"Henry James supposedly said, 'Art historians are to artists as ornithologists are to birds.' And since I'm more of a bird than an ornithologist, I'm doing the talking."
That's American "magic realist" painter Paul Cadmus speaking about himself and his work in David Sutherland's candid film portrait, "Paul Cadmus: Enfant Terrible at 80." The hour-long documentary will be shown at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden tomorrow at noon and 6 p.m.
Sutherland's intimate camera shows us Cadmus in his own world, working in his Connecticut studio and wandering the streets of New York, his ice-blue eyes lively under a shock of steely gray hair. His vigor, humor and talent are undiminished, but there's a strong sense of time pressing in on him. "There are those who think I'm not alive today, but that is their prerogative," he says.
At the first retrospective of his work, in Oxford, Ohio, Cadmus confronts "The Fleet's In," the controversial 1933 painting that made him famous overnight. (Lost for nearly 50 years, it was only recently rediscovered.) While an artist in the WPA, Cadmus painted this grotesque, satiric scene of sailors and floozies having a raucous time on shore. The piece was included in a show of public works of art at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, where it scandalized an admiral who immediately ordered it removed, calling it a disgrace to the Navy. "I owe the start of my career to the admiral who suppressed it," Cadmus says. His work, frankly erotic, often homoerotic, has ever since been identified with controversy -- a later picture, titled "Sailors and Floozies," again stirred up a ruckus, this time at an exhibition in San Francisco.
The Cadmus film is the first of Sutherland's projected 13-part series on New Deal artists, which benefits from the fact that the artists are still around to talk about their lives and work. Cadmus is the sole narrator of this film, and he examines his own work, which merges the mythic with the mundane. Explaining his choice of often lurid subject matter, he says, "People's noses should be rubbed in all sorts of things -- pleasant and unpleasant."
The National Museum of American Art has on display four Cadmus works: the magnificent "Bar Italia" (1955) in the Lincoln Gallery and the "Aspects of Suburban Life" series -- "Polo," "Public Dock" and "Golf" (all 1936) -- in the third floor gallery of work from the Federal Arts Projects.