Body Language: The Queer Staged Photographs of George Platt Lynes and PaJaMa is the first in-depth study of the extraordinary interplay between George Platt Lynes and PaJaMa (Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and Margaret Hoening French). Nick Mauss and Angela Miller offer timely readings of how their practices of staging, collaboration, and psychological enactment through the body arced across the boundaries of art and life, private and public worlds, anticipating contemporary social media. 

Nick Mauss is an artist whose recent exhibitions include Transmissions at the Whitney Museum and Intricate Others at Museu Serralves.

Angela Miller has published widely on nineteenth- and twentieth-century American arts and culture. She is author of the prize-winning The Empire of the Eye.

Angela to Nick: Nick, you and I struck up a dialogue after I’d seen your 2018 exhibition Transmissions at the Whitney Museum, followed in 2019 by Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern at MoMa, which both revolved around many of the same cultural figures active in New York during the 1930s, 40s, and 50s. We talked about why these individuals have such resonance at this particular moment in time when many of them had been marginalized, dismissed, or forgotten for so long. Ultimately these conversations propelled us to write Body Language, a book conceived in dialogue around the interactions and mutual influence between 4 artists: Paul Cadmus, Margaret Hoenig French, Jared French, and George Platt Lynes. Maybe you can start by saying something about how you first became interested in the work of George Platt Lynes?

Nick: When I was a student, it was difficult to see Lynes’ work—in terms of access, but also bias. Though several publications on his work had come out in the 1990s, nobody ever directed my attention toward him, he was not taught as an important agent in histories of art or photography, his work was rarely, if ever, exhibited. I was basically led to believe that Lynes wasn’t worth much attention: superficial, not vanguard.  And I must have internalized that dismissal, which is of course homophobic. The only exception was Isaac Julien’s unforgettable evocation of Lynes in his 1989 film Looking for Langston, a pivotal work for me in terms of thinking about how, as a young queer artist, one might approach and complicate histories.

So, my interest in Lynes followed a long avoidance of Lynes, which seemed related to the place he has been assigned in the register of our cultural memory. 

Nick to Angela: This series from UC Press, Defining Moments in Photography, usually pairs two authors to write about a single artist or body of work. Because PaJaMa and Lynes resist a traditional definition of the artist around sole authorship, we asked our editor Anthony Lee to make an exception, allowing us to write about the practice of these four artists as mutually constitutive [one interconnected, fluid entity, to] reflecting the dynamics through which they shaped and reflected their world. This move away from a monographic focus is meant to emphasize modernist practices that undermine stable, single authorship, and that make other demands on how art history is written. 

Do you want to say something about how we arrived at our decision to structure the book this way? 

Angela: The three PaJaMa principals were part of a broader circle of queer artists, writers, and dancers that took shape around the figure of Lincoln Kirstein. He was the common point of contact between a number of these figures in his role as founder of the New York City Ballet, and as a collector of and advocate for new emerging forms of American art. He also believed deeply in the arts as an arena within which the United States might develop a more confident cultural voice as part of a rich transatlantic exchange with the continent and with England.

As we talked about our interests, we realized that there had not been a parallel study of Lynes and PaJaMa, and that looking at them in tandem could be an opportunity to talk about enmeshed social worlds, reciprocal influence, and the key focus on the male nude.

I first became interested in PaJaMa because they were situated outside of the so-called mainstream of American art practice in the 1940—the emergence of abstraction and of the New York School that developed into Abstract Expressionism. I was fascinated with how their work complicated our understanding of those years. I thought a primary reason for their marginalization—the fact that much of their work in painting was overlooked or ignored—was that they were primarily involved with figuration at a time when abstraction was considered the most advanced form of artistic expression. I only got interested in the staged photographs they made through an interest in their painting.

Nick to Angela: It’s significant that PaJaMa chose to author their work collectively. Today this is not unusual, but it was less commonplace at the time. It’s also interesting that unlike the paintings they made individually, PaJaMa’s photographs were not made for a “public,” but for a circle of intimates. That distinction between audiences became an important point of emphasis for both of us as we considered the work of these 4 artists….

Angela: That’s right, unlike Lynes’ work, much of which was public-facing, PaJaMa’s work was made for a circle of friends and lovers. It was never intended for the market or for public circulation. The three principal figures of PaJaMa were painters first and foremost. They used photography in very different ways from Lynes: as a tool for playful exploration at the end of their workday; as sources for their paintings; and most importantly, to enact the daily drama of their lives as a ménage a trois.

