EDWARD MELCARTH was a painter, sculptor, illustrator, lecturer and teacher, born in Louisville, Kentucky, as Edward Epstein Jr., on this date (d: 1973).
Edward Melcarth — daring to live as an openly homosexual man and not hiding his support for communism – hasn’t quite, as yet, earned a significant place in modern art’s canonical history. His achievements were overshadowed by the art establishment’s preoccupation with Abstract Expressionism, whose rise coincided with Melcarth’s development of his own personal, mature artistic language.
He railed against the popularity of abstract expressionism, creating his own niche as a figurative painter working on a monumental scale. Melcarth’s typical subject matter was contemporary working-class men depicted in a heroic style, an influence of his communist politics and sexuality. Scholars are only now beginning to seriously examine the incredible realists who were working in the midcentury, and Melcarth was one of the best.
He and artist Thomas Painter lived together in New York for some time during the decades following WWII. They shared friends, artistic interests — and sexual partners. Melcarth and Painter were among the research subjects who provided testimonials about their own homosexual associates’ sexual activities to the pioneering sexologist Alfred Kinsey. These reports were detailed, and from them one can learn something about Melcarth, whose appetite for sex was rapacious.”
When Abstract Expressionism exploded in the 1950s, Edward Melcarth was painting and sculpting construction workers, junkies, and hustlers in an epic style, highly influenced by Renaissance painters like Paolo Veronese and Tintoretto. This link between the past and present was a significant feature of his artistic vision, one that still has a striking effect on the viewer to this day. His casting contemporary scenes in a heroic model is a revolutionary gesture and worthy, at the very least, of a deeper investigation into his artwork and life.
Named in Life magazine in 1950 as one of the best young American artists, he exhibited as a painter, draftsman and sculptor and also practiced as an illustrator, photographer and designer. With his solid understanding of art history and fine drawing skills, Melcarth celebrated paganism and bemoaned modern art’s banishment of the human body as a central theme.
Sadly, not much attention was paid to him later in life. Nonetheless, his murals can be found on the walls of the Pierre Hotel in New York City. His work was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in the 1940s and at Manhattan galleries over a decades-long timespan, and he knew just about every significant person in the art world: Peggy Guggenheim (for whom he designed a famous pair of bat-shaped sunglasses); Tennessee Williams; Gore Vidal; and the flamboyantly closeted art collector and Forbes magazine publisher, Malcolm Forbes.
In the late 1960s, Melcarth left New York and settled in Venice, where he focused on making sculpture and died of cancer in 1973. At some point during his New York years, he had met Malcolm Forbes, who became a regular collector-patron and, after Melcarth’s death, acquired a large quantity of his works.
Forbes was an enthusiastic collector. He began acquiring Melcarth’s work in the early 1960s and after the artist’s death, Forbes purchased the bulk of his estate. Over 100 works of Melcarth’s art, along with photographs and ephemera, were gifted to the archive Faulkner Morgan Archive.
His circle also included many other artists as well as countless, now nameless hustlers, sailors, beach bums, and representatives of working-class “trade” who posed for his pictures and with whom he probably had sex.