AS A BOY, HE OFTEN LAY IN THE GRASS to watch the billowing cumulus clouds roll in from the Black Range. A sweet-eyed bassoon player who also liked to read about Greek and Roman mythology, he was shaped by the rough-and-tumble town of Hot Springs as much as he stood out in it. Both he and his father liked the many jovial cowboys who came to the nearby warm mineral springs for relaxation and recklessness.
He loved to watch them.
He’d take a tractor to the rodeo grounds, grading the arena as he observed male bonding, rassling and rough-housing, dust blooming up from the animals’ hooves, the way the wranglers’ snap-button shirts and dark denim moved with them. After Hot Springs became Truth or Consequences, in 1950, he’d proudly ride his horse, Roxy, in the annual Fiesta parade. Of all the movie cowboys, he liked Roy Rogers best, often heading to El Cortez Theater to take in a Western starring the King of the Cowboys. He saw his dad drinking whiskey with the guys, trading stories of ranch life, and he savored their shared aroma, an unmistakably masculine blend of tobacco, sweat, and leather.
“I WAS JUST A BABY QUEER,” DELMAS HOWE remembers in his storefront home and studio on Main Avenue, in Truth or Consequences. When I visit the town’s most famous painter, now 87, one sweltering day in July, he’s surrounded by the flotsam and jetsam of a lifetime spent intermingled with art—and men. They grin out at us from carefully arranged paintings, ripped-out magazine pages, old photographs, and a mural that sprawls across one giant wall, unfolding the story of Howe’s life thus far. Some of the men are old friends, some are famous. Some are leather daddies, many are nude. Most are dressed like cowboys.
In the 1990s, art critic Edward Lucie-Smith called Howe “probably America’s best-known ‘gay artist’—in the sense that he is the best-known artist who puts homosexual feeling at the very center of his work.” In his Neoclassical–Realist style, Howe has often mythologized the cowboys at the core of his gay origin story. His large-scale paintings set them against true-blue Western skies with plumes of pristine clouds, their figures arranged in artful harmony with the land and animals they work. In Rodeo Pantheon, his best-known series, their gracefully rendered musculature recalls the old masters’ depictions of Olympian deities. But Howe’s gods are archetypically American, perched on rodeo gates and standing before trailer homes. You might not see the Skoal tobacco rings on the seat of their jeans pockets—they may not even be wearing pants—but you know they’re there.
These days, Howe is gearing up for an exhibition that represents a substantial shift in his perspective. His longtime hometown gallery, Rio Bravo Fine Art, shows Delmas Howe—Mood Drawings: The Good Grief Series from October 14 through November 26. Timed to be displayed for Howe’s 88th birthday, the series of abstractions stems from the artist’s fading eyesight.
The fireworklike paintings are exercises in which the artist works out his shifting moods on smaller canvases. “Early stages of glaucoma could be the situation,” says Rio Bravo owner and director Eduardo Alicea. He took over as Howe’s gallerist 20 years ago, after the death of another well-known Truth or Consequences painter, Harold Joe Waldrum, who founded the gallery in 2000. Alicea says that even after laser and cataract surgeries, Howe’s vision is simply not what it used to be, though no macular degeneration has thus far been diagnosed.
OVER THE STRAINS OF OPERA ON PUBLIC RADIO, Howe gestures toward the mural of his life’s timeline. “I’ve always done a little abstraction,” he says. “When I first moved to New York, you couldn’t get a hotel room if you weren’t an Abstract Expressionist.” We’re talking about the “young man” phase of the wall painting, which portrays the artist in his twenties and thirties alongside a multiplying cadre of friends and lovers, a giant surrealist hamburger popping out among them. (“That’s all I ever ate in New York,” he explains sheepishly.)
Howe took a circuitous route to his art education in New York, which began in 1960. Before that, he went to Wichita State University, then attended the Air Force Academy and played the bassoon in the Air Force Band. While gigging around the city as a working musician, he took classes at the Art Students League of New York from Robert Beverly Hale, the most acclaimed anatomy drawing instructor of his time. “I didn’t know how to draw, really,” he muses. “And that’s something you can be taught.”
