In the 1950s, art admirers were hard-pressed to find images of gay male life adorning the walls of major galleries and museums. Instead, the beautiful work of photographers and illustrators like Bob Mizer and Tom of Finland were often exhibited within the pages of gay magazines. Diverse depictions of private male life — particularly erotic life — were thus made available only to the people who knew where to find it.
“Many of the early magazines pretended to be bodybuilding, strength and health journals,” Robert W. Richards, artist and curator at Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, explains in a press statement. “Sometimes they were called ‘anatomy guides for artists.’ However, most of the men bought these magazines because they were gay. It was nearly their only opportunity to see handsome, well-made, virtually naked men.”
A new exhibit at Leslie-Lohman, organized by Richards, is bringing together over 80 original illustrations plucked form the pages of retro magazines spanning the 1950s to the 1990s. Showcasing everything from tame images of the male body as muse to explicitly sexualized scenes, the exhibit surveys decades worth of design created by gay artists in the late 20th century, exploring a space — magazines — where art flourished in the past.
Titled Stroke: From Under the Mattress to the Museum Wall, the journey through erotic history outlines the evolution of the (naked) male in art, spotlighting the impact of the “sexual revolution” and the Stonewall Inn riots on the demand for the magazines playing home to Mizer and company’s works. Torso, Mandate, InTouch — they would grow to attract the work of major artists like Mel Odom, Richard Rosenfeld and more, many of whom contributed to mainstream publications like Vogue and Playboy.
The rise of media like the VHS and the internet eventually pushed the magazine platform to the side. However, a trip through the archives illuminates just how significant the realm was for burgeoning and established gay artists a generation ago. Shining a light on sexuality, intimacy and identity, the images on view in “Stroke” gives a glimpse into an oft-overlooked body of work — one that stands in contrast to the gallery halls filled with infamously nude women — that has thankfully transitioned from mattress to museum.
Stroke will be on view from 28th March to 25th May in New York City.