Tennessee Williams’ Paintings Explored Being Gay in America

KEY WEST, FLORIDA, USA - 1982: American playwright Tennessee Williams (1911 - 1983)in the swimming pool at the house he owned in Key West shortly before his death. Photo by Derek Hudson/Getty Images

At The New York Times, Michael Adno examines the paintings of American playwright Tennessee Williams, who used the visual medium to explore what it meant to be gay in America during the ’70s.

In Key West, friends would find Williams in front of his typewriter, encircled by manuscripts, paintbrushes and unopened mail. Throughout the 1970s, tourists walked past the house, where he sold paintings — sometimes not yet dry — over his fence. More than once, he arrived at a dinner with a fresh canvas under his arm as a gift.

Because of his paintings’ haphazard distribution, no one can say how many exist. In the nine works in the Jewish Museum show, “Tennessee Williams — Playwright and Painter,” references to Jean Genet, Arthur Rimbaud and Wallace Stevens mingle with religious iconography and his own characters. There’s even a portrait of the actor Michael York, who starred in Williams’s “Out Cry” in 1973.

Williams’s preoccupation with the eternal questions of love and death hang over his work. The novelist Edmund White, whose name has become synonymous with gay literature, believed that Williams’s plays “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” were — in a veiled way — expressions of gay desire. Though these Broadway-bound works couldn’t risk dealing with these themes head-on, short stories like “Desire and the Black Masseur” certainly did.

“I think he was the first to write about that explicitly,” Mr. White said in a telephone interview, adding that this work made gay life more visible to him — and to America — when he was growing up in the 1950s. “Certainly, as a young gay kid, I turned on to that work tremendously.”

Beyond his plays, Williams’s paintings were a means to delve into subjects like what it meant to be a gay man in America.

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