Friday, October 8, 2010

The Art and Life of Blade (Neel Bate)


The Art and Life of Blade (Neel Bate)
by Jim Eigo
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I've sometimes thought the basic motive behind most art is the artist's desire to rescue something he holds important from the depredation of time. The futility of that task lends even the silliest art a shred of nobility and dooms even the greatest to failure. Of all human acts, none would seem more resistant to preservation than sex, that messy, exalted, degrading, physical and psychological interchange between two human beings (or, on occasion, among more). The act is too immediate, rooted in too many senses and in different psyches, invested by humans with too much freight for it to ever be adequately captured on a single sheet. When an artist comes close, he deserves our gratitude, and his art deserves our attention.
An unbroken tradition of explicit homoerotic art in our society is only a few generations old. Of all the artists who have toiled in the field, none has been more successful at rescuing something like sex itself from the passage of time than Neel Bate (1916-1989), also known as Blade. For that success alone, Bate stands as one of the greatest of homoerotic artists, despite his relative obscurity since his death in 1989.
Anyone interested in hot and explicit gay art knows the name of Tom of Finland. In the decades before Stonewall revolutionized gay life in 1969, and for a few decades after it, Tom created a whole pantheon of idealized, hyper-muscular icons of masculinity. Though Bate's work was more rooted in reality, in America it occupied a position similar to Tom's. Yet on Blade's native continent, many fewer now know his name and work than know Tom's. There are reasons for Bate's comparative semi-obscurity. Tom's icons are more instantly recognizable (and salable) than Bate's real-life guys. Tom has a Foundation dedicated to spreading knowledge and appreciation of his work. Lots of Tom's work was published legally and has been republished to much-deserved acclaim. By contrast, most of Bate's early work, more explicit than Tom's "public" work, was circulated, when at all, in poor, mimeographed, illegal copies. Most of Tom's original drawings still exist at the Tom of Finland Foundation or in other collections. More of Bate's originals were destroyed than survive.
The attempt of the artist to rescue something from time is, of course, impossible. The artwork, a physical thing, is itself subject to time's erosions. Homoerotic art has had an especially tough time surviving until recently. During much of Neel Bate's maturity, homosexual acts were outlawed and homosexuality was classified as a mental disease. Possessing explicit gay fiction and pictures was criminally obscene, a punishable offense-worse yet to create them. In his lifetime unlucky Neel Bate faced, not once but three times, the willful destruction of much of his art. When I look at the strength of Bate's surviving work and think of the hundreds of drawings destroyed, even all these years after the fact I feel sick at the loss to art and gay history.
Bate's particular fairy tale has, if not a happy ending, at least a bittersweet one. The guy lived long enough to produce into old age and in a time when his work could be rediscovered, openly shown, published, collected and appreciated. Since his death, his surviving work has been preserved at the Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation. This includes more than two hundred finished drawings, preliminary sketches, a few file cabinets of edited typescripts and an eye-opening scrapbook of cropped cock shots. That work is the basis of a landmark show of Blade's work this fall (Nov.13-Dec.18) at the Foundation's SoHo gallery. The time is ripe for another revival of this shockingly under-recognized, under-appreciated artist and American original. My hope is that this show clinches Neel Bate's reputation as a major figurative artist of the mid-20th Century (one whose work was also hot enough to melt tar) and rescues his artistic reputation from, yes, the ravages of time.
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Carlyle Kneeland Bate was born in Canada on November 29,1916. Neel's family settled in the rural Seattle area shortly after. Bate's earliest surviving work betrays a fondness for Depression-era farmboys; his subjects retained a country flavor until the end. Talented at drawing from before he could talk, by high school his work was impressive enough to earn him a scholarship to the noted Cornish School. Bate abandoned studies when the Depression's harshness forced him to search for employment. Bate found work in California as an illustrator, then from 1936 settled in Hollywood, a designer on the fringes of the movie industry.
As an adolescent, Bate had plenty of jack-off buddies. But it wasn't until Bate's Hollywood years that his sex life exploded. Good-looking, muscular, compact, he participated widely in the active homosexual underground, with a steady partner and guys on the side. He'd risk losing a job so he could stand watch at a newly discovered glory hole.
When America entered the Second World War, Blade enlisted in the Merchant Marines-and extended his sexual exploits around the world. He fondly remembered group scenes during blackouts in Hawaii. On the eve of joining the service, a frightened Bate destroyed all his erotic drawings, the first of three times in his life when he'd lose most of his work. But during the war he used fresh dirty drawings to seduce guys into hot times.
When Bate left the service at the end of the war, he landed in New York and fell in love with the city and its gay life, sexual and cultural. He'd live in New York until his death more than 40 years later, making his living as a designer. A beautiful man with a beautiful body, Bate modeled (in and out of his clothes) for George Platt Lynes and became a peripheral member of the great photographer's circle. In the early 1950s Bate became romantically involved with a younger model from the Lynes' stable, Ernest Henry. Neel and Ernie lived together until Bate's death. But the couple's relationship stopped being sexual early on, and Neel embarked on a series of long-term affairs and other action. (He was arrested more than once in city johns.)
