There’s more to Cary Leibowitz than just Candyass

At 53, Jewish gay artist Cary Leibowitz has landed his first-ever solo museum exhibition, which includes over 350 artworks from 1987 onward.

Cary Leibowitz was a precocious kid. Growing up middle-class, Jewish and gay in suburban Connecticut in the 1960s, the New York-based artist penned essays in the first grade declaring his admiration for Frank Lloyd Wright, and had a subscription to Architectural Digest by the time he was 10.

At 13, his dreams of grandeur took the form of what he calls “total gay-boy art,” drawings of fictionalized All-American suburban neighborhoods, and fantasies of swanning through elegant rooms designed by interior decorator maven Pauline de Rothschild. He went on to study architecture at Pratt, switched to painting, and by 1987, adopted the moniker “Candyass” because, as he once told art critic Holland Cotter, “It sounded like a Jewish accountant and a rap singer working together.” Droll humor, self-deprecation, a bundle of insecurities and stand-up comedy shtick characterize his work, as do self-loathing, Jewish neuroses and a queer sensibility that’s difficult to define. All these elements coalesce in an outsider who never felt like the cool guy and still doesn’t, a state of affairs that has had its advantages.

While it’s true he has made a name for himself playing the loser card, in “real life” he’s a success, with a full-time job at the Phillips Auction House in New York, a recent marriage to his partner of 16 years, and a country house designed by his hero, architect Robert Venturi.

“It’s all so grown-up,” reflects Leibowitz, who now, at the age of 53, has landed his first-ever solo museum exhibition.

The show, which opens at the Contemporary Jewish Museum next week, includes over 350 artworks from 1987 onward: paintings, prints, installations and mass-produced multiples that tilt toward camp and kitsch, and text-based works that make plaintive pleas for reassurance (“Do these pants make me look Jewish?”), profess love for artists from Michelangelo and Keith Haring to Andy Warhol, and traffic in testaments to arrested development that just won’t quit, like the hand-scrawled open letter that asks the recipient to check one of the following boxes: “You love me too; you are in-like with me; you need more time; you wish you never met me.” Hey, whether we’re 6 or 60, we could all do with a little more clarification, right?

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