with those of men, and updates it with the cowboy imagery of the contemporary American West. The painting isn’t sexual—the men aren’t even naked, as the female Graces so often were—but there is an unmistakable homoerotic subtext—from the conspicuous crotches, to the well-defined muscles and torsos, to the cocky and provocative stances of all three figures. Such homoeroticism intends not just to invert, but to subvert, the subject matter of it sources in Greek myth and cowboy art.
Howe is thoroughly familiar with both art history and the gay male world. A native of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico (a small town in the south-central part of the state, known mostly for its distinctive name, which it adopted in the early 1950s at the behest of a TV game show of the same name looking to promote its image), he lived in New York City during the 1960s and 1970s, where he studied art and art history and started his career as an artist. He also spent those years exploring New York’s gay world, much of it underground until the June 1969 Stonewall riots in the Greenwich Village.
In the late 1970s, he moved west again, first to Texas then back to Truth or Consequences, to care for his aging parents and “get back to my roots,” he said. “I painted The Three Graces while living in Amarillo. I wanted to put something of the Southwest in my work, both its vivid colors and its iconography.” That meant blue skies filled with cumulus clouds, desert landscapes, cowboys, and rodeos. But the Southwest wasn’t his only inspiration. “I’ve had an interest in Greek and Roman myths since I was a child,” he said “so I decided to combine Southwest iconography with the classical mythology I loved as a kid.” The Three Graces was the first painting in what would become his Rodeo Pantheon series.
The fusion of cowboy iconography with classical myth is not as strange as it may seem. Greek legends are filled with the heroic actions of divine and semi-divine beings, while rodeo celebrates the cowboy’s feats in dominating nature. While some see rodeos as brutal sport and animal abuse, anyone who’s ever attended one can attest to their underlying erotic quality. For Howe—who as a youngster was no stranger to rodeos—the rodeo experience was a homoerotic one.
In the foreword to a 1993 monograph on Howe’s series, Rodeo Pantheon: Paintings by Delmas Howe, British photographer and art historian Edward Lucie-Smith described Howe’s art as “a new species of polemical avant-garde art.” The polemical part is not hard to see. Most rodeo fans would be unlikely to welcome any suggestion of homoerotic undercurrents in bull and bronco riding or calf roping, let alone in the usual cowboy garb of jeans, boots, Stetson hats, and large silver belt buckles. Nor would they be too happy with paintings of naked cowboys in the arena carrying titles like Zeus Riding the Bull, Zeus and Ganymede, and Theseus and Perithous at the Gates. Howe had intentionally produced a novel and provocative interpretation of rodeo dynamics (part of what Lucie-Smith meant by using the term “avant-garde”), reflecting his own experience attending rodeos—an interpretation with which many people outside a gay audience might feel uncomfortable.
Here is how Howe’s work meets politics: by reinterpreting the world from a minority point of view, in a way that causes the mainstream world to sit up and take notice. Howe wasn’t alone in producing such art. As Lucie-Smith pointed out, “One of the most significant developments in new art during the past decade [1983-1993], especially in the United States, is the way in which it has become an increasingly effective conduit for minority opinion….The return to content, so marked a feature in very recent art, has largely been the work of minority spokespersons.” Howe’s work has piggybacked on, and is a part of, the gay/lesbian/bisexual/transgender (GLBT) political movement of the last forty or so years. His paintings, in one sense, are a political assertion of the right of gay people to occupy their share of a cultural space hitherto denied them.
The story of how The Three Graces came to be acquired by the Albuquerque Museum illuminates another aspect of the politics of gay art. Howe originally sold the painting to a gay art collector from a New York gallery in 1979. “Then I lost track of it,” he said. “A while back, I got a call from a man who said the buyer had died years before, and the caller had inherited the painting.” The inheritor kept the painting under his bed and, with no intentions of hanging it, offered to return it to Howe. “Did I want it back? I said yes and paid for shipping it to my studio here in Truth or Consequences.”
