Today is World AIDS Day 2018. Remember those we’ve lost.
Isolation and a desperate search for recognition in 1980s New York City are captured unsparingly by painter Patrick Angus (1953–1992). The stark drama of his explicit themes, the exacting execution of his observations juxtaposed against the brilliant iridescence of his colors, as he explored the outcast artist’s is only the veneer of meaning in his work. Angus produced keenly observed and compassionate depictions of the 1980s gay life. His work captures, with sympathy, understanding, and wit, the longing and loneliness of many urban queer men of the era.
Born on December 3, 1953 in North Hollywood, California and raised in Santa Barbara, Angus was a shy boy who wanted to be an artist. With no guidance and only misinformation about homosexuality for reference, he floundered. A kind high school art teacher mentored him and even let him use his studio, yet Angus was afraid to broach the subject of his sexual angst with a straight man.
In 1974, while studying on a scholarship at Santa Barbara Art Institute, Angus discovered the book 72 Drawings By David Hockney (1971), and he found an artist who celebrated his sexual persona in his work and who glamorized the “good” gay life in Los Angeles. However, when Angus moved from Santa Barbara to Hollywood in 1975, he discovered that the good gay life did not exist for poor people, as he bitterly wrote: “…unless, of course, they are beautiful”. Angus, believing that he was sexually undesirable, was hopelessly lonely for the affection of an objectified beautiful boy.
Growing up when figurative painting was the bane of the art world establishment, Angus had his aesthetic preference strengthened through friendships with other “realist” artists who agreed that art dependent on observation was more interesting than the concept art-product of that dreary minimalist age”. A superb draftsman, with a keen eye for detail, Angus made portraits of friends and recorded with Hockney-style wit the Los Angeles scene around him, while evading overtly gay subject matter.
In 1980, in Manhattan to visit the Picasso Retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, Angus found himself struck by the personal sexuality inherent in Picasso’s work. He declared:
Picasso demonstrated that anything, including orgasm, can be depicted. Picasso is the ultimate realist.
Angus began to paint large canvases based on his personal obsession with erotic loneliness. Three major paintings define his milieu: Boys Do Fall In Love (1984), which depicts a strip show; Flame Steaks (1985), which is set in a hustler bar; and The Mysterious Baths (1985), about a bathhouse. Based on these works, my friend, playwright Robert Patrick described Angus as “the Toulouse-Lautrec of Times Square”.
Sadly, his subject precluded his efforts to break into the commercial art market; and the bourgeois gay establishment disapproved of his depictions of the politically incorrect “bad” gay life: cruising, hustling, and loneliness. All efforts to have an exhibition of Angus’ work were rejected. One of these humiliating attempts can be seen in the film Resident Alien (1990) a documentary by Jonathan Nossite about the life of the great queen Quentin Crisp, one of Angus’ first vocal supporters.
Mr. Hockney has said that he paints what he likes to look at. No wonder he has bought several of Mr. Angus’s paintings. Mr. Angus works on the same principle and, although at first sight, his pictures seem so deliberately shameless, he is really, in this respect, in a direct line of descent from artists such as Mr. Manet, whose picture of Olympia was, in its day, considered so shocking.
In despair that his work would never be accepted, Angus resigned himself to obscurity and poverty. He found a room in a welfare hotel, where he could paint, but he refused to risk more humiliation by attempting to exhibit his work. Robert Patrick introduced his paintings in Christopher Street magazine, that literate gay publication in the 1980s. As a result, Angus’ work began to sell. Angus had to be thrilled that it was Hockney who purchased five major paintings.
In the early 1990s, and still too poor to afford a doctor, Angus collapsed and was diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Facing imminent death, he worried that his life’s work would die with him. But in the last months of his life, three solo shows of his work were mounted. On his death bed at St. Vincent’s Hospital in 1992, he saw the galley proofs for Strip Show, a book of 47 color reproductions of his paintings, and he said:
This is the happiest day of my life.
Angus’ keenly observed images of the 1980s gay underclass are a major contribution to the legacy of gay American social realism as embodied in the work of such artists as Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, and Paul Cadmus. They are unique in the history of art for their compassionate look at the longing and loneliness of some urban gay men.
Angus knew that the art world had no place for a gay painter who unsentimentally depicted gay life as he personally saw it, so he created probing portraits of ordinary gay men in crowded bars and bathhouses, and the not-so-ordinary hustlers and dancers who entertained them. Angus:
Gay men have no honest images of themselves.
His subject was his own life, while still being a reflection the human condition we all know: longing for love, friendship, and acceptance, giving Angus’ paintings their irresistible, emotional, and universal appeal. Painting was the passion of Angus’ short life. Dying of the plague, his only wish was that his work would survive him.
All pictures via Marc Arranaga, Patrick Angus estate