The Gay Abstract Expressionist Largely Lost to History

Although frequently introduced as a student of Mark Rothko and Clyfford Still, abstract expressionist painter Lawrence Calcagno was his own master. He was gay at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the United States, not to mention socially taboo. But he managed to achieve career success despite those prejudices, holding his first solo show in 1955 at the Martha Jackson Gallery. Jackson, a champion of avante-garde art, had famously shown works from Willem de Kooning’s Woman (1950–53) series earlier that year. Calcagno’s show was similarly a hit, capturing the attention of Time Magazine, which noted that the San Francisco native’s paintings were “saturated with rich California earth tones and the shifting, fog-ridden horizons of the Pacific Coast.” 

Martha Jackson Gallery (1961) (photo by Robert M. McElroy, courtesy Amar Gallery)

Calcagno’s career blossomed from this first exhibition: He would go on to hold a total of 80 solo shows throughout his career, and was included in nine Whitney Biennials (then, the Whitney Annual) in a two-decade span. Yet he went from blue-chip exhibitions and international shows in Paris, London, Copenhagen, and Mexico City down to somewhat unknown status in the years to follow. The Whitney, for example, owns five paintings and watercolors by Calcagno, but last showed them in 1970. Indeed, without the efforts of critics and curators Lawrence Alloway and Gerald Nordland, Calcagno’s legacy as a visionary abstractionist might be even further lost to history. 

Now is the time to revisit the artist, who was grouped in with abstract expressionism and then largely left off its ledgers, but who in reality developed his own network across an itinerant life. In 1955, Time quoted Calcagno on his European influences, or lack thereof: “With the death of Matisse, the great, great tradition of French painting is about worked out.” He added: “There are still major figures like Picasso and Braque, but they are no longer dealing with the immediate thing. The younger painters are seeking a way out. Some of them think we’ve got it.” What Calcagno and his contemporaries “got” was the abstraction of the day: painterly, expressive, and drawn from the unconscious. 

Calcagno adapted what he learned from his schooling at the California School of Fine Arts in San Francisco into a personal style in which bands of distilled bold color recalling horizons cohere into dynamic landscapes filled with reductive brushwork, suggesting the breadth of nature as witnessed at different times of day. Each canvas presents a strong sense of place and time: an image of the ocean amid a storm, a battle between deep blue and black, as in “Pacifica II” (1971); a cross-section of earth, as in the unbroken red and ochre expanses at the far edges of “Sapaque II” (1955), which coalesce into a jumble of jagged, dark strokes at the center. The spirit of these works might have roots in the tutelage of Rothko and Still, but should also be read in the context of his European contemporaries. 

Calcagno 1955
Lawrence Calcagno, “Sapaque II” (1955), oil on canvas, 46 x 44 inches

European masters like Braque and Picasso might’ve not held much sway over Calcagno, but Europe called because of its relatively tolerant view on homosexuality in the 1950s and ‘60s, wherein it was permitted as long as it was in private and out of view. There, he found his peers: On a visit to Paris, he met the painter Beauford Delaney, and the two would spend two years as a couple frequenting museums and cafes. This relationship brought Calcagno in contact with writers James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, friends of Delaney who had come to the French capital to escape racism in the United States and find greater freedom for themselves and their work. 

Delaney and Calcagno in particular grew to share a close artistic bond, tied by their shared belief in the spiritual nature of painting and abstraction, and remained close after Calcagno returned to the US. The two exchanged hundreds of letters in Delaney’s later years. These correspondences were vulnerable and open, the prose verging on the spiritual. In 1959, Delaney wrote: “Dear Larry, your wonderful informative letter arrived today like a celestial sentinel. I had walked into Paris this morning… and here was your letter… It almost made me weak.”

Calcagno’s relationship with Delaney is but one of the many avenues to reading his body of work that have yet to be fully traversed. “Painting was the one avenue through which I could find psychical tolerance and be released,” he once wrote, as quoted in Marika Herskovic’s American Abstract Expressionism of the 1950s: An Illustrated Survey With Artists’ Statements, Artworks and Biographies. “My life has always been motivated not by intellectual or rational considerations but more by a subjective compulsion, by what I love.”

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