It was hanging on Howe’s wall when he was paid a visit in the fall of 2010 by Albuquerque Museum Curator of Art Andrew Connors. Connors recognized the painting at once from an illustration in a 1980 book by Lucie-Smith, Art in the Seventies. “He was amazed to see it hanging there,” Howe said. “He told me, ‘That’s a painting I’ve admired since I was in high school. I’d like to have it in the collection of the museum.’ So I said the museum could have it.”
Connors repeated the same story, but had an additional explanation for why he thought the painting was important enough to be acquired and exhibited by the Albuquerque Museum. “One of the major problems in the art world, and particularly in mainstream art museums,” he said,
is that most exhibitions are presented either as mainstream, that is to say “real” art, or ethnic or gay/lesbian art, which is another category. But the world isn’t divided up that way….Audiences visiting museums aren’t just mainstream, they’re the entire world, and they all deserve to see themselves represented in the museums they visit….[T]he story about the United States, for example, becomes much more interesting, intriguing, and inspiring than we’ve been led to believe when we incorporate a work like The Three Graces into the story….Everybody carries around the stereotype of the brave cowboy as Marlboro Man. Yet that stereotype usually does not include the knowledge that the first cowboys were the Spanish-speaking vaqueros. It doesn’t include the knowledge that there were African-American cowboys, and probably [as portrayed in the 2005 movie Brokeback Mountain] gay cowboys as well. The painting by Delmas allows us as a museum to open up the story of the cowboy once again and show that history is more interesting and diverse than we’ve been led to believe. I’d go so far as to say that having a multitude of stories told through the art in a museum provides the opportunity for every viewer to get closer to what it means to be human.
Or, to borrow a Marxist term for a non-Marxist argument, exposure to diversity helps overcome the alienation from which we all suffer as members of a fragmented and fragmenting social order.
But Connors did not acquire The Three Graces solely for its political, social, or educational merits. “Contemporary art is very rarely spoken about in terms of aesthetics,” Connors told me. “It’s usually discussed in terms of content: its referents, its story-telling ability, or its provocation ability. Delmas certainly does that in his work. But he is really an exquisite Baroque, and even more a rococo, painter.” Connors loves “the fact that he fills every part of his paintings with color, landscape, wonderfully elaborated clouds. The patterning is astounding in Delmas’s work. The Three Graces is very much a 1970s rococo painting.”
In the 1990s, the Albuquerque Museum had turned down an offer of another Rodeo Pantheon painting. No official reason was given, but, according to Howe, rumor had it that it was rejected because he was openly gay. This time around, however, Connors ran into no opposition. He “was flooded with positive comments” about the acquisition when he presented The Three Graces to the museum’s staff and major donors. This undoubtedly reflects a regime change at the museum over the last ten or fifteen years, but it may also have something to do with the current national climate in regard to gay rights. The discriminatory “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy is no longer being enforced, and marriage equality seems to be gaining ground. In a sign of these times, in 2006 Howe received the New Mexico Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.
Whatever the explanation, Delmas Howe’s art goes on permanent display with a distinguished roster of paintings in the Albuquerque Museum’s collection, representing New Mexico’s rich artistic tradition: the museum has works by John Sloan, Georgia O’Keeffe, John Marin, Larry Calcagno, Earl Stroh, Judy Chicago, Ernest L. Blumenschein, Andrew Dasburg, Fritz Scholder, and Larry Bell, among many others. His art seems at last to be entering what could be called the “narrative” not just of American western art, but of Western art in general. Like other gay artists before him—Michelangelo, Caravaggio, Francis Bacon—his work can be appreciated on its aesthetic merits without the mote of homophobia in the eyes of many viewers and curators of the past. It’s at such a point that art can begin enlarging viewers’ experience of, in Andrew Connors’ words, “what it means to be human.”
More on the art of Delmas Howe can be found at www.delmashowe.com.
Lester Strong is Special Projects editor for A&U magazine. He is a regular contributor to the Gay and Lesbian Review, and his writings on the visual, written, and performing arts have appeared in many publications, including Out magazine, the New Mexico Historical Review, and the South Dakota Review.
Image: Delmas Howe, The Three Graces, 1978, oil on canvas, 60 x 36 in. Courtesy of the Albuquerque Museum of Art and History.