Nick: Lynes, on the other hand, was publicly celebrated as a photographer and wanted to be understood as an artist. I began to study his work seriously in preparation for Transmissions, which looked to the intersection of ballet, fashion, vanguard art, and representations of the erotic body in “modern” New York, all of which are facets of Lynes’ life’s work. I visited the Kinsey Institute to pore over the hundreds of photographs and negatives that had been deposited there at the end of Lynes’ life (to safeguard them from censorship laws and preserve them for future study), and I was overwhelmed by the enormity of his output, range, and ambition, by the many categories his work invented and multiplied, by the types of performance for the camera he coaxed and captured. I began to see, for the first time, how complex and socially intricate his practice was. Because people tend to look at the same selection of Lynes photographs, we have a pretty limited grasp of his work.

I started to ask myself why Lynes’ output is seen through separate categories when he so clearly conceived of it as a total work of art? How did these images function? To whom were they addressed…and so on. When you and I began our dialogue in 2019, I was still full of unanswered questions about Lynes: How did his studio function? Where did he sit in relation to his peers in the avant-garde worlds of art and fashion? How was he influenced by the many artists he portrayed and was portrayed by? And what role did portraiture play among queer artist around mid-century? Most importantly, I wanted to know more about the relationship between Lynes and PaJaMa, who appeared so frequently in each other’s work, both in paintings and in photographs. 

Angela to Nick: I wonder if the tendency to think of Lynes as creating separate and unrelated bodies of work developed in part out of a sense that to be a homosexual in the 1940s meant to be in hiding, and to keep personal and public identities distinct?

Nick: That’s a great observation. I remember being shocked by how flagrant Lynes’ work is (much in the way Cadmus’ work is so in-your-face) because I also believed on some level that such “out” images of queer desire were really only possible much later.  But it wasn’t only Lynes’ nudes that felt so audacious—all of his images have an intensity, a sense of enigma and eroticism that transcends sexual object choice. To your point, we want to believe that the present is more progressive than the past, but it’s not really that simple. Certainly many queer artists of the period did compartmentalize their work due to the very real social and professional repercussions of being outed, not to mention the legal restrictions and penal consequences to visible homosexual expression. But as an artist Lynes himself did not differentiate between his nudes and his other photographs and I wanted to return that agency to him by reading his work as a vast continuous playing field.  

Nick to Angela: Collaboration, as well as questions of authorship and mutual influence are crucial to understanding both PaJaMa’s and Lynes’ work, and we explore these dynamics in-depth. But you also make the assertion about PaJaMa that, “to more fully understand these enigmatic images, we need first to abandon the idea that the three collaborators were making “art.”’ That idea was very liberating for me. What happens when we leave behind the assumptions that we automatically bring to an object predefined as “art”?  Once I let go of that limiting frame, I also let go of the hierarchy of genres and could see the direct correlation, in Lynes’ work, between, say, a fashion photograph and a nude. But more importantly, I think your statement helped shift the focus of our book from image to performance.

Angela: Thank you! I also learned a great deal from your work on Lynes, about focusing on the creative act itself and how it found a range of different channels of expression. That is, that the same set of concerns and passions runs through the many ‘genres’ of Lynes’ work—commercial and private—and also connects the photographs and the paintings of PaJaMa. These insights work against the hierarchies that are often imposed on the field of visual production.

Another place where these two bodies of work—Lynes and PaJaMa—come together was their lack of interest in what we think of as self-expression. That concern with individual identity—with a kind of selfhood barricaded against the impact of other selves was such a significant aspect of the practice of abstraction beginning in the late 1940s. Think of Clyfford Still and Barnett Newman. Artists working in abstraction also were very focused on their own medium, and on generating a language entirely voided of historical allusions to style, form, composition, symbolism. New York school gestural expression couldn’t be further from the richly allusive and interfiliated practice of Lynes and PaJaMa. Their incisive silhouettes and dramatic staging approached artmaking as a field less about self-expression than about enactment.

Nick to Angela: What’s the difference?

