Rediscovering Richard Caldwell Brewer: Bay Area gay painter may finally get his due

  • by Robert Brokl
  • Sunday June 2, 2024
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Richard Caldwell Brewer in his Polk Street apartment, 1970; "Portrait of Hank," 1968 (images courtesy Robert Brokl and Alfred Crofts)
Richard Caldwell Brewer in his Polk Street apartment, 1970; "Portrait of Hank," 1968 (images courtesy Robert Brokl and Alfred Crofts)

Richard Caldwell (Dick) Brewer (1923-2014), may be one of the most interesting but uncelebrated gay artists in America. He belonged to a charmed circle of better-known artist friends, and lived in the right places at the right times, postwar Paris and New York.

But his choice of subject matter — male nudes — his isolation in San Francisco and then Tiburon far from the art capital of New York, and his choice of a mentally ill former street hustler, Steven Krstich, as a live-in companion, all worked against him.

"Buddies (Ace and Steve)," 1969 (collection of ONE Archives/USC/LA)  

But this may be Brewer's moment. Letters from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gary Snyder to Brewer just sold at auction for more than $3,000, his work is doing boffo business at the boutique Lost Art Salon in San Francisco, and there's even the dubious distinction of fake Brewers proliferating online.

Lifelong cohorts
Brewer had lasting friendships with art world notables such as curator/collector Samuel Wagstaff, Robert De Niro Sr. and his ex-wife, artist Virginia Admiral, (parents of the actor), Nell Blaine, Leland Bell and Louisa Matthiasdottir, husband and wife painters. His circle also included film critic Pauline Kael, and painters Hyde Solomon and Lawrence Calcagno.

"Man in Red Shirt," 1972 (courtesy Robert Brokl and Alfred Crofts)  

All were gay except for Admiral, Bell, Mattisdottir, and Kael, but De Niro was deeply closeted and most of the others were discreet about it. As "traditionalists," they were sideswiped first by Abstract Expressionism and then Pop Art.

Brewer was influenced by the work of Picasso, Matisse, Derain and Jean Helion, and Picasso and Matisse's bold celebration of the female nude may have encouraged Brewer to do the same with the male nude. While their nudes have been mainstreamed, Brewer's male nudes— expressively painted, unabashedly erotic— remain transgressive.

His courtly manner and reverence for old masters may have inhibited him from a more provocative Robert Mapplethorpe-style campaign for recognition.

Steven Krstich in Brewer's Polk St. apartment, ca. 1970 (Brewer's painting "Nude with Sunglasses" on the wall. (courtesy Robert Brokl and Alfred Crofts)  

Brewer's New York artist circle is labelled "second generation New York School." Bell, Blaine, and Solomon showed at the pioneering Jane Street Gallery, and Matthiasdottir, Blaine, and De Niro studied with the influential painter Hans Hoffmann.

Bell introduced Brewer to De Niro at a lumberyard in Provincetown in 1942, the location of Hoffmann's school. Brewer maintained their friendship was platonic, but De Niro wrote to him tenderly:

"As I look back (and I often do) the restaurant where we met had little to recommend it except you, sitting across from me, dipping your doughnut in espresso, your hair combed back on one side and over your eye on the other, wearing that quasi cashmere sweater with the inscription 'I left my heart in S.F.' At that time, I think, your heart was intact and in your possession. You didn't even know that I wanted it. I hardly knew it yet, myself."

One of Richard Caldwell Brewer's paintings damaged by David Krstich (Steven's brother). (courtesy Robert Brokl and Alfred Crofts)  

Early encounters
Brewer attended high school with Bell in Washington, D.C. Brewer's asthma prevented him from serving in the military, so he enlisted in the Merchant Marines, and spent time post-war attending the Ecole De Beaux Arts in Paris, where he painted and drew his friends and pick-ups.

