George Quaintance was a revolutionary, and his retrospective, on view at the TASCHEN Gallery in Los Angeles through the end of summer, is a revelation. Quaintance, born at the turn of the 20th century, was a gay man who portrayed an idyllic, queer world decades before Stonewall, the AIDS crisis, or the Miller v. California Supreme Court decision that freed sexually explicit art from censorship on the grounds of “obscenity.” His work is clearly the product of a particular cultural moment: it appeared in so-called “physique” magazines for men, where homoerotic imagery was sanctioned under the pretense that readers were seeking out guidance in bodybuilding and athletic lifestyles.
While the artist’s male subjects tend to be nude, their genitals are always strategically concealed. The politics of these paintings is inherent, clear, and powerful, but neither temporal nor grounded in any specific civil-rights issue. It is directed not toward the state, or legality, but beyond it, toward a genuine pleasure. Quaintance dreams bigger than gay assimilation into a flawed world; he dreams of utopia.
The artist’s dramatic oil paintings, produced throughout the 1940s and ’50s, are only now making their public debut (alongside ink drawings by Quaintance’s famous successor Tom of Finland and playfully seductive photographs by Bob Mizer). These works are often allegorical or mythological in nature. Tapping into an ancient masculinity and a socially accepted outlet for physical interactions between men—violence—many of his subjects, like those in Egyptian Wrestlers (1952), struggle with each other or, as in Hercules (1957), with animals. In Orpheus in Hades (1952), a pink-lipped, turquoise-eyed devil caresses a young man plucking at a lyre. All of these idealized characters have slicked-back hair, huge muscles, and shiny, hairless bodies; they would fit in on a California beach as easily as the stars of Baywatch.
Quaintance, who was also a Vaudeville dancer, hair stylist, and elite portrait artist, worked out of his home in the Arizona desert—a Western paradise called “Rancho Siesta” where he and his friends could live and lust and love. Paintings like Morning in the Desert (1951), Night in the Desert (1951), and Siesta (1952), in which denim-clad men play music, lounge, bathe, and light each others’ cigarettes, illustrate their sensuous, forbidden world.
His oeuvre is as chock full of cowboys and ranch hands as it is with figures from Greek mythology; but while Hercules fights with his hands, the desert-dwelling outlaws fight with their beauty, their self-indulgence, their commitment to queer sex and community. In Pyramid Builders (1952), Quaintance paints two chiseled men hoisting a stone up the side of a classical building—famously, slaves’ work. They bear a heavy weight, but retain a kind of California levity. They lay the foundations of the pyramid so that we might climb it. Like Quaintance, they are legendary and heroic.