Dapper gents in green ties have eyed each other across the galleries of The Metropolitan Museum of Art for over a century. There’s nothing new in that. What’s new these days, green ties long discarded, is that we get to do it among throngs of art aficionados: old and young, fat and fair, straight and gender fluid: all of us perusing a pair of exhibits that embody different aspect of homosexual experience. On a crowded winter morning, it seems the entire world is enthralled by two of our most distinguished, if oddly paired, peers: Michelangelo and David Hockney. Each show is important in specific ways. Together, they provide a contrapuntal vision of how homosexual hands enhance our world, though I don’t recall the word ‘homosexual’ used in either gallery’s extensive notes.
‘Michelangelo: Devine Draftsman and Designer’ (hurry: ends February 12) is a glorious celebration of drawing. Although Michelangelo considered himself first and foremost a sculptor, and the Sistine Chapel ceiling demonstrates masterful painting, Michelangelo’s drawings are also extraordinary. The show inverts our usual sense of finished product; it includes a few sculptures and paintings in support of the drawings, although many of the drawings were originally produced as studies in advance of permanent execution in oil or marble.
The exhibit is not encyclopedic; rather it’s comprehensive within its precinct. It chronicles Michelangelo’s entire drafting career, from apprentice to elder artist, and includes works by his teachers, peers, and apprentices. Since drawing is so often about process, I appreciate the detailed notes about Renaissance production. How pin-prick holes transferred outlines to walls or ceilings when the drawings were pasted in place and rubbed with charcoal; the crosshatch method Michelangelo learned from his master, Domenico Ghirlandaio, and then refined to a higher level; the stylus grooves that were later filled with luminous gouache highlights. These drawings, composed of thousands of staccato lines, rise off their paper, transcending their plane into three dimensions.
The Michelangelo galleries are appropriately dark, the rather small objects spotlighted, the appreciative crowd clustered tight around detailed images of sinewy muscle. For that is subject of Michelangelo’s drawings: men’s muscles. Over, and over and over again. There are a handful of virgins, a few cherubic nymphs, but mostly Michelangelo drew portions of men in shadowy light, not unlike the mid-20th-century photos in magazines like Physique Pictorial. There are occasional faces, and a few hands. But mostly Michelangelo drew buttocks and thighs and torsos and shoulders, all rippling with testosterone. The accompanying notes itemize an equally impressive list of male patrons and companions. The word ‘homosexual’ doesn’t appear in the exhibit, because the term was not coined until the nineteenth century. Also because it would be redundant.
Coming out of Michelangelo’s shadows of insistent scratches rendering incomplete masculinity and entering David Hockney’s brilliant light and saturated colors is fresh, liberating. In the Hockney galleries, the term homosexual is passé, superseded by more recent terms: gay, homoerotic.
David Hockney (hurry slower: on view until February 25) may have been an out gay man since before sodomy was legal in England, and his images may have been inspired by the Physique Pictorial’s that fetishized Michelangelo’s perfect forms, but in truth, David Hockney’s art is not homoerotic. It’s not erotic at all. Two androgynous creatures squirting white stuff from phallic Colgate tubes into each other’s mouths may be Pop Art with social commentary, but it’s hardly erotic. A gigantic painting of a Southern California pool with a lone pair of his recently departed partner’s empty sandals is heart wrenching, Eros removed. A paired portrait of Christopher Isherwood, turning his profile toward his much younger partner while Don Barchardy looks straight ahead without even acknowledging the older man isn’t about erotic charge. It’s about what remains as passion fizzles; it’s about homosexuals grasping for a depth of connection too long denied; it’s about trust, commitment; it’s about fear.
David Hockney is a welcome antidote to Michelangelo. The broad flat colors of Poolside Splash are the perfect foil to Michelangelo’s frenzy detail. Hockney’s drawingsare not an amalgamation of small strokes, they are sinuous lines that reinforce, even celebrate, the two-dimensional medium. David Hockney does not create mass; he illustrates character.
These two shows at the Met also renew my sense of good fortune, to live in a time when it’s (mostly) okay to be homosexual. To loiter among all sorts of people gushing about art derived from a homosexual sensibility, yet still be able to meet the eye of a stranger with a strong chin; parse lips into the faintest smile, nod to one another, and acknowledge without a word, that we belong to the same club.