A civilian again, Bate resumed drawing, creating by1948 America's first great contribution to vernacular gay art. The Barn in twelve panels tells the tale of a farmboy hitchhiker, a more experienced motorcyclist and the sex they have, drawings so explicit that they couldn't appear today on our newsstands. A photographer friend of Bate's made copies of The Barn for intended sale at gay bars. But police raided his place first, confiscating all copies of the clearly illegal drawings, the second great loss of Bate's work. Lucky for all gay art-lovers, Lynes' photographs of the sheets survive. Some greedy cop knew a good thing when he saw it: within months, crude bootleg reproductions of the sequence were circulating around the globe and down the years.
Despite the confiscation, Bate continued his dirty work, both drawing and writing. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he'd produce successors to The Barn, individual drawings, stroke stories and hybrid works, typing and drawing on the same sheet. Some were for mimeograph distribution, but most of this incredible outpouring was for Bate himself. "To do it well is like a compulsion," he said.
In the late 1950s or early 1960s disaster hit for a third time. A former mental patient posed as a customer. Instead of buying, he robbed the artist at gunpoint in his Chelsea apartment, stealing a few hundred drawings. The robber told Bate he planned to masturbate to the offending art, then burn it. Given their subject matter, Bate was too frightened to report the crime. But within a day he was drawing dirty pictures again and didn't stop until the last months of his life.
In the 1960s and early 1970s, Blade occasionally made forays into select city men's rooms to draw explicit murals. When an article about them appeared in QQ Magazine in 1972, Bate was paid aboveground for the use of one of his images for the first time. A few years later Bate's words and pictures, under the pen name Blade, began appearing frequently in newly explicit gay magazines and would until his death.
In the post-Stonewall New York gay scene, Blade became a man-about-town. He also took his place among the emerging rank of homoerotic artists, befriending Tom of Finland and others. He said the high point of his eventful life was his first one-man show at the Leslie-Lohman Gallery in SoHo in November 1980. Its success launched the artist into the decade of his greatest productivity, a jaw-dropping final flowering, now often in color, that almost makes up for all the former losses.
While the artist's skill matured over the years, his basic obsessions just deepened until his death. Bate had always been a heavy smoker. Around 1986 the emphysema that would kill him began to impair his activities, though he continued producing almost until the end. Neel Bate died on June 27, 1989, the twentieth anniversary of the Stonewall riot.
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Artist Robert W. Richards says that a homoerotic artist only finds himself when he's found his man. Neel Bate found his man early on, in his rural Northwest youth, then refashioned him over and over to meet new needs. Because of the uniqueness of "Blade's man" you can tell at a glance a Bate drawing. Unlike Tom, whose work posed perfectly pumped and plucked male icons in stylized, slightly abstracted settings, Blade's work rooted specific, lean, sharp-featured, guys, identifiably mid-century American, in particular settings teeming with gritty detail. Here are farmboys, truckers, construction workers, jailbirds, drifters, sailors-and just plain young men. Their sexual awakening at the hands of a rough-edged but well-meaning older guy (or guys) is a subject the artist returned to again and again (in short stories as well as drawing). Bate once said of his men, "bone structure goes deeper than costume." He could "see someone in a Brooks Brothers suit" and know the body below it. Once he found his man he could situate him (or several of them) just about anywhere: in restrooms, in the subway, in a phone booth, in the forest, out in the fields, up in the grandstands, out on the docks.
In the Depression years, had Woody Guthrie's Dust Bowl Ballads been homoerotic, Blade's work would have been their fitting illustration. It's a hunger that survives in Bate's work as enormous, ultimately insatiable sexual appetite. Part of Bate's accomplishment is his ability to depict at one and the same time this hunger and its shadow: a realization that, when wanting is this fathomless, it can never be satisfied. Sex at a fever pitch, however, just might hold the pangs at bay.
Bate's figures are almost always tall and, because so lean, often feel elongated; torsos demonstrate exceptional torque. Because of the positions Bate and their sexual needs place them in, these guys prove remarkably pliable. Shoulders in Bate are wide and waists improbably narrow. A similar, less extreme narrowing of arms and legs takes place at wrist, elbow, knee and ankle. This radical tapering of torso and limb lends even Bate's most awkward figure an unexpected, heart-tugging grace. The elegant curve of a long limb (or dick) often reinforces this.
