If you’re like me and have been rummaging around the Internets for archives of bygone LGBTQ magazines, you may recognize that half of the perfectly sleazy title to this article is ripped straight from the pages of a 1989 issue of Outweek Magazine. From the 1950s on, magazines such as the activist Outweek, and many others, have provided queer readers with a point of access to a larger and sometimes, disperse queer community.
Highlighting one of the most artistic aspects of gay publishing, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art’s titillatingly titled current exhibition Stroke: From Under the Mattress to the Museum Walls celebrates the power of erotic illustrations by artists who made work for gay male magazines from the 1950s to the 1990s. Curated by Robert W. Richards, who is an accomplished illustrator himself, the exhibition ranges from everyone’s favorite hyper-masculine hero Tom of Finland to his precursor Blade to more contemporary artists such as Michael Breyette. Marking the first exhibition to bring together these illustrations, half of the works come straight from the Leslie-Lohman Museum’s own vast collection.
Our role model Buddy Cole has passionately stated, “I have enormous respect for filth.” And I’m so glad Robert W. Richards and the Leslie-Lohman Museum do too. As some of you may know, art history can be a very conservative field. In fact, many art historians would clutch their pearls at just the thought of illustrations being considered as art, let alone gay male pornography. However, looking around Stroke, there can be no mistake that these illustrations are art in every sense of the word: aesthetically beautiful, often challenging, socially important and just the right amount of raunchy. If that’s not art, I don’t know what is.
Elevating these illustrations to their rightful place, treading the line between high and low art, Stroke reveals the historical significance these illustrations have to the visibility of gay male sexuality. Beginning in the late 1940s, illustrations created a visual language to depict a then silenced and largely invisible sexuality. At a time when many men were closeted or rejected by their families for their sexual identities, the magazine illustrations provided the powerful knowledge that these men were not alone in desiring and wanting to be desired.
Available on the newsstands, street corners, drug stores and naturally, porn shops across America, many of these magazines were often billed as muscle mags like Bob Mizer’s iconic Physique Pictorial. As Richards states in the press release, “Buying one of these publications required an act of courage, especially if the small-town drugstore owner knew the buyer and his family most of their lives.” Like our particular favorite, queer pulp fiction novels, magazines linked gay men together through a coded language to speak about and represent sexuality, allowing men to access an unwavering, unabashed depiction of gay male intimacy.
Walking through Stroke, even though I was well-aware these images were not meant for me personally, I was fascinated by the idealized representation and assertion of various gay male aesthetics. Beyond the sucking and yes, the fucking, the timeline of Stroke portrays these illustrations as more than mere spank bank material but as a means to disseminate the aesthetics of gay male sexuality and life.
As you may imagine, dear reader, much of the illustrations articulate the hyper-masculine, leather-bound gay male aesthetic, starting with Tom of Finland. With his trademark leather motorcycle jacket, leather cap, impossibly tight jeans and butch boots, Tom of Finland’s aesthetic has become so widespread that Finland (the country that is) is even putting his art on a postage stamp. However, it is easy to forget that this now commonplace aesthetic was articulated through largely through his iconic illustrations.
Even though Tom of Finland may be the most well-known, other artists in the exhibition revel in the aesthetic kink of leathermen culture such as Rex and Etienne, whose leather aesthetic would go on to be worn all over clubs such as New York’s the Mineshaft and Etienne’s own the Gold Coast, which was Chicago’s first leather bar.
However not all the illustrations in Stroke depict leathermen, there are also quite a few options for all the aesthetic dandy’s out there. For example, French illustrator Benoît Prévot’s works are certainly no less idealistic than Tom of Finland’s or Rex’s, but they display a very different male body. Rather than an entirely muscular form, Prévot’s illustrations, inspired by one of my favorite illustrators J.C. Leyendecker, present thinner, paler men in smart suits, top hats and sometimes nothing other than a red velvet curtain.
While most of the illustrations in Stroke draw a highly fantastical version of the male body, some illustrators even dare to celebrate the grotesque, particularly Michael Kirwan’s wonderfully foul renderings of frat parties, subways and backrooms. Certainly not the primping dandies or the hard leathermen, Kirwan’s illustrations present a reality that is no less captivating or highly sensual.
As Kirwan himself stated in an interview in 2002, “I’ve been criticized for not drawing ‘pretty’ men, but I believe that old, fat, ethnic, plain, disabled and unusual queers exist and are equally deserving of being depicted and recorded for gay history . . . [T]here is a wide range men and boys outside of the Tom of Finland mold that are fantastic and imaginative sex partners.”
Walking amongst these idealized bodies, not to mention the somewhat outlandish sexual positions, I couldn’t help but reflect on what has been lost in the era of Grindr, Snapchat, selfies, dick pics and online porn. While a turn-on now just takes a touch of the fingers, at what cost?
While I certainly love photography, even photographs have their limitations. No matter how much you go to the gym, bunnies, you’ll never look like one of Tom of Finland’s men. But more than that, the sense of self-fashioning, self-representation and at the end of it, the skill of illustration seems to have been lost with the disappearance of print magazines. While some of these artists continue to do illustration work, the height of the gay male pornographic illustration is unquestionably over.
Was there something integral to gay male sexual culture inherent in these illustrations that is gone with the quick and easy online fix? A man no longer has to open that heavy plastic curtain at porn shops or avoid eye contact with a judgmental cashier to access images of gay male sexuality; is this progress or has something been invariably lost?
I certainly don’t claim to have the answer but, the recent frequency of exhibitions, publications and articles analyzing this sleazier and more coded era of sexuality may provide a glimpse of its importance. At least, we can always look back to re-access these images and reevaluate their immense worth to gay male sexual culture.
As illustrator BEAU quips, “Who would decline an invitation to life’s grand discothèque? I certainly didn’t. Why should you? Stick with me, I’ll show you a good time: past, present, and future.”
Trust me, BEAU, I’m there.