The Buff Dude Wing: Marsden Hartley's 'Flaming American' at the BMA

What art, literally or figuratively, gives you a boner? How about the muscular mini-fridge-sized Gods found in William Blake’s closed circuit paintings and engravings? Or the heaving, mostly hairless dad-bod of Prometheus as depicted by Rubens? One friend of mine describes being deeply aroused by the curves of a certain era of furniture they were studying in grad school; another talked of how the mix of colors to create a certain hue of red did it for them. There’s an Alex Katz painting that looks strikingly similar someone I dated briefly—they look alike, in the superficial ways that their features recall one another, but how they feel to look at as well. Their kindness and menace seem to be inside that painting. In other words, the things that made them likable and, let’s be real here, fuckable are in that painting. And if art should excite and terrify and move us and remold our minds and all the rest, then it should also arouse us, right? That art can be just plain hot is not too base of a pleasure. It might even be an ideal for art to attain. To totally bypass the brain.

You’d have a hard time convincing me that something like that isn’t the intention of a certain corner of the American Art Wing of the Baltimore Museum of Art where Albert Wein’s beefy shirtless guy sculpture ‘To A God Unknown’ flexes just a few feet away from Marsden Hartley’s ‘Flaming American (Swim Champ),’ a 1939-1940 modernist—or as modernist as us dumb Americans ever got—swimming cutie which like yoooooooo, you can even see the outline of his dick in his shorts and all. What’s the BMA trying to do to me here? Perhaps they should offer tissues and a curtain near these two pieces and install a few glory holes and blast some Patrick Cowley and relabel it the Buff Dude Wing.

Marsden Hartley paints this swimmer as almost beast-like—big arms, a bulging chest, huge thighs. He’s thick. He’s got an athlete’s body, bulky and efficient. It is a depiction of an athlete as understood by a shy, sensitive nerd in lust. The athlete as superhuman and subhuman, honored and objectified. A lot to grab onto or hold. Hair hangs off his arms and legs like some “Island of Dr. Moreau” hybrid creature (is this proto-furry porn?). I dig the dopey, doglike look on the swimmer’s face too. It hints at something deeper or more embarrassed. He looks like the kind of straight cute lunkheads in high school who’d let you blow them, you know? There’s a Tom of Finland quality to this depiction of a man in costume. Tom’s leather daddies feel similarly weighty and a bit absurd.

‘Flaming American (Swim Champ)’ is but one of Hartley’s many beef cakes, along with, to name a few, ‘Canuck Yankee Lumberjack at Old Orchard Beach, Maine,’ ‘The Lifeguard,’ ‘Finnish Yankee Sauna,’ ‘On The Beach,’ and ‘Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy’ (more on that one in a moment). And then there is Hartley’s rather surreal ‘Christ Held By Half-Naked Men,’ which emits Kenneth Anger vibes. I appreciate the BMA’s tasteful, honest description of Hartley’s painting. “On the eve of World War II, Marsden Hartley created a series of powerful male figure paintings based on Maine fishermen, backwoodsmen, and athletes,” the description reads. “His model for Flaming American was a swimmer from Yale University whom Hartley met when staying with the young man’s aunt and uncle during the summer of 1939.” Within reason, the BMA is pretty much saying, “Yo this dude was straight-up banging this guy.” I like this kind of institutional awareness.

Later on the description notes, that this painting and ‘Madawaska—Acadian Light-Heavy’ (which is like this hot guido-ish guy in tiny underwear seemingly lit with a deep red light, holy jeez) were “presented as wall panels for a gymnasium—a venue for healthy sport—enabling Hartley to exhibit a homoeroticism that went unrecognized at the time.” By acknowledging how Hartley presented these paintings—panels in a gymnasium which is about the only place where these images would not be “outed” as it were—they give it a functional context that isn’t stifling so much as it is sympathetic. It doesn’t limit your understanding of the painting, it expands it. Can you imagine the bravery necessary to produce and display a painting like this almost 80 years ago?

There’s a distinctly American kind of mitigated freedom Hartley indulges in ‘Flaming American (Swimming Champ)’. The ability to totally absolutely lust after this swimmer and yet hide it just enough (“oh but they’re for a gym. . .”). Hot and bothered queerness often hides in plain sight like this. And by now placing the painting in a museum, a place as rigid and functional and antiseptic as a gym, we lust quietly in plain view too. Second to a sweaty gym, the BMA is the best place for this rummy, bonerific painting.

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