Jonathan Ned Katz:
Turning from History to Art
By Lester Strong. Reprinted with permission of Strong from The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide, January/February 2010, Volume 17, Number 1.
The “drawing-paintings” of New York City based artist Jonathan Ned Katz are lush in color and sexually suggestive in their depiction of male nudes. Each work grabs the eye and stirs the imagination, evoking a physiological rather than an intellectual response. As Katz reveals in this interview, at the core of his art lies a deep interest in affirming the pleasures, wonders, and mysteries of the flesh, the same interest that motivated his work in recovering gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and, yes, heterosexual history. “For thirty years I studied sex in history,” says Katz. “Now I’m drawing and painting sex.”
Anyone familiar with GLBT culture over the last thirty years will recognize Katz’s name. His pioneering books Gay American History: Lesbians and Gay Men in the U.S.A. (1976) and Gay/Lesbian Almanac: A New Documentary (1983) did much to establish gay and lesbian history as a legitimate intellectual and academic discipline. His book The Invention of Heterosexuality (1995), perhaps the first on heterosexual history, was cited by Justice Anthony Kennedy in the landmark 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas. Currently, Katz is director of OutHistory.org, a website on GLBT and heterosexual history sponsored by the Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies (CLAGS) at the City University of New York.
The move from historian and scholar to visual artist may seem like a stretch until one learns that art was Katz’s first, youthful mode of creative expression. As an art major, he won entrance to the prestigious public High School of Music and Art, graduating in 1956, and he worked as a professional textile designer for twelve years, from 1960 to 1972.
This interview was conducted in Jonathan Ned Katz’s art studio in New York City.
Lester Strong: Jonathan, why have you moved from the written word and historical research to visual art?
Jonathan Ned Katz: Starting in my early childhood, I got attention and accolades for my tempera paintings, and in my teens, at the High School of Music and Art, my talent for visual art was further affirmed. Why, then, did I move away from visual art to writing books on lesbian and gay history? I had written two books on African American history, when, in the winter of 1971, I joined the Gay Activists Alliance [GAA] and first got involved in the gay movement. At a meeting of GAA’s Media Committee, we were discussing ways to publicize our new, positive consciousness of ourselves. I thought there must be such a thing as gay history that I could research for a documentary play. That led me to compile the theater piece Coming Out!, performed at the GAA Firehouse in June 1972, and produced again in 1973. The attention Coming Out! garnered led to my getting a book contract for Gay American History.
LS: What was the aim of your books, and how does that aim connect with the aim of your art?
JNK: The aim of all my books on GLBT history was to deepen our sense of ourselves by looking at the changes over time in the social organization of our lives. I felt that providing GLBT people with a historical, temporal perspective on ourselves would deepen our understanding of who we had been and who we could be. I thought of my gay history work as a form of activism–that looking at our lives over time would help to counter all those superficial, banal, pop culture stereotypes of GLBT people. I also wanted to fight against forgetting. Since childhood I’ve wanted to be recognized, to get attention, to be seen and heard, to find my own voice and a sense of myself. So my personal ambition to make a noise, and to be perceived as creative and smart, coincided with the need of GLBT people to speak up for ourselves, to no longer be defined by others, by doctors or other so-called “experts.”
My recent visual art is doing the same thing–speaking up about my feelings about gay male eroticism as a sometimes lovely, sometimes complicated desire and act.
LS: Will you say more about why you recently reengaged yourself with visual art?
JNK: Over the decades I spent writing history I was interested in demonstrating my intellect. As a college dropout without any of the usual academic degrees, I was determined to show the world that I could write original, quality scholarly books. Over the years, those books became more and more analytical, and I found my own personal voice. But I changed. When I started writing, I was living my life mostly through the intellect, by analyzing and thinking about ideas and history. I was learning about life through books and articles and manuscripts. Now I’m interested in experiencing the world emotionally, in learning by interacting with people. My recent artwork reflects my interest in sensing the world, and trying to express my sense impressions of male bodies.
LS: It wasn’t until your last book, Love Stories: Sex Between Men Before Homosexuality (2005),that you wrote expressly about sexuality. In your visual art, too, the sexuality leaps out at the viewer.
JNK: In 1976, in Gay American History, I was a little defensive about the sex in homosexuality. Some of us in the gay movement wanted to affirm that we were more than sexual, more than homosexual. We wanted to be perceived as full human beings. We stressed that we love and feel affection, as well as desire sex. That was part of what I was doing in the 1970’s. But over the years, I’ve become more of a sexual liberationist, more interested in affirming all the different ways we can be sentient, sensing, sensual, sexual people. I’ve become less judgmental about other peoples’ particular ways of expressing their fleshly desires, less puritanical and uptight about the varieties of bodily expression. I’m more aware of our need for sexual liberation, as well as gay civil rights. During the early years of AIDS, for example, I joined a group called Sex Panic, which advocated using places like the baths, where gay men met for sex, to educate those men about safer sex, rather than closing down those places. Like many others, I haven’t found it easy to feel good about my body and my sexuality. We still have such a puritanical society, it isn’t easy for anyone to feel good about themselves sexually and bodily. It seems important to me to work against the remaining puritanical strains in American culture. I see my drawings as a way of affirming my sexuality–and our human sexuality as something that can be really lovely, and innocent, and mysterious.