Angela: Expression is about a search for the private self, interiorized in relation to the social. Enactment is a process that takes shape in relation to other selves, and is acted out through the body—its points of inflection, its attitudes, its orientation to the spaces of other selves. These artists explored a language that realized those very subtle forms of embodied expression. In other words, in relation to other bodies. Both expression and enactment are concerned with a mobile constantly metamorphosing selfhood in continual dialogue with the world. But for the abstract painters, that world was self-involved. It found expression primarily through the engagement with their medium. For our artists working a little earlier, selfhood could only be enacted in relation to others whose shifting motives and desires continually redefined one’s own sense of self.

Nick to Angela: It’s interesting to hear you clarify this, because it’s something I’ve felt as an artist. The ideological hangover from abstraction and expression, and of artists who are overly concerned with their “own” medium is precisely what drew me to artists like Lynes and PaJaMa, who pre-date “intermedia” and Black Mountain College, but foster an approach that values speaking across disciplines (i.e., painting, photography, fashion, theater, cinema) and through one another’s work. It’s a very different idea of artistic self-definition.

What makes Lynes and PaJaMa so magnetic for me is that their work practically begs for an analysis of their interrelationships, and the many unspoken, symbolic exchanges between them. How would you —as a historian—describe your approach to this subject?

Angela: Since I came to this project as a cultural historian of 20th century U.S. arts rather than as a practicing artist or curator, I brought different questions to my work on PaJaMa: questions about how these strange, often enigmatic images might be understood within the broader field of US arts in the 1940s and early 1950s. These artists seemed to be hiding in plain sight, staging or enacting their own lives through painting and photography in very private ways that redefined the sense of community not around the nation-state or heterosexual gender inscriptions, but around their intimate queer networks.

Angela to Nick: On the most direct level, Lynes tried his hand at making “PaJaMa” style photographs, often while in the free zone of Fire Island when they were all together. It’s interesting that Lynes was able to venture into a different aesthetic and approach to making photographs as a result of the friendships he shared with others in this circle.

Given the differences between them—working in painting primarily versus photographic work —what do you think drew Lynes to the work of PaJaMa? Where and how do you see this common bond between them?

Nick: Lynes had a deep respect for other artists, choreographers, and writers, but particularly for painters. He always lived surrounded by paintings (mainly portraits) by and of his many artist friends, and of course he photographed them in turn. The lighting and composition of Lynes’ photographs attests to Lynes’ deep knowledge of the history of painting. Part of his affinity for living painters had to do with the fact that they were automatically validated as artists, at a time when photography’s status as “high” art in the 1930s and 40s was not yet fully established. But Lynes’ painter friends took him very seriously as an artist, and in the book, I analyze an unusual portrait by Tchelitchew that shows Lynes with his camera and negatives. I thought it was important, for this series on the history of photography, to emphasize the impact of other mediums, not only painting, but also dance, on the development of photography as an art form, just as you also take cinema and other influences into account in your study of PaJaMa.

I think that for Lynes taking photographs in the open air on Fire Island with a portable medium-format camera must have been a huge departure from his studio work, bustling with assistants and advanced equipment — perhaps even a reminder of his beginnings as an amateur photographer, taking photographs of himself and his lovers. PaJaMa’s photographs find parallels in Lynes’: emphasis on the nude or semi-nude body, improvisation, movement, pose, and drama. And as you say, the four artists were part of the same social circles, so many of PaJaMa’s subjects were also Lynes’. In a sense, they were all using the same technology to look at the same thing—their lives, their passions, their friends (we refer to this as “queer world-making)— but to different ends.

Nick to Angela: What were some of these new elements of artmaking that you saw emerging in the work of these artists?

Angela: A central feature of PaJaMa’s practice was collaborative: their very name absorbs the three individuals who made up the group into a singular identity that redefines the individual contribution within a dynamic exchange among them. They seem to have intuitively understood that what most nourished their lives as artists was the interpersonal arena within which they worked. In this sense, even though their art often seems hermetic, enigmatic, and remote from the recognizable social concerns of much figurative art in those years, their practice was very much one that engaged their identities within a social network of friends and lovers.

This was something they shared with Lynes: both PaJaMa and Lynes turned to an interpersonal world beyond their individual selves, a world that offered what I think of as an affiliative family of connections. That queer family was non-nuclear, non-reproductive, and its borders were open and continually shifting. In the terms of the 1950s, these queer families resisted the sexual containment sought in a period driven by concerns with neutralizing any internal disruptions to the social fabric. Within their queer families, each of these artists felt free to explore their sexuality in ways that were what we would call polyamorous today. But these families were also about shared aesthetic commitments to the longer histories of both photography and painting.