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Remembering Wisconsin's Forgotten Gay Artist, Dudley Huppler

Jul. 3, 2017
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I once interviewed a museum curator, who was gay, about an exhibit of African American art. Because several of the show’s artists, notably Kehinde Wiley, were LGBTQ, I asked how being both black and gay influenced their art. With an eye-rolling rebuff he replied, “They were over it.” The follow-up got us no further. Maybe he was concerned about the effect of the “gay stuff” on the exhibit’s attendance or the institution’s future funding. I moved on to easier questions. 

It’s odd. By contrast, straight celebrities’ lives are often measured by their marriages, affairs and lovers. Take Marilyn Monroe or artists like Pablo Picasso or Jackson Pollock whose bios are chronicled in periods of evolving styles that reflect their serial intimacies. Some gay ones, like Rudolfo Valentino, Bessie Smith and Andy Warhol, are as well, but only when there’s something particularly titillating or scandalous about them. 

Speaking of Warhol and Smith, I have a pair of 1945-dated pen-and-ink drawings by Dudley Huppler (1917-1988). Who? Yes, I know. I hadn’t heard of him either until a local art picker sold me the drawings a decade ago. Beyond their eccentric style, the selling point was the Wisconsin artist who drew them and his impeccably gay credentials including an association with Warhol. The sales pitch also mentioned Huppler as Karl Priebe’s lover; in fact, the drawings once belonged to Priebe—according to the notation scribbled on their paper backing. (Priebe was, himself, a well-known mid-20th-century Milwaukee artist.)

Priebe aficionados flutter on about his “birds.” He painted lots of them. But he really should be recognized for his paintings of black cultural personalities like Bessie Smith; something which would hardly have been typical of the era. And, looking through his works, a recurring black male in a baseball cap appears. His name is Berto, according to one painting’s title. Perhaps Berto was just a model… But, like his relationship with Huppler, this gets rare mention when the ladies come and go speaking of Karl Priebe. 

Anyway, according to Robert Cozzolino’s book, Dudley Huppler: Drawings, Huppler was born in Muscoda, Wis. A precocious, self-taught artist, he studied English at UW-Madison in the late 1930s and joined Marshall Glasier’s salon of artsy black, white, gay and straight “brilliant misfits.” He also met his “best boyfriend,” Karl Priebe, shuttling frequently to Milwaukee to be with him.

Around 1949, he moved to New York City. There, through his art, ambition and natural gifts, Huppler penetrated the innermost circles of gay aristocracy. His work found its way into the hands of W.H. Auden and Ezra Pound. Befriended by renowned photographer George Platt Lynes, the young parvenu was social gold. 

In 1955, he became a member of Warhol’s entourage, collaborating with the famed artist on various projects, while, in letters to Priebe, cattily referring to him as “Warthole.” All this (and much more) transpired during the infamous Red and Lavender Scares under another Wisconsinite, Sen. Joseph McCarthy. 

Eventually, Huppler returned to Wisconsin to teach English. His drawings, meanwhile, focused on male nudes. “Few deny that Huppler was a powerful, almost devastating, personality in their lives,” writes Cozzolino. Yet, few know him as an important gay Wisconsin artist or Priebe’s lover. Well, now you know.

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