Although he scored a scholarship at Yale University for graduate studies in music, Howe soon abandoned that career path, applying the same discipline he’d honed playing Mozart’s Bassoon Concerto to his study of art. “I became one of the starving artists in the streets of New York,” he says cheerfully. He frequented a bar called Boots and Saddle, along with a few other watering holes where it was okay to be gay and cool to be a cowboy. “In those days, you had to carry around a bag with a change of clothes,” he says, his mouth twisting wryly. “Because one bar was leather and the other was collegiate, and the other was Western, so you had to change your costume to have the right look at every bar.”
“I began painting for the gay community before it was legal to be gay,” he continues quietly. By the time critic Lucie-Smith put his work on the cover of a magazine (“my big break”), he’d witnessed the 1969 Stonewall uprising by gay and transgender activists in Greenwich Village and shown his work alongside queer artist Robert Mapplethorpe’s early collages. He eventually returned to Truth or Consequences for a quieter life and to care for his aging parents and follow his own artistic vision, which he’s been steadily executing in his art- and antique-filled Main Avenue digs ever since.
Probably because of his work’s pioneering and blatant homoeroticism, Howe is seen by many as an underrated American artist, though his paintings are in the collections of the British Museum, Amarillo Art Center, Albuquerque Museum, and New Mexico Museum of Art. The 2019 traveling U.S. exhibition Art After Stonewall: 1969–1989 showed Howe’s most famous painting, The Three Graces (1978). That canvas spent more than two decades under someone’s bed before it was returned to Howe and then acquired by the Albuquerque Museum in 2010.
“A friend of mine bought it, and he died of AIDS,” Howe says. “His partner had the painting under the bed because he couldn’t show it. It would identify him as being gay.”
Now hanging in the Albuquerque Museum’s long-term exhibition, Common Ground: Art in New Mexico, The Three Graces shows three mostly shirtless blue-collar guys standing in a furrowed field, Howe’s signature clouds and celestial sky behind them. Their lean, muscled torsos and ropy arms confer a godlike grace upon their ripped denim and dirty boots. “To Howe, cowboys represent an authentically American equivalent to the gods of classical antiquity because their hyper-masculinity has been raised to a mythic level in the American consciousness,” reads the museum’s text label.
Albuquerque Museum director Andrew Connors remembers when he first saw the painting on a visit to Howe’s studio. “I studied it in college, in a class called Art of the Seventies,” he says. It had been recently returned to the artist by the original buyer’s relatives. Howe asked the curator if he’d show it at the museum. “I said absolutely,” Connors recalls. “The Three Graces deals with the Western male and homoeroticism without the challenging anatomy that’s sometimes hard to put in a museum.” Howe decided to donate the work “to the people of New Mexico.”
Connors agreed with his dedication. “We are such a diverse state,” Connors says, “and that diversity includes sexual preference. So Delmas’s work is absolutely perfect in Common Ground.”
WHEN I LEAVE HOWE’S ABODE AFTER OUR FIRST visit, it’s crept up to 107 degrees. I point my car toward Elephant Butte Lake for a swim. As its humped landforms appear before me, I think about Howe’s stories of the interesting men who worked at the dam site there in the first half of the 20th century, and how they went to the town once called Ojo Caliente de las Palomas by the vaqueros, and known as Hot Springs by the Anglos, to blow off steam, carouse, and cowboy around.
I slip into the warm water and swim out to where the lake becomes deeper, bluer, and colder. I float on my back, stare up at what I’m now calling “Delmas Howe clouds,” impossibly fluffy in the summer sky, and hum Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now.” “I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now/From up and down and still somehow… I really don’t know clouds at all,” she sings.
Slides of Howe’s art and life breeze by in my mind’s eye. I think about how I don’t totally understand Howe’s newer works. I prefer the strapping nudes of the Rodeo Pantheon, the grit and cheek of The Three Graces, and even the four historical murals he painted for the Geronimo Springs Museum, located across the street from his studio. But there’s still something mysterious and compelling in The Good Grief Series’s constellations and deliberate dots and dashes of color. There are stories contained in their patterns and rhythms.
What happens when a visual artist’s sight begins to dim? What a melancholy prospect it must be for a once-masterful figurative painter like Howe, although the decline can be a revelatory journey, too. After all, Georgia O’Keeffe’s The Beyond (1972), a giant abstract landscape painted when she had macular degeneration, is a metaphysical masterpiece.
I close my eyes. A sunburst after-image floats before my vision. It looks just like one of Howe’s new paintings.