Issue 650, March 13-19, 2008

THE MALE GAYS Richard Taddei and the faces of his paintings tend to share similar expressions.
Photograph: Richard Taddei
THE BODY BEAUTIFUL Taddei427 copy 1

THE YOUNG men in Richard Taddei’s paintings could have stepped out of an Abercrombie & Fitch ad. Fair-skinned, strapping and all-American, they’re fantasies of beauty and innocence, representing that fleeting moment when both qualities can coexist.

But unlike Abercrombie photographer Bruce Weber, whose images show boys frolicking in a nirvana of carefree eternal youth, the melancholy Taddei finds something darker in his subjects. He presents them as broken figures divided into geometric shapes, some enlarged as though under a magnifying glass. It’s as though he’s examining his models piece by piece, looking to see if their beauty is more than skin-deep. Most of them have far-off, haunted glances. “It’s that timeless look of Greek sculpture,” Taddei explains. “It’s just staring into the whole history of the human race and seeing the futility of it all.” Starting Wed 19, you can sample his moody work at the MDH Fine Arts gallery, which has recently begun representing him.

Since the ’70s, this brooding, flannel-shirted Marlboro Man type, allergic to self-promotion, has remained a mostly underground member of the gay art world. “I’m not painting for the world, really, I’m painting for myself,” he insists in his slow, somber voice. He’d rather let others sing his praises. The Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation has championed Taddei for years. Private buyers (Malcolm Forbes was one) have found him through word of mouth or his website ( Photographer Reed Massengill—editor of a sprawling array of homoerotic coffee-table books—wrote admiringly of Taddei’s “deconstruction of the heroic male nude” in a 2006 essay.

Along the way, Taddei has survived as a waiter, cook, mural painter and commercial artist. But MDH has bigger plans for him with its three-week show of his work. He can’t keep from sounding hopeful. “Now I have this little gallery where the owner is promoting me, and that’s what a gallery should do,” he says. Taddei has produced hundreds of paintings in the solitude of his floor-through Hell’s Kitchen walk-up, where the old radiators clang and hiss. He began renting it in 1977, when Manhattan still opened its arms to struggling artists. The city was his oasis after a ’50s Catholic childhood in New Hyde Park, Long Island. “You couldn’t get worse than that!” he says. “It was a horrible home life. I was a sad kid. I’ve always lived in my inner world. I don’t find it easy to break out.”

Escape came, he says, “as soon as I got a crayon in my hand.” At three he met his first love —“Czech, white, with a crewcut”—and his creative path was set. He’s been reliving that infatuation on canvas ever since. Whenever he spots his old flame’s likeness in a stranger, he musters the courage—it can take weeks—to request a nude sitting. That was easier in the ’70s, he notes, when his sexual conquests often became his models. The art scene, he adds, was a lot less cutthroat then. “You could show your work in so many avant-garde shows that were held in clubs and backrooms,” he says. Keith Haring curated an East Village erotic art show and included Taddei; in another group exhibit his work hung alongside Paul Cadmus’s and Robert Mapplethorpe’s.

Getting a solo show proved much harder—largely, he believes, because the naked male was commonly regarded as gay porn. “Most galleries were homophobic and didn’t want to be associated with that,” he recalls. “My work isn’t exactly homoerotic; it’s just beauty. All through the Renaissance you had religious art with male nudes; in classical Greece they were never thought of as erotic objects. It’s just the human body. I want to bring back that universality. That’s my little quest in life.”

Now, he feels, things are finally looking up. He talks proudly of a husband and wife in Connecticut, for example, who discovered him on the Internet and now buy his work. “That I can communicate with a bourgeois couple who see the beauty in a subject I find beautiful—that’s the whole point,” he notes. “If you’re an artist, you want the world to share your love of something you care about.”

Richard Taddei’s show opens Wed 19 at MDH Fine Arts. See It’s Here, It’s Queer.