Hans-Joachim Müller in conversation with the director of the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart Dr. Ulrike Groos and the curator Dr. Anne Vieth.
On December 2, the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart will be opening the first large-scale solo exhibition on the work of the American painter Patrick Angus. These pictures with their intimate insights into New York’s gay scene are little known for the most part. The artist, who died of AIDS in 1992, has only gained international attention since the Stuttgart Galerie Thomas Fuchs began representing his estate. In the midst of the exhibition preparations, we spoke with the director of the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart Ulrike Groos and the curator Anne Vieth.
Patrick Angus’s work is still largely unknown in Europe, even though a quarter century has passed since the artist’s death. Why has the art trade, which otherwise eagerly awaits every new discovery, been so reticent?
Ulrike Groos: Among other factors, it also has something to do with the fact that his work was hardly known during Patrick Angus’s lifetime. There were only a few people who were interested in them, and with the exception of few texts, paintings and drawings, nothing is published. He has occasionally been showed in recent years, sometimes a few pages in a prestigious art magazine have been devoted to him, sometimes a positive article in the arts section of one of national papers, but he then falls back into oblivion again. There was a certain timidity about occupying oneself with this oeuvre. But the situation has changed a great deal since the estate has been represented by the Galerie Fuchs in Stuttgart. I was also very positively surprised about the great enthusiasm that greeted the first Patrick Angus exhibition. In the meanwhile, the gallery has brought works to Germany from the United States via the trustee of the estate as well as the family and published them here, which has considerably increased the familiarity with his work. But there are still many unanswered questions and we are in the middle of the reappraisal of his oeuvre. We are very curious about how visitors will react to our exhibition.
Leafing through the exhibition listing, it becomes evident that the painter did not even have any really representative shows in America either.
UG: I think that is a typical American phenomenon. Many important American artists had their first major exhibitions in Europe. Think about Carl Andre or Dan Graham, for example. The initiation for the theme of African-American artists even came from Europe, not least through our exhibition “I Got Rhythm. Art and Jazz since 1920,” in which numerous works by Afro-Americans were on show. It is apparent that such impulses from Europe are necessary for America to reflect on its own history.
Anne Vieth: It is also important to see his work in the context of time. During Angus’s lifetime, an artist like Felix Gonzalez-Torres with his new concept of art appeared “more progressive” than a painter who dealt with the subject of homosexuality in a rather intimate descriptive manner and did not, like Gonzalez-Torres or General Idea, occupy himself artistically with the AIDS catastrophe.
Patrick Angus belonged to New York’s gay scene at a time when it was not easy to admit one’s homosexuality. How is this inner conflict reflected in his painting?
UG: He depicts the private places, the strip clubs, movie theatres, saunas, bathhouses—the milieu’s intimate corners and niches. What appears in these paintings with a great degree of honesty is the gay world that fights for tolerance, recognition and self-determination. And Patrick Angus’s work is especially concerned with the desires and fears that marked the scene.
These paintings reveal little about the misery of marginalization, about the necessity of going underground and living on society’s edge, and especially about AIDS.
AV: There is a tension-filled ambivalence in his work that I have not yet been able to completely resolve for myself. Angus documents the gay scene very directly and from up close, and there is no lack of drastic extremes in his depictions. But he did not capture the most dramatic development in the context of the gay scene at that time. AIDS was truly a traumatic watershed for the scene. You have to keep in mind that many men suffered from it and the illness left visible traces, also in the clubs and bars that the artist frequented. Angus entirely blocks out this reality. While he did not shy away from immediacy in his depictions, he also negated something very crucial. Perhaps this was due to his own HIV infection. From conversations with his contemporaries we were able to come to the conclusion that Patrick Angus was not a homosexual activist and did not actively participate in the emancipatory movement of that time.
UG: It was obviously more important for him to sensitively and empathetically capture intimate situations. He sometimes depicts very moving moments, particularly in the drawings, for example when a “Lonely Boy” (the title of one of his works) sits alone at the bar while couples are coming together all around him. That is a recurrent theme in his work, the forlornness of the lonely and their failure to find love. We do not know for sure why Angus did not concern himself with the AIDS catastrophe in his art. There is a self-portrait in which one can imagine that he wants to depict the illness and hence the associated physical changes. The topic of AIDS is otherwise not addressed.
A bourgeois stolidity is frequently noticeable in these works. Parents in the dining room, Tom and Rob Stuart playing the piano and reading a book. Something like a melancholic peace hovers over his oeuvre.
UG: He himself left home and moved to Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and then later New York at the relatively early age of 21, but he was familiar with bourgeois life through his parents, whom he often visited and lived with again for a while when MoMa, where he was working, closed for a few months. His interior studies, genre scenes and landscapes exude a great idyllic atmosphere. I believe that one would not be amiss in thinking that it is here in particular, where he discovered the longing for bourgeois forms of homosexual relationships. Patrick Angus apparently did not have a long-term partner for quite a while. But when someone confessed his love, he was already sick and could only respond: “I have it. Too late.”
