Tennessee Williams Paintings at Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU
Michael Adno, New York Times, Sept. 21, 2018
The playwright’s little-known artworks provide an intimate look at his preoccupation with eternal questions and his feeling of being an outsider.
KEY WEST, Fla. — In 1941, Tennessee Williams arrived here to dry out in a little cottage on Duval Street. Over the next four decades, living off and on in Key West, Williams became one of America’s foremost playwrights, amassing a body of work that included poems and stories as well.
He also made hundreds of paintings that give us an intimate, unfiltered look at how he struggled with his sexuality and loneliness and reconciled himself to his place in the world. Through Oct. 7, nine of Williams’s paintings are on display at Florida International University at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU in Miami. Like his plays, these works map social taboos that still haunt America.
Williams came to Key West, Fla., in 1941 and lived there, on and off, for the next four decades.
After arriving in Key West, Williams settled into an antebellum boardinghouse and rewrote his 1940 play, “Battle of Angels,” which had run for only two weeks in Boston. Despite this flop, he continued to work tenaciously, eventually remaking the play into “Orpheus Descending.” “Perhaps I have really burned my daemon out,” he wrote in his notebook, before adding: “I don’t think so. I think he is still a phoenix and not a cooked goose.”
Then Williams moved to the La Concha Hotel, where he wrote the final draft of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which garnered his first Pulitzer Prize in 1948. Following his ascension, he hemmed himself into a house several blocks off Duval, finally buying it in 1950. He remained there until his death in 1983. “I work everywhere,” he would say, “but I work best here.”
“The Blaze of the Moment” is among the nine Williams paintings on view at the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU in Miami. (Credit: David Wolkowsky, via the Key West Art & Historical Society)
In Key West, friends would find Williams in front of his typewriter, encircled by manuscripts, paintbrushes and unopened mail. Throughout the 1970s, tourists walked past the house, where he sold paintings — sometimes not yet dry — over his fence. More than once, he arrived at a dinner with a fresh canvas under his arm as a gift.
Because of his paintings’ haphazard distribution, no one can say how many exist. In the nine works in the Jewish Museum show, “Tennessee Williams — Playwright and Painter,” references to Jean Genet, Arthur Rimbaud and Wallace Stevens mingle with religious iconography and his own characters. There’s even a portrait of the actor Michael York, who starred in Williams’s “Out Cry” in 1973.
Throughout the 1970s, tourists walked past his house in Key West, where he sold paintings, sometimes not yet dry, over his fence.
Williams’s preoccupation with the eternal questions of love and death hang over his work. The novelist Edmund White, whose name has become synonymous with gay literature, believed that Williams’s plays “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “A Streetcar Named Desire” were — in a veiled way — expressions of gay desire. Though these Broadway-bound works couldn’t risk dealing with these themes head-on, short stories like “Desire and the Black Masseur” certainly did.
“I think he was the first to write about that explicitly,” Mr. White said in a telephone interview, adding that this work made gay life more visible to him — and to America — when he was growing up in the 1950s. “Certainly, as a young gay kid, I turned on to that work tremendously.”
Beyond his plays, Williams’s paintings were a means to delve into subjects like what it meant to be a gay man in America. In “Le Solitaire,” for instance, you can see how lonely his path was. And in “Citizen of World III,” a young man sits in a chair that resembles the rattan piece Williams owned, its back forming a halo around the subject, while numbers float in front of him like points on a dart board. At the bottom, the painting’s title is followed by the phrase “SET FOR TARGET PRACTISE,” [sic] possibly alluding to Williams’s frustration with his work’s reception and to the violence directed at him in the 1970s.
At that time, after a Baptist preacher’s advertisement urging readers to “root out sodomites” appeared in the local Key West newspaper, a number of anti-gay crimes followed. Twice, “punks,” as Williams described them, jumped him, which he reported one time to the police, stirring a firestorm of publicity and backlash.
In 1981, the author Dotson Rader, Williams’s friend, wrote of one incident in which he and Williams were singing to a group on the street when a man flashed a knife. Mr. Rader desperately tried to pry Williams away. Instead, Williams shouted: “My name is Tennessee Williams! And I am not in the habit of retreating.” After the group pummeled Williams and Mr. Rader, one of the men was identified as a local police officer’s son. No one was ever charged.
Most chilling was the 1979 murder of Williams’s landscaper, Frank Fontis, a fellow gay man who was shot in the head in the Railroad Museum’s living quarters. That same night, Williams’s house was torn apart. Then his dog vanished. When local men urinated on the lawn, Williams told Mr. Rader, “Baby, it’s probably good for the plants.” Teenagers sometimes threw cans onto Williams’s porch, shouting epithets. Nevertheless, he stayed, writing and painting. These were ways he coped with volatility.
His paintings are testament to his indomitable character. As Jacqueline Goldstein, the Jewish Museum’s curator, said in an interview, “They’re a window into his consciousness,” revealing a more fluid, layered sense of him.
Susan Gladstone, the museum’s executive director, said that she believed that the show spoke to how Williams carved out space for gay culture. “Life has changed in America,” she said, “some of it as a result of things he wrote.”
The nine works at the Jewish Museum come from the Key West Art & Historical Society, which has the largest collection of Williams’s works. They are on permanent loan from the estate of Williams’s principal evangelist, David Wolkowsky, who was known as Mr. Key West before he died because of his role in developing and promoting the town as an artist colony. Williams regularly escaped to Ballast Key, a private island Mr. Wolkowsky owned off Key West. And because Mr. Wolkowsky came from one of the prominent Jewish families in Florida, the show at the Jewish Museum took shape, despite Williams’s lack of Jewish ancestry.
Cori Convertito, a curator at the historical society, said in an interview that Williams’s paintings “show how disjointed he was as a person,” adding that she thought the work “was cathartic for him.”
Over the past few years, the historical society’s collection has appeared in New Orleans, St. Louis and Key West, but Ms. Convertito said she hoped it would return to Mississippi, Williams’s birthplace. She added that she would like to organize a show in New York City to coincide with a Broadway production of one of his plays.
Through his work, Williams revealed the viscera of his own life and a cross-section of America. For this, the United States celebrated him — he received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1980 — but his fears of never writing a hit again or descending into madness, like his sister, haunted him.
After The Chicago Tribune dismissed Williams’s play “A House Not Meant to Stand” in 1982, he wrote to a friend that he was working on a new play called “The Lingering Hour.” A month later, he wrote to another friend: “I don’t understand my life, past or present, nor do I understand life itself. Death seems more comprehensible to me.”
Less than a year later, Williams was found dead in his room at the Hotel Elysée in New York, after choking on an eyedropper’s plastic cap. Not long before, he had written in his notebook, “I am observing life and the approaching conclusion of my life and I see a long, long desolation about me, now at the end.” Williams continued, “The best I can say for myself is that I worked like hell.”
A version of this article appears in print on Oct. 1, 2018, on Page C4 of the New York edition with the headline: Tennessee Williams, Paint Brush in Hand.