Faced in 1985 with Christopher Isherwood’s approaching death at 81 from prostate cancer, the portraitist Don Bachardy, Isherwood’s partner for over 30 years (and 30 years his junior), undertook to draw him daily. Thirty-four of those drawings were presented here, mostly chronologically, starting with Untitled I, July 16, in which Isherwood, wearing only socks and a watch and seated cross-legged, stares out at us apprehensively.
Readers of Isherwood will recognize in these drawings something akin to the radical openness, intimacy and deceptively simple directness that make his books so disarming. Executed in black acrylic watered down to the consistency of ink, the drawings are on large sheets of watercolor paper, between 22 and 40 inches on their largest side. As with all of Bachardy’s works, the drawings were made in sequence, and each without a pause. As is his custom, Bachardy had his sitter sign and date the portraits until, on October 19, he could no longer do so. Isherwood died on Jan. 4, 1986.
Untitled III, Sept 10 shows Isherwood from the perspective of his feet, as he lies back on the bed. His hands are resting between his belly and crotch, and his hard, shining eyes present a powerful contrast with his penis, which tilts limply away. The changing darkness of the ink and pressure of the brush seem to register the body’s varying strength. Isherwood’s crew cut juts out stiffly while the three lines forming his arm from the shoulder to the elbow are a light gray, wavering gently as they widen towards the bottom.
As we look at the drawings, the circumstance of their making is as present as their esthetic qualities. In a 1990 catalogue, Bachardy writes about how much space the working set-up occupied in the sickroom, and about how he hid the drawings when the doctor visited, to allay any questions about propriety. Moving through the gallery, we could trace Isherwood’s aches, moments of bright humor and increasing distance, as much as Bachardy’s own growth as an artist. Bachardy has been exhibiting his drawings, often of celebrities and seductive male nudes, since 1961, and we see his typical style in Untitled II, July 24, where the face and hands are rendered tightly while the rest of the figure is brushed in loosely with a few quick strokes. As time progressed, Isherwood grew less able to pose, and the drawings had to be done more quickly. A blunt spareness replaces illustrative flair, as Bachardy does more with less. In drawings completed in the last week of Isherwood’s life, the emphasis shifts from eyes to dark mouth and beakish nose, the sign of his failing breath and ebbing vitality.
Above: Untitled II, July 24, 1985, acrylic on paper, 301⁄8 by 221⁄8 inches; at Cheim & Read.