DELMAS HOWE, UH HUH, THE GUY IN THE HISTORY BOOKS, is living large in his hometown of T or C, living and painting his truth, and thus not suffering the consequinkles of fuzzy falsehoods. That was how it appeared recently when Mayumi Nishida-Carver and I scrambled down past Belen to take some of the finest mineral waters this patient planet provides, courtesy of our favorite publisher and the lovely Blackstone Spa, and to pay a visit to the studio of the early postmodernist, championed in the nineteen-seventies by Brit critic Edward Lucie-Smith. That’s right, we’re talking the original pomo-homoeroticist extraordinaire, the painter of The Three Graces, shirtless in aviator glasses and hats as contemporary cowpokes, and large rodeo friezes reminiscent of the Villa dei Misteri murals, a courageous advancer of gay rights, of the naked and nude in art, of postmodern figuration, and of doing what makes you happy. Children, you should thank elder Delmas for his important role in this country’s sexual revolution. And for all those pictures of hot, hung dudes in chaps.
Howe’s live-work space is a large old storefront full of eclectic art objects, antiques, and images arranged artfully across the walls, the largest of which holds an unfinished but beautifully drawn mural depicting the life of Delmas Howe. It serves as the perfect visual aid for our conversation, which begins with an exploration of the artist’s chronology.
Born and raised in Truth or Consequences, “I was a perfect little gay baby,” he coos. He also excelled in music as a child. He attended the Air Force Academy where he played the bassoon. One section of the mural is dedicated to his being torn between muses. In 1960 he made the big leap to the Big Apple and was soon taking classes at the Art Students League from renowned anatomist, draftsman, and curator Robert Beverly Hale. Hale taught him how to draw the human figure, and he met Ayn Rand’s husband, Frank O’Connor. One afternoon he hung out with the Benzedrine bully herself, who authoritatively turned him on to Rogier van der Weyden. He speculates that the O’Connor-Rand union might well have been a marriage of convenience.
One night, Howe stepped out of his East Village apartment onto Christopher Street and into the pivotal Stonewall Riots of 1969. When he saw drag queens tipping over cop cars he concluded it was all part of the party. Meeting Edward Lucie-Smith in NYC was a turning point in Howe’s early career, and when the famous art writer included Howe’s work in his important book Art of the Seventies, an art star was born. Twenty years later the two visited nearly all of Europe’s major museums together.
Despite his considerable success, Howe remains true to his egalitarian roots. “I’ve never been an elitist,” he states matter of factly, and his involvement in the local art scene, anchored at Rio Bravo Fine Art, makes that clear. He painted a tabletop for a local restaurant, though when we had breakfast there the next day it was hanging on the wall. Howe’s new work came out of his early explorations of canyon walls, what he calls his rock series. These works pack the picture plane with mineral strata. Howe’s renderings of the forms are both expressively alive and well observed. The reaction from viewers was often that they could see figures in these rough-hewn images. Those remarks in part led to Howe’s newest body of work, in which the massive nude bodies of intertwined male figures explicitly fill the foreground, in place of, and in complement to, the straining, sensuous stone.
With these figures, Howe, like Michelangelo, has lived long enough to add another chapter to his story (which may require another studio wall). Abandoning, like the maestro, his previous dependence upon classical forms, he embarks upon a quasi-mannerist or proto-baroque experiment, that also, like the rock paintings, recalls the “all-over” compositional approach favored by the Abstract Expressionists. This is not Michelangelo’s serene ceiling, but rather the massed and meaty figures in an orgy of impossible positions that make up his Last Judgment. Giulio Romano’s Fall of the Giants frescoes in Mantua’s Palazzo del Te crash one’s consciousness, with their monumental figures and convincing illusion of collapsing megaliths. As is often the case, Howe’s historical allusions hearken back through the Renaissance to the pagan genius of Hellenism. Echoes of a masculinist sensuality, unspoiled by the oppressive, sex-negative discourse of Judeo-Christianity, can be heard winging their way across the centuries. Howe’s Arcadia is found in the intimate bonding of male psyches and bodies. The advancement of gay marriage rights and visualizing an end to homophobia succeed today due partly to the radical eroticism of his art. “I don’t approach it as art or politics,” Howe says with a twinkle in his eye. “I approach it as what I love to do.” —Jon Carver