Men like Andy Warhol, David Hockney and Keith Haring get brought up so often in discussions of gay artists that they overshadow others who have profoundly shaped modern art as well. Here we highlight 15 gay painters who equally deserve recognition, and we’ve also provided info on where to see their work, plus links to where you can read more about each one’s gay identity and its impact upon their work.
Slimming the list down to just 15 gay painters wasn’t easy. The world of visual art is vast, featuring videographers, photographers, installation artists and sculptors. So we stuck with painters as a way to narrow our scope.
But even with that narrowed scope, it can be tough to identify gay artists. Some keep their sexual identities private rather than risk pigeonholing themselves as “a gay artist.” Other artists, like Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg (who had a six-year relationship together), have been posthumously closeted by galleries — and even their own dealers — in hopes of attracting potential big buyers. Even in the supposedly liberal art world, homophobia still rears its ugly head.
And while many people consider artists like Michelangelo and Caravaggio to be gay, homosexuality didn’t exist as a distinct sexual identity during their lifetimes, making us hesitant to label them as such even though they both undoubtedly desired men.
In the interest of education, we’ve excluded some bigger name artists who have gotten plenty of press, a few of which we’ve listed above and others, like illustrator J.C. Leyendecker, who we’ve mentioned before.
1. Francis Bacon (1909 – 1992)
Irish painter Francis Bacon is as cheery as a lightning storm, and often as shocking. His dark, sombre portraits brood over the themes of male identity, isolation, the passage of time and death. We especially love his many paintings of popes trapped in space cages, screaming and surrounded by sides of beef. Bacon’s unapologetically gay life, spent drinking with his longtime rogue companion George Dyer, forms the basis of the 1998 indie film, Love is the Devil.
Several of Bacon’s best works are on exhibit at the UK’s various Tate museums.
2. Jean-Michel Basquiat (1960 – 1988)
Basquiat dropped out of school in 1975. The next year, he was spray painting messages around New York City’s Lower East Sideas as his artistic alter-ego SAMO (as in “same old shit”). This graffiti sensibility wound itself into his later artworks which incorporated paint, text, images and mental map collages that questioned oppressive social structures through a hip-hop remix of words and symbols.
The works of Basquiat are on view at contemporary art museums around the world, including The Broad in Los Angeles, Barcelona’s Museum of Contemporary Art, The Daros Collection in Zurich, Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, the Soho Contemporary Art gallery in NYC and Pittsburg’s Andy Warhol Museum.
3. Luis Caballero (1943 – 1995)
A Colombian painter, Caballero’s works depict masculine figures in poses of violence and passion. Many of his artworks contain biblical themes: wrestling angels, bodies contorted in ecstasy and men worshipping one another. Of his own work, he has said that his paintings contain “everything I’ve ever painted: man alone, alive, dead, suffering, loving, both beautiful and terrible, and his relationship with other men, framed by desire or compassion; and also my feelings: adoration of beauty and strength and when faced with fallen strength.”
4. Paul Cadmus (1904 – 1999)
Cadmus gained infamy through his irreverent and highly sexualized paintings of tight-bodied American sailors drunkenly pursuing female sex workers. His 1934 painting The Fleets In! showed a sailor accepting a cigarette from a gay man; a retired U.S. naval officer got the painting pulled from a national exhibition, and Cadmus himself received death threats for days afterwards. Cadmus responded to the controversy by saying, “The Navy brass who are so angry must govern an Alice in Wonderland navy dream world, they should take a stroll along the drive at night when the fleet’s in port.”
Another famous painting of his, Sailors and Floozies, can be seen at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York City.
5. David Dashiell (1952 – 1993)
The grandson of famous crime writer Dashiell Hammett (author of The Maltese Falcon) was born in Japan and became best known for “Queer Mysteries,” his 8-by-192-foot Plexiglas panoramic mural. Its 28 separate panels depict a strange ritual initiation into an alien sexual cult. Critics have compared it to Pompeii’s Villa of the Mysteries frieze that shows the initiation of a young woman into a mysterious cult. Both artworks capture the excess of secret societies on the verge of destruction, though Dashiell’s takes a more sci-fi, tongue-in-cheek approach.
Queer Mysteries is part of the permanent collection of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
6. Beauford Delaney (1901 – 1979)
Delaney moved to New York in 1929 to experience the Harlem Renaissance and began his career by painting portraits of “New York socialites, black leaders, jazz musicians and the people of Harlem.” He also did several portraits of gay black author James Baldwin. Over time, he developed a modernist sensibility using representational figures in his streetscapes. The Smithsonian American Art Museum praised Delaney’s “lyrically expressive style that drew upon his love of musical rhythms and his improvisational use of color.”
You can see some of Delaney’s work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington, D.C.
7. Thomas Eakins (1844 – 1916)
Best known for his 1875 painting The Gross Clinic — a work depicting the public dissection of a human body — historians have long debated whether Eakins was actually gay or just insatiably horny; his childless marriage and constant companionship with sculptor Samuel Murray both suggest homosexuality, but his desire to draw nude women in his studio suggests a more complex sexual identity.
In his time, Eakins deliberately provoked his viewers and art students by forcing them to consider the nude male form. Several of his works show groups of mostly nude men swimming, wrestling and boxing.
