Drawn to Many Directions: The Mark Beard Effect

Bruce Sargeant’s “Lost Profile in Three Quarter” (1998. Oil on canvas, 12 x 10 in.).

BY GERALD BUSBY

When Abercrombie & Fitch opened the doors of its flagship store on Fifth Avenue in 2005, screaming teenagers rushed into the perfectly lit sales rooms. T-shirts and jeans were displayed in flawlessly neat rows on tables near the walls covered with artist Mark Beard’s murals of partly dressed young men in a locker room. The scene was unabashedly homoerotic, and the young customers started trying on clothes as their friends watched. They became part of the mural.

Mark was born in Utah and spent formative years in England. He learned good manners and how to draw. Drawing became the foundation of his art. One of the first things he did when he got his loft on W. 27th St. in the early ’80s was buy easels and start a life-drawing class. His students would take turns modeling nude for the rest of the class. It worked like a charm and still does. The class meets every Thursday evening, now in Mark’s spacious studio on W. 38th St.

From the very beginning of his career, Mark has thrown memorable parties, and his Christmas party, still happening annually, is his most successful. It’s not unusual for 400 people to show up. Every guest brings an ornament for the 10-foot tree in the center of the room, and wine flows freely at the bar, staffed by attractive dancers. An enormous pot of jambalaya feeds the guests a stand-up buffet. Gay and straight men and women of all ages and degrees of success happily mix, elbow to elbow, as they eat from paper plates. Large paintings of Mark’s iconic young men, dressing to do something athletic, line the walls of the studio. There’s even a bronze statue to stand next to for a selfie.

Thanksgiving dinner at Mark’s studio has, for over 30 years, been a special kind of gathering. Artists Mark has known and worked with since he was young sit like happy children at designated places around the festive holiday table. Actors Lola Pashalinski and Black-Eyed Susan, from the late Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company, are there. So is Michael Feingold, drama critic for decades with the Village Voice. His literate opinions and observations about plays and other shows running in New York are always a delight because of his wry and cryptic way of speaking. Just before dessert, Mark stands and interrupts the lively chatter to say, “On the count of three, everyone say what they’re grateful for!” “Money” is usually the loudest declaration of gratitude, and it often comes from Mark himself.

Mark improvises within a broad range of social skills, artistic creations, and intimate connections with others. It’s no surprise his work is in the collections of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, and the Whitney, as well as major museums in Europe.

Ever since I’ve known him, almost 40 years, Mark has created characters with imposing names like Bruce Sargeant, Edith Thayer Cromwell, and Brechtholdt Streeruwitz, who work in styles distinct from his own. He’s written extensive biographies of each character, and features them, as his alter egos, in gallery exhibitions. Mark, as himself, also produces every now and then a painting that seems to emerge with quiet elegance from his other prodigious output. It’s often a portrait of a friend, a fellow artist, or a lover who died of AIDS. These singular, indelible works are audaciously sincere and emotionally gripping.

Mark Beard in Waterbury, CT, at the 2013 Mattatuck Museum exhibition of his work as imaginary great-uncle Bruce Sargeant (1898-1938).

Mark’s great-grandfather, George Beard, immigrated in the late 19th century from England to Utah as a Mormon convert, and became involved in politics when Utah emerged as a state in 1896. In Mormon history, he’s referred to as a “Mormon pioneer artist” for his landscape paintings. He helped design the Utah state seal and named lakes and mountains in the roadless wilderness of the Uinta Mountains. He was influenced by Thomas Moran, whose photographs of Utah’s panoramic beauty are famous. It was with photography that George Beard made a larger name for himself. His platinum prints and glass negatives are in the Smithsonian.

Mark might have inherited his urge to create from his great grandfather, a handsome young artist/politician in the stunning wilds of Utah. Mark brought that rugged artistic fervor to New York and expanded it to include himself as an openly gay artist with large-scale ambitions. He’s succeeded notably.

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