My recent visual art is focused on affirming and expressing my own gay responses to naked male bodies. In 1956, when I was eighteen, if you were male, you were not supposed to look too long or longingly at a naked male body. At City College in 1960, I was called a “fag” for looking too intently at one handsome guy. In the 1960’s, on Eighth Street in Greenwich Village, I was punched in the face for looking one second too long at the wrong guy. Now I’m attending male figure drawing sessions in a number of gay contexts; I’m enjoying looking and trying to express on paper what I see. I could not be producing these naked male images if the gay movement had not earlier affirmed that homosexual desire and attraction were okay, that “gay is just as good as straight,” as we said in the 1970’s. My recent artwork could not have been produced without the existence of the militant gay movement that arose after Stonewall, in 1969. My study of sexual history has also made me more aware of how complicated sexual desire, sexual acts, and sexual identity are. I think my art is expressing that awareness.
LS: We’re sitting in your studio right now, surrounded by your male nude drawings. What are the aims embodied in your art?
JNK: I enjoy looking at naked male bodies, I find them sexually suggestive and fascinating, and I enjoy trying to solve the creative problem of capturing some of that sexuality on paper. I look at a model and try to see what’s unique about his particular body or his personality or how he radiates his sexuality. That’s part of my wanting these days to appreciate the world through the senses rather than just through the intellect.
LS: You’ve also drawn and painted some female nudes. What’s the appeal there?
JNK: It’s a different kind of appeal because I don’t have the same erotic interest in women that shows in my male nude art works. Drawing women models is more of a purely aesthetic problem. It’s more just about trying to capture something about the personality and body of a particular female model. Something deeper than the surface beauty.
LS: On your art website [JonathanNedKatzArt.com] you refer to your desire to express “the diverse kinds of eros I see in different kinds of naked male bodies.” What kinds of eros do you see?
JNK: The drawing workshops I attend use models that fit the current definition of sexy men. They have muscular bodies that you construct by going to the gym every day; they’re lean, young, with no wrinkles. As an old gay guy of 71 who’s still kicking, who’s still interested in pushing the boundaries, I’m interested in observing and trying to express the sexiness in a greater range of bodies. So, for instance, one type of figure drawing session I’ve had at my own house was called “Artists Draw Artists,” in which we took off our clothes and posed for each other. Besides feeling extremely liberating, those sessions provided us with models that included a much wider range of ages and body types, dick sizes, and hairiness, for example. My drawings of some of the older guys were maybe less about sensuality and sexuality, and more about the poignancy of aging bodies and of aging in general. None of the gay figure drawing workshops I’ve been to use fat guys as models, or guys with little dicks. I think it would be interesting to draw and visually explore the sensuality and sexuality of those bodies.
LS: Could you talk about the style of your art and describe the media you work in?
JNK: My recent art work is in quite a variety of styles. Working in a “primitive,” untutored style is one way I’m trying to convey the innocence and joy of sexuality. Part of me thinks the Puritans got it wrong, it’s not sex that makes us sinners. It’sour desire for love and affection that makes us want to steal some other guy’s boyfriend. I loved primitive art as a kid, and that’s one of styles in which I’m developing my own recent art. The combination of sexually explicit content with a child-like, primitive style interests me, and expresses some of my feelings about the loveliness of sexuality. I call my recent works “drawing-paintings” and use a combination of charcoal, pastels, chalk, black and colored pencils, tempera paint, acrylic paint, collage, and glitter glue on paper. Sometimes I draw on white paper, other times on colored paper. Often, after a drawing session, I’ll add some new textured or colored background to a drawing, and I’ve been surprised at how that aids in expressiveness, enhancing the best parts of the drawing that are already there.
LS: Do you see your art as coming out of a particular artistic tradition?
JNK: I’ve been influenced by primitive art and the Henri Rousseau paintings I saw as a child at the Museum of Modem Art. Ben Shahn’s social realist paintings were an early influence. His paintings of Sacco and Vanzetti are done in a sort of simplified, primitive style that I liked as a kid. I can also see some influence of 1930’s WPA art in my work-I’m thinking of pictures of heroic workers with their shirts off, and big muscles. Recently I’ve been to a show of late Picasso works that were wonderfully loose and vital and child-like, and I think they’ve helped loosen up my own drawings.
LS: When we set up this interview, you described yourself as being interested in “coming out as an artist.” Clearly the term “coming out” means something special to you. Why?
JNK: I’ve come out publicly at least four times in my life: as a gay man, as a writer-www.google.comscholar-historian, as an “older” and then “old” man, and now as an artist. I see coming out as a way of affirming different aspects of myself. Coming out has been a powerful, life-saving act for me. It’s a form of commitment. I’m serious about my art, and going public with it in this interview is a way of committing myself to continuing with it. I’m interested in pushing myself to see how good an artist I can be. Coming out is also a way of establishing a positive identity. For me, that means affirming multiple identities. Each of my different debuts into the world means personally and publicly affirming all the different identities I am, and all the things I’m good at. Coming out as an artist helps me feel good about my life and myself.
LS: On balance, how do you see your historical research and writing compared to your visual art?
JNK: In my writing my scholarly impulses won out, even though I was writing about sexuality and desire. In my art, sexuality and sensuality have a fuller, freer rein. In that, I am like many other visual artists whose creative work has been enabled by the existence of the modem GLBT movement for rights and liberation. I think that in the next couple of years, art by artists influenced by the GLBT movement will finally be recognized as legitimate in the mainstream art world,just as art by African Americans, by women, and by feminists (female and male) has recently, and belatedly, been recognized.
Lester Strong is special projects editor for A&U magazine and a regular contributor to Out magazine.