Hand and eye have almost unchallenged importance in Bate's compositions. Seeing all of Bate's work from the Foundation laid out, I more than once thought of Michelangelo's God the Father, just about touching Adam into being; touch in Blade is almost as monumental. Beautifully articulated hands are big, with long fingers so that even the most casual contact seems to grasp. But the key to emotional tenor is in the eyes. A surprising number of Blade's guys, even in Bate's large groups, turn the gaze inward. In drawings of a solo guy, he often looks at a part of his body (like his dick) thus setting up poles of a one-man sexual encounter. In works with two or more guys he often casts his eyes toward a partner, so that even Bate's most heated sex scenes tend to be infused with a rough tenderness, a mutual regard-no matter how big the crowd. Not infrequently, a Blade man is caught looking out into the vast beyond. If you travel the trajectories of gaze and touch in a work of Bate's, you'll excavate his composition's pictorial architecture. (And even if you don't, you'll feel it exert its tensile strength.)
Stuff enough hot bodies onto a small sheet of paper and something is bound to combust. Other artists have presented choicer specimens than Blade's more quirkily sexy men. But no artist has ever depicted hotter, more invested sex than Bate-especially when it comes to guy-on-guy-on-guy. Blade to this day has not been equaled in depicting the general meltdown of men in a group clench. Bate knew there was more to capturing sex on the page than seeing to it his figures overlapped. All the hands and eyes in a Bate composition are galvanized and, along with the pointing, yearning, nearly bursting genitals, become poles of complex sexual interchange between and among Blade's men. Bate entangles them in this series of circuits. Guys and what they're doing to each other-the arcs of the arms and legs and the real and implied vectors of erections and gaze-set up a series of broken circles in eccentric orbit that extend beyond the page. All the universe has been queered. From as far back as The Barn, the overall rhythm that dominates a Bate drawing, where figure can almost merge into ground, ripples like heat above asphalt. This favors a unified field over individual players. The palpable erotic charge in Bate's drawings, the result of this force field the artist has set up, nags like an unattended hard-on. Guys in the throes of desire set off sparks just by touching or looking at each other. Discharge is the promised land toward which every man and compositional detail are working.
Yet in late Bate something deeper almost always shadows the action. There's a drawing in the Foundation that shows a central beautiful naked young man and four heads that poke out of the gloom in order to service him orally. Though as dense and dark as a Dürer, it improbably conjures the southern Renaissance and the special talent (and bent) of that era's draftsmen, perched between church and marketplace, to use the unapologetically carnal to illustrate something far deeper than surfaces. Sexual fever this extreme isn't always pretty, and Bate doesn't seem to care. Figures here approach the sculptural and make the drawing enormously palpable. But the emotional pitch, just shy of anguish (especially for the central figure in his sensational cocoon), takes these guys beyond the flesh into a dimension that feels, for lack of a better word, spiritual.
Labor like that depicted here is, at least, devotional. It implies an emotional risk-taking and personal investment on the part of the players that's unthinkable in figures depicted by the fathers of explicit homoerotic art, men like Tom of Finland and Etienne, or even if we shift to the artier (archer) world of Paul Cadmus and George Quaintance. Passion this extreme courts more than anguish. Sex this powerful will blow open all the doors, and who knows what monsters might come roaring up into the daylight? Pleasure, pain "emotions that once seemed distant" become, like lines of longitude at the poles, indistinguishable.
But I want to leave you with an uncharacteristically spare, immeasurably lighter drawing of Blade's.Two men of nearly classical beauty, naked but for the socks of one, move into position to "do it". It seems a casual study, almost a throw-off, as unlabored as great, spontaneous sex is. Though not without shadow (this is, after all, Blade's world), coupling here is comparatively easy, inevitable, unarguable. This is the sex we all dream of and, a few times in our lives if we're lucky, come close to achieving. The pared down figures seem at first little more than indicators of a desire so strong, the men are merely its embodiment; that desire must be the subject of the drawing rather than flesh-and-blood men. Yet look at the guys and your heart melts (I won't answer for what other parts of your anatomy are doing).
Because their eyelids are lowered, the two lovers seem to be looking both inward and outward at once, one man downward, as if right through his impossibly graceful cock to the site of his imminent violation. The other looks upward, beyond the frame, in the same direction as his rampant member, poking up through the frame's lower edge. Note the patch of discoloration at the upper edge. Bate's dealer for the final decade of his life, Charles Leslie, has recounted how the artist dragged out such drawings, sentenced to a term under the bed before they could be brought to light, and took them to the Leslie-Lohman gallery. Leslie called these drawings "ruined" and talked about how his gallery "reclaimed" them. The artist Robert W. Richards used the word "bruised" of such drawings, and I love the human dimension the term brings to the work, and an implied solicitude for it that echoes my own tenderness. I would not trade this drawing-or the slope of its subjects' jaws, the Adam's apple, those fucking socks-for the entire output of more famous homoerotic artists. And yet there's so much more of Blade in the collection of the Leslie-Lohman Gay Art Foundation, and on the walls of the show that has prompted these thoughts on the work and life of that most remarkable homoerotic artist of them all, Neel Bate.
(If you knew Neel Bate or collected his work and would like to talk about it, please contact me at or through the Foundation.)

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