While the late artist George Dureau always has been something of a legendary figure in the New Orleans art scene, his reputation never extended considerably beyond the Crescent City.
Next month, a new publication from the Aperture Foundation aims to correct that imbalance in the art historical record.
Sumptuously illustrated with nearly 100 duotone photographs, “George Dureau: The Photographs” marks the first collection of Dureau’s work to be published in more than 30 years and chronicles what its publisher calls the artist’s “40-year romance with the male figure as subject.”
Dureau also had a lifelong romance with New Orleans. He was born in the Irish Channel in 1930 and, except for his time at LSU and a brief Army tour, made the city his home and career base for the rest of his life. For several decades, he was a familiar presence in the streets surrounding his French Quarter home and studio.
According to Philip Gefter, who wrote an essay accompanying the photographs, Dureau’s close connection with his native city is one reason why his work isn’t better known to a wider audience.
“Dureau is little-known primarily because he stayed in his hometown, New Orleans, and did what all real artists want to do — spend their days making art instead of making connections to promote it,” Gefter said. “So, yes, he is underappreciated in art history, and I hope to change that.”
And of course, the explicitly homoerotic nature of Dureau’s photography also has been a factor in his relative obscurity outside of gay art circles.
While Dureau’s drawings, paintings and murals (including his monumental pediment frieze at Harrah’s Casino and his raucously elegant murals at Gallier Hall and Café Sbisa in the French Quarter) incorporate a variety of classical and Carnival-related motifs, most of his photographs were of the friends, lovers and drifters who visited his studio in the French Quarter from the 1960s until the years preceding his death in 2014.
“They are male nudes, for one thing, but more surprising than stereotypical specimens of American male perfection,” Gefter said. “Dureau photographed Caucasians, African-Americans, dwarfs and amputees with equal regard and a clear-eyed observation of the male form.”
Gefter also emphasizes that there’s much more going on in Dureau’s photograph than their often-startling eroticism.
“They are classical studies, tinged with the erotic, and full of insight about the human body,” Gefter said. “His connection to his subjects is an indelible ingredient in all of them.”
The Aperture book arrives not long after the recent release of an HBO documentary on the life and work of Dureau’s younger artistic contemporary (and occasional rival) Robert Mapplethorpe, and there are certain formal similarities in the work of the two artists.
But where Mapplethorpe’s portraits tend towards the cool and detached, Dureau looked at his subjects with a palpable tenderness and a more nuanced sense of their individuality.
And comparisons with Mapplethorpe aside, Dureau’s work deserves attention on its own merits.
For Gefter, the key to understanding and appreciating Dureau’s work is simple.
“Just look at the pictures and allow your eye to roam,” Gefter said. “They get better every time you look at them.”