Like Samuel Steward and John Rechy, and perhaps influenced by Alfred Kinsey's record-keeping, Brewer kept a diary of his sexual history, beginning in high school. His journal records he and Rechy actually crossed paths in 1966 at an El Paso, Texas bus stop. Other writings included "Biggest Cocks," "Lost Chances," and "Hitching," with accounts of encounters in YMCA's and hotels in San Francisco, New York, and Washington.

He began as a supplicant to Wagstaff, who was beginning his museum career at the Wadsworth Atheneum and before he took up with Mapplethorpe.

"Untitled (self-portrait)," 1950 (courtesy Robert Brokl and Alfred Crofts)  

The relationship with Brewer turned sexual, with benefits; Wagstaff's support for his painting. Wagstaff lauds him as "Priapus Dick" and in another letter. " easy you are to get naked for & the special thrill of intimacy that your sexuality (& you can't deny that, Baby) inspires. It's also what your paintings do."

Poetic connections
On the West Coast, Brewer knew several writers and poets, including Robert Duncan (whose partner was the artist Jess), Snyder, and Beat poet Phillip Whalen. He likely met Pauline Kael through Duncan, both former U.C. Berkeley students.

"Untitled (intellectual pursuits)", 1950s (courtesy Robert Brokl and Alfred Crofts)  

Brewer claimed to have rebuffed Duncan's advances, but thought Snyder and Bell would have been his ideal partners, had they not been straight. Brewer drew patrons of bars and cafes for pay, sometimes accompanied by Beat artist, Robert LaVigne.

Brewer and Whalen manned fire watchtowers in the Sierras, Snyder's home. Snyder's tribute poem to Brewer, "August On Sourdough, A Visit From Dick Brewer," appeared in the prestigious Holiday Magazine August 1966 issue.

Bohemian raps
The Tiburon cottage was Brewer's anchor. Located on Corinthian Island in affluent Tiburon, it was a mere 700 square feet, a converted garage owned by his aunt and uncle, which he bought with the inheritance from his father.

After his beloved mother, Roz, moved in, he followed in 1974 after her death. He and Steven were the resident Bohemians, and he loved the tony address, maybe because he took the ferry to janitorial night jobs.

"Untitled," pencil 1953 (courtesy Robert Brokl and Alfred Crofts)  

Steven may have been a mixed blessing, but his "petty criminal" (Steven's description) brother David broke into the Polk Street apartment that Brewer rented before the Tiburon move, inflicted a devastating blow. He slashed thirteen portrait paintings, mostly nudes of Steven, ripping the torsos and removing the heads.

Career pinnacle
The Top Floor Gallery solo show in 1979, occupying an entire floor in the Gay Community Center (later demolished) on Grove Street, was Brewer's apotheosis. The show earned mention, "...audacious in a different way...(with) an emphasis on genitalia," by the powerful San Francisco Chronicle art critic, Thomas Albright.

De Niro contributed the exhibit statement, an art historical justification for the male nude. Most of the paintings featured Krstich, the straight-identified former street hustler. Brewer was in his mid-40s, Steven in his early 20s when they met, and Brewer exhaustively documented his appearance, from tough, working-class beauty to later years of dissipation and mental problems.

Krstich began to draw and paint, too, and they depicted themselves and each other, working away and filling the cottage with work.

Brewer later turned to small abstractions featuring primary colors and all-over compositions like Jackson Pollack. He was justifiably disappointed, even embittered, about neglect by the art world, and died in 2014. Steven moved to Emeryville after the Tiburon cottage was sold. Virtually friendless, he stopped painting after Brewer's death, dying in 2022.

Occasionally, overdue recognition finally arrives, if too late for the artist to benefit. Brewer's paintings are now in the collections of the ONE Archives at USC in Los Angeles, the GLBT Historical Society in San Francisco (including the slashed paintings and work by Krstich), and the renowned Bancroft Library at U.C. Berkeley which holds Brewer's papers, drawings, and the time capsule treasure, "My History."

Lost Art Salon, 245 South Van Ness Ave.; Mon.-Sat. 10:30am-5:30pm. Appointments or walk-ins.

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