AV: Unlike Otto Dix, for example, who was driven by a Nietzschean transfigured lust and a Dionysian force, Angus depicted desire as a genuinely human moment. He was homosexual, but man or woman is not the decisive theme. He was concerned rather with longing, love, jealousy, sadness, with interpersonal relationships. There is no work that accentuates the uncontrollable physical desires of the sexual.
Looking through the illustrations, one must ask whether his work developed in some way over time.
UG: We are still in the process of ordering his oeuvre. It is clearly evident that his special visual language developed over time as regards motif and a style is founded on bold colors and raw realism. One can very clearly demonstrate, for example, how he took up typical neo-expressive elements of painting from the nineteen eighties with its angular formal vocabulary. Especially the public in the clubs is sometimes shown with grotesque features; Angus does not shy away from depicting the ugly. And changes in his drawings are also very noticeable. There is a development from the early works in which Patrick Angus still worked directly from the model to the drawings characterized by an angular statuesque style that dissolves expressively at the end, increasingly allowing for color.
What role did the encounter with David Hockney play in this context?
UG: David Hockney was his great model. Angus was familiar with his work and was particularly impressed by his 1971 book “72 Drawings by David Hockney” that we will also be showing in our exhibition. The young naked men, the interior scenes, there are numerous motifs that also reappear in an altered form in Patrick Angus work. It is conspicuous, however, that Hockney likewise depicted a rather harmonious picture of homosexuality, more discreet and withdrawn than Angus did. The two painters knew each other and Hockney purchased six paintings by Angus shortly before his death. These works will also be on view at the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart.
AV: The relationship is quite evident in one particular painting in which Angus draws on Hockney’s famous swimming pool motif with its very subtle allusions to homosexual passion. Angus integrates such a pool scene into his depiction of a gay movie theater. The audience is sitting in the rows of seats and staring mesmerized at the movie screen on which one can see the intimate encounter between two young men at a swimming pool. This motivic appropriation and reference is cleverly done because he does not simply copy Hockney but develops instead his own pictorial motif. It is an homage to his role model.
Angus’s work is figural to a considerable extent. But with the exception of his few park or bathing scenes, the landscapes are mostly devoid of people.
UG: The idyllic character is indeed evident in the landscapes. Many are probably places of longing, perhaps also the sites of memories accompanying the gay thematic.
AV: At the same time, it also concerns his occupation with well-known artistic genres. Angus explored the history of art for himself and referenced traditional landscape painting, for example the “inner landscape” that does without figures for the most part.
In the 1980 painting titled “Moma Angus Picasso,” the painter is very obviously dealing with museum experiences. What was his occupation with art history like? Who were his art historical heroes?
AV: We know that Angus worked at MoMa and had access to the collections. Aside from Hockney, Pablo Picasso was a model and source of inspiration. Visiting an exhibition of Picasso’s works was a real revelation for Angus. His drawings provide much evidence of the artist’s dealings with art history, his experiments with different styles and approaches. Aside from academic-style studies, there are drawings executed in free expressive lines as well as depictions that are worked out down to small details. You can literally sense how Angus cuts through motif and style and faces their challenges.
Did Patrick Angus every make any self-critical comments about his works? Or at least about his situation, in which he must have felt isolated as a representational painter in the nineteen eighties, at least far removed from the hype trends of the American scene?
AV: We know of none, in any case. No statement or writings about his works have been preserved.
And how was he perceived by his colleagues?
UG: We still know too little about that. The few articles dealing with his works were published in gay magazines, by all means larger accounts with numerous illustrations. Otherwise, there was hardly any resonance on the part of journalists or art critics, to say that least. We were surprised that someone who worked in a large New York museum and knew David Hockney was unknown, or whether there was perhaps a form of exchange, a networking or meetings with the artists of his generation.
This is why we see our exhibition as the starting point for hopefully many future research and exhibition projects.
AV: For example, we would like to know whether he exchanged works. This would enable us to reconstruct his contacts. But nothing is known about this, either.
This is going to change now; the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart is organizing the first large-scale exhibition of Angus’s works to be shown anywhere. Put briefly, what is it about this oeuvre that interests you?
UG: Not least the theme of homosexuality, the dealing with gender identities that is still controversial today despite the cultural progress society has made. One should recall, for example, the protests and demonstrations that took place here and around Stuttgart against the plan to introduce sexual diversity to the curriculum of the schools in the state of Baden-Württemberg. Emotions are still running high, as one could see in the debate on marriage equality. Marriage between one man and one woman is still often viewed as the sole form partnership. All the more reason to exhibit the work of Patrick Angus along with the subject of homosexuality around which it revolves. AIDS, which Angus died of and was one of the worst catastrophes in the nineteen seventies and eighties, has still not yet been conquered and is thus socially significant. For a variety of reasons, we are looking forward to see what the exhibition’s reception will be like.
AV: The collection of the Kunstmuseum Stuttgart furthermore encompasses many powerful works of art, both abstract and figural. Angus fits in with them. I also find it great that a museum can provide the opportunity for an aesthetic encounter in dealing with relevant social themes that one should not and cannot evade.
The interview was conducted by Hans-Joachim Müller.