Some of Eakins’ gayer paintings are viewable at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
8. Gilbert & George (1942 – current)
Gilbert Proesch (born 1943) and George Passmore (born 1942) met in 1967 while studying sculpture at art school. The two immediately fell in love and, it is said, have rarely appear in public without the other ever since.
Even though their brightly colored photo-based artworks have been called homoerotic, the duo told The Guardian in 2012 that their work is just “erotic.”
“Sex is just sex,” they said. “When you ask for a steak in a restaurant you don’t ask whether it is a girl or a boy.” The two married in 2008.
We don’t know of any current major exhibitions showcasing the work of Gilbert & George, but major showcases have taken place in San Francisco, London, Munich and Turin in the past decade.
9. Marsden Hartley (1877 – 1943)
When he moved to Paris in 1912, Hartley joined the social circle of celebrated lesbian artist Gertrude Stein. Soon after, he fell in love with German lieutenant Karl von Freyburg and moved to Berlin. After Freyburg died fighting in World War I, Hartley painted “Portrait of a German Officer” in his memory. Though Hartley continued painting until the end of his life, his later work took on a more regionalist Central American feel with a distinctly Expressionist edge, using bright, emotional color fields and religious themes.
You can view “Portrait of a German Officer” at New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
10. John Singer Sargent (1856 – 1925)
Sargent initially came to prominence as a Victorian-era portrait artist, but it wasn’t until later that art critics discovered his little-known collection of male nudes and realized his penchant for painting women in ways that challenged traditional gender roles.
Art News writer Patricia Failing wrote that “when Andy Warhol was shown Sargent’s study of male bodies for the mural of Hell, he immediately pronounced it a ‘gang bang.'” Failing also said that, despite rumors of Sargent’s voracious gay sex life, Sargent’s work can easily be read as having an appreciation of male bodies and fear of women that is heterosexual. Either way, she says, reducing them to sexual biography misses their rich complexity.
You can see some of Sargent’s work at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York City.
11. Hubert Stowitts (1892 – 1953)
Not many images of Stowitts’ artwork exist online, but the American artist is most famous for his 55 paintings of nude male American Olympians created for the 1936 games in Berlin. According to The Stowitts Museum, “the depiction of Black and Jewish athletes … offended Nazi sensibilities and the notorious Alfred Rosenburg (a Nazi government official) closed the exhibit.”
Stowitts was also an accomplished dancer who toured the world with Anna Pavlova, an accomplished Russian ballet dancer who formed the first troupe ever to conduct a world tour.
You can view more about Stowitts work at The Stowitts Museum and Library in Pacific Grove, California.
12. Henry Scott Tuke (1858 – 1929)
Tuke’s Impressionist paintings of young boys playing on waterfronts are bright, beautiful and innocent, evoking young male nudes from Ancient Greece. But they’re also way pre-pubescent in a way that may make modern gay audiences a little uncomfortable. Nevertheless, they encourage viewers to consider the sexual being of young children.
During his own lifetime, Tuke seemed reluctant to discuss his homosexuality with psychoanalysts but still hung out a bit with Oscar Wilde and other Uranian artists who believed that artists should create enclaves that stand distinctly outside of mainstream culture.
You can view some of Tuke’s work at the Royal Academy of Arts Collection in London, England.
13. Martin Wong (1946 – 1999)
Chinese-American painter Martin Wong combined neo-Expressionism, graffiti and late Conceptualism (that is, the belief that an artwork’s ideas are more meaningful than questions about its materials).
Four years before dying from HIV-related illnesses, Wong created Iglesia Pentecostal Mansion de Luz, a shadowy photograph of a Pentecostal church dipped in blood. The Stranger commented on the work, saying, “He did it in 1985 … the year the FDA licensed the first commercial blood test to detect antibodies to HIV, the year Rock Hudson died of AIDS, the year President Reagan mentioned AIDS publicly for the first time, the year the U.S. military started blood-testing all recruits to reject those with HIV.”
During his lifetime, Wong wore cowboy outfits and a handlebar mustache while hanging around New York’s East Side. His works of black and Latino men often incorporated backdrops of bricks and prisons.
You can view his work at the PPOW Gallery in New York City.
14. Kehinde Wiley (1977 – present)
This African-American artist has long photographed black men and women from countries with histories of colonialism or slavery, posing them in ways that recreate poses from famous white portraits. He then paints and titles his contemporary reinterpretations after the works that inspired them.
Often his subjects seem to pop-out from their floral backgrounds and that’s precisely the point: Black people have been pushed into the background for far too long. Wiley makes them stand in the foreground where they can’t be ignored.
You can catch Wiley’s work right now as part of the exhibit Kehinde Wiley: A New Republic, staged at the Toledo Museum of Art through May 14.
15. Grant Wood (1891 – 1942)
We love the fact that the guy who painted “American Gothic” — the painting that most embodies America’s austere and puritanical ruralism — was himself gay. While Wood initially pursued Impressionism, especially during his time living in the gay-friendly cities of Paris and Munich during the late ’20s, he eventually switched to a more rural regionalist style upon return to his conservative home state of Iowa.
Throughout his career though, he drew two male nudes, a somber portrait of his beloved art assistant Arnold Pyle and incorporated subtle gay motifs into his works (like hillsides that resembled male buttocks).
You can see the largest collection of Wood’s works at the Cedar Rapids Museum of Art in Iowa.