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Edward Melcarth (1914 - 1972, born Louisville, Kentucky) was an American painter known primarily for his sensitive, emotional, and often heroic portrayal of the male figure. Melcarth’s subjects were blue collar workers, hustlers, addicts, and trade with whom he had intimate relationships. These men also frequently make appearances in work by other gay artists who were living and working in New York at the same time, namely Henry Faulkner of Lexington, Kentucky, and photographer and archivist Thomas Painter. Despite showing widely and prominently in the 1940’s (his work is included in the collections of MOMA, the Smithsonian, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art) Melcarth has since faded into relative obscurity.
Melcarth’s portrayal of working class and otherwise down and out men who read as straight, and often defined themselves as such despite having sex with other men, and his often glorified or romantic treatment of their image, served dual function in the historical context of their making. For straight viewers of the work, the paintings become quintessential images of the American workforce where grit, brute strength, and the ability to wade through difficulty, especially economic, is rewarded and mythologized. For gay men, and for Melcarth himself, the images served as a vehicle to examine socially unacceptable desire in relative safety. For both groups, a one way mirror is constructed, allowing for a selective understanding of the work, dependent on point of view.
However, Melcarth was uniquely situated and deeply conscious of these perspectives. He was a militant communist with radical views on how the working class should be organized and treated, as well as a largely out-of-the-closet homosexual, and was closely monitored by the FBI as a result of both. As noted in Erin Griffey and Barry Reay’s article about the artist, entitled, ‘Sexual Portraits: Edward Melcarth and Homoeroticism in Modern American Art,’ Thomas Painter speculates that Melcarth's lack of relative commercial and critical success compared to similar artists working concurrently was largely due to his Jewish background, militant communism, and open homosexuality.
Despite this, Melcarth remains an influential and foundational figure in early twentieth century gay American art. A reconsideration of his work, legacy, and contributions are long overdue, and the themes explored in his work remain pertinent to contemporary concerns.
All artworks courtesy of the Forbes Collection, New York, on loan to the Faulkner Morgan Pagan Babies Archive. Special thanks to Dr. Jonathan Coleman. This exhibition is presented in collaboration with Edward Melcarth: Points of View at the UK Art Museum.