Leslie Lohman Museum

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THE HAPHAZARD COLLECTOR
Len Paoletti and his Art: Part 1

By Len Paoletti


When I was in graduate school in Pittsburgh, working on an Art History degree, I was told by a professor and also by a collector of African art, whose items I was helping to catalog, that I "had a good eye." I was not really sure what they meant by this. They explained that I seemed to be instinctively drawn to those items that were a bit out of the ordinary, were prime examples of their type, and were items which did not necessarily appeal to the average person. They also said that I had good skills in deducing who, what, or where an item had connections to. Again, this was part of having a good eye. I was able to make connections


If I have an eye, it is due to my cultural and possibly my genetic history. My immigrant Italian grandfather had been a high end tailor. Clothes were all that mattered to him. Visiting him as a child with a new holiday outfit, I remember how he would carefully exam each new garment, explaining about texture and pattern, the cut of the cloth, the flow of the drape, the stitching and most importantly, the look as a whole. Fortunately my Irish-Lithuanian mother loved clothes as well, so the new items usually met with his approval. My mother had an incredible sense of style, and closets full of clothes. All bought at bargain prices, often at the original Filene's basement which was a clearing house for upscale stores such as Bonwit Teller, Barney's, Bergdorf, and Neiman Marcus.


A child of the Depression, she had dropped out of art school but never lost her love of art, and of beautifully crafted items. Although we were lower middle-class, my mother would drag my brother and I along on her many shopping excursions and through the various museums of Boston explaining what she knew to be good. We were never thrilled with these outings, but went if she promised we could see the mummies in the Museum of Fine Arts or have an ice cream sundae for lunch. She also drilled into us that something did not have to be expensive to be good and that just because something was expensive did not necessarily mean it was good. Something must have sunk in. To this day, my brother and I can not resist a great shirt at a bargain price. Our closets can attest to that. My walls can attest to my other passion, Art.


Although the walls of our home were never hung with original art, again my mother found unusual decorative prints and reproductions that were simply framed and scattered about. Every room had a few pieces. So I grew up surrounded with images. When I was in college studying Art History, after abandoning dreams of being an architect, (physics and that damn incline plane and the co-efficient of friction, killed those plans). I was determined to acquire unusual pieces of art for my own walls. While I originally started with psychedelic rock posters in the sixties, I soon shifted to signed posters for shows by new artists. Eventually, I began to purchase signed and numbered prints. I never bought a lot. Another professor had told me early on, "Buy the best you can afford. One good piece is better than three mediocre pieces." Words I have rarely forgotten.


While I was in graduate school in the mid sixties, I was struggling with my sexuality. The reality of a very brief engagement forced me to recognize that I was gay. Since the tenets of my religion, Catholicism, said I was a sinner, religion went out the door as well as the pretense that I would settle down with a wife. Curiously, my parents were greatly relieved when I dropped all the religious dogma. A few years later when I told them I was gay, my mother began to ask me "when are you going to settle down with a nice guy?"


In grad school, I bought my first male piece, Mother May I, by a local Pittsburgh artist John Silk Deckard. Nude male images were rarely ever seen for sale. The daring of the artist piqued my interest, so I bought it and hid it in a closet until I had my first apartment in Boston.


My first Beacon Hill studio apartment with its fourteen foot walls lit by three floor to ceiling bay windows begged to be filled. With my mother's training, and my tiny salary from my job at a lobbyist firm, I scoured Morgan Memorial and Goodwill stores, as well as old second hand shops. A Maxfield Parrish print in its original frame, an oil portrait of a nineteenth century man, a crude painting of a man lying on a bed were among my early finds. A damaged Tiffany inkwell, a small beautiful art nouveau glass shade, an art nouveau/deco porcelain pedestal, a Greek chair by T. H. Robsjohn Gibbings were also scattered about that one room. My taste was, and still is, quite eclectic. But it was a New Year's Eve trip to New York to visit friends that brought focus to my buying.


One of my grad school pals, Craig Felton, now the head of the Art Department of Smith College was finishing his doctorate in New York. He invited me down to attend a New Year's Eve party some friends of his were throwing. Their apartment in Chelsea captured my imagination. On a cold dark winter's night, the view of the Empire State Building was stunning but of more interest to me was the table top to eiling display of art. The walls were a deep crimson and they were blanketed with black and white engravings, etchings and drawings of men. Most of the images were of historical vignettes, the two princes in the tower, etc, but there were a few nudes scattered about. Generally framed in ebony and matted with wide ivory borders, the pictures in the collection were very impressive to me. Although I had seen many famous paintings in museums in Europe and America, I had never seen so much original art displayed in someone's private home. The boy from the provinces had had his eyes opened. Curiously, the only similar private display which was to leave me speechless was thirty years later when I visited the New York apartment of Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman.

 

In 1972 with my father's backing, I bought a little guest house in Provincetown, Massachusetts. Some guest houses were decorated with original art by local artists. But most of the art available in Provincetown was of the obligatory light house or the dingy-on-the-beach type. The alternative was abstract expressionistic art which has always left me cold. I bought a few landscapes but was always on the look out for more unique pieces. As my birthday falls around Labor Day, the end-of-season in P-town, I decided that each Fall, while I still had some money, I would buy myself a present. I rarely had a fixed idea as to what I wanted to buy, but there were basics common to nearly all the items I was to eventually purchase. Realism, in all its facets, lay at the heart of everything I bought. Each item had to hold together as a whole with a certain finished, skilled, accomplished look. The price had to be reasonable. For this reason, drawings rather than paintings abound in my collection. And if the image was male, all the better. Aside from that, there was no plan, no great philosophical motives in my purchases, no intention of creating a collection. Haphazardly, with an eye out for that serendipitous find, I proceeded on my way.


In 1973, my only sibling, my brother, announced his plans to marry. Not wishing to buy him a typical wedding present, I scoured the many shops of P-town for something different. The Soddy Daisy, run by Sam Hardiman and his partner, specialized in quilts from the Ozark and Blue Ridge Mountains. An antique one seemed perfect for the wedding bed. Sam also had an interