First published on The Daily Beast, April 9, 2014. Read the original here.
Archie, that lovable doof, and his sweater set posse from Riverdale—Betty, Veronica, and Jughead—have long been bywords for the idealized adolescence of the Baby Boomers. What Norman Rockwell was to oil painting, Archie Andrews was to comic books. But with Archie himself slated to die this summer, and Lena Dunham (yes, that Lena Dunham) onboard as a new writer, Riverdale is undergoing a radical transformation.
“I’m always shocked when I hear some people think Archie the comic books are set in the ‘50s,” says Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, who was recently named chief creative officer of Archie Comics. Last year, he created the critically acclaimed zombie-apocalypse-in-Riverdale themed title Afterlife With Archie. As of last month, he is the first CCO in the company’s 75 years of existence.
Every time I visit Charles Leslie’s SoHo loft, my eyes have to relearn how to see his apartment, to pick the individual players out of the sexual scrum. Then, like an erotic Magic Eye puzzle, a Warhol suddenly emerges from a thicket of phalli, and the coffee table resolves into a veritable Stonehenge of penises sculpted in glass, ceramic, and even whale bone.
Leslie lives not far from the museum that bears his name, The Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. “Lohman” refers to Leslie’s longtime partner, renowned interior decorator Fritz Lohman, who passed away four years ago. The two spent 48 years together: traveling the world, collecting and championing gay art, and helping transform SoHo from industrial wasteland to artist enclave to moneyed playground.
The museum is their official legacy, but Leslie’s apartment is a distillation of those years: a story of gay life existing on the margins during the buttoned-down 1950s, exploding outward in the ’60s and ’70s, surviving the “grim and ghastly plague years,” and re-emerging triumphantly into the present — all told through homoerotic and homo-romantic art.
Leslie began collecting gay art while stationed in Heidelberg during the Korean War, and continued afterward while attending the Sorbonne on the GI Bill. And over the course of his design career, Lohman had also gathered a small handful of such works. In fact, their shared passion for homoerotic art was one of the things that drew the two together.
Leslie purchased his loft in 1968 for a whopping $3,500. At the time, SoHo wasn’t zoned for residential use. “It was an industrial slum,” he recalls with an astonished laugh. When Lohman joined him a few months later, their collection of gay art began to grow in earnest.
And what a collection it is. It contains many of the most familiar names in the gay art world: Warhol and Haring and Mapplethorpe, to list but a few. But it also harkens back to pioneers whose work has faded from modern queer memory, such as Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, whose early 20th century pastoral nudes turned the seaside town of Taormina, Sicily, into the European nobility’s version of Fire Island. Leslie published a book on von Gloeden in 1980, and a half-dozen of his photos adorn a narrow wall by his guest room.
A good portion of Leslie’s collection comes from artists who moved to SoHo for its cheap rents and large open spaces. Many of them made gay art in private, solely for themselves and their friends. In 1969, this led Leslie and Fritz to hold their first unofficial “homoerotic art fair” in their newly renovated loft. They expected maybe 50 people to attend. To their shock, hundreds showed up over the course of the weekend. “We sold every single thing in the show,” Leslie recalls. “We always say three things happened that summer: Woodstock, Stonewall, and the art show.”
Quickly, it became a yearly event, and by the end of 1972, Leslie and Lohman had become part of the first wave of gallerists to open in SoHo. They asked for a 25% commission, if the artist could afford it, or else just a piece of their work. As a result, their collection ballooned.
From 1970 to 1982, the gallery provided a welcoming venue for SoHo’s burgeoning gay art scene. Despite having to shutter their doors during the AIDS crisis, they continued to champion gay work, with Leslie playing yenta between his long lists of struggling artists and would-be buyers. With the advent of effective AIDS therapies, SoHo’s gay community rebounded in the 1990s, leading Leslie and Lohman to reopen their gallery as a nonprofit. In 2011, it gained official museum status, becoming the first gay art museum in the country.
Many artists involved in their earliest ventures became lifelong friends with Leslie and Lohman. Marion Pinto, whose full-sized portrait of the couple still hangs over Leslie’s couch, eventually donated her estate to the museum, helping to create the endowment that ensures its future in perpetuity.
But though all of the work in his collection will go the museum when Leslie passes, the apartment isn’t just high art. In classic camp fashion, the collection butts the absurd up against the sublime. A plastic Santa with his “stocking stuffer” on display has just as much a home here as a drawing by Jean Cocteau. In some cases, high and low are mashed together in a single piece, as in Darold Perkins’ re-imagining of (gay) artist J.C. Leyendecker’s classic advertisement for the Arrow Collar Man.
Some of the pieces have historic interest to them, such as a metal toy of two young men engaged in fellatio atop a brightly patterned carpet. A stamp on the base enabled it to be traced to a World War I German munitions factory, where an artisan must have made it in his spare time.
At 80, Leslie is less involved with the day-to-day operations of the museum, but he’s still avidly collecting and supporting gay art. And even when he isn’t out looking for it, the work has a way of finding him. “People are forever bringing me phallic serendipity,” he says. And somehow, his loft seems able to hold it all, in a densely layered, palimpsestous celebration of homoerotic desire.
On July 2, 2013, little-known singer-songwriter Steve Grand YouTubed the video for his indie single “All-American Boy”, which the now 24-year-old Illinois-native made for a little over $7,000. “I’d never used a credit card before,” he recalled with a laugh. The video featured a chiseled Grand serenading an oblivious (but ultimately understanding) straight male friend, asking him to be his “All-American boy tonight/Where every day’s the 4th of July.” Seven days later, the song had gone hyper-viral and Grand was being written about by every media outlet in the country (I covered him here). It even rocketed him to a spot on Good Morning America, where they proclaimed him a “gay country star.”
Amid all the recent kerfuffles at DC Comics—the Batwoman lesbian wedding that wasn’t, the brooding big screen reinvention of Superman, Ben Affleck’s controversial casting as Batman—it would be easy to overlook the most exciting reinvention in recent comic book history: Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s Wonder Woman. Her epic two-year inaugural story arc wrapped last September, and War, the final graphic novel collecting that arc, came out yesterday.
As we unwind the bright red packing tape that joins the two coffee cans together, Hunter O’Hanian, the director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, explains what I’m about to see.
“We think this is his only finished work,” he says, separating the cans to reveal a long scroll made of computer paper taped end to end. Black and white photocopies of twinks—whipped, gagged, crucified, tattooed, and tied—writhe across the pages, filling them almost to the margins. The image has no punctum, white space, or dominant figure to draw in the eye, allowing the viewer’s gaze to rest. Instead the eye skitters across the pages, noting a hard cock here and a flagellate there, without stopping on any particular moment.
The statistics are upsetting and well known. Despite an encouraging recent drop in transmission rates, black women still represent two-thirds of all new HIV infections among women. In fact, they are 20 times more likely to seroconvert than white women—a greater level of disparity than ever before. The cavalcade of AIDS anniversaries over the last few years has spawned a corresponding interest in producing museum exhibits, documentaries, and feature films about the early years of the crisis. But with a few notable exceptions (Frontline’s “Endgame: AIDS In Black America;” Precious; Tyler Perry’s despicable Temptation), there has been no similar rush to tell the stories of the (black, female) face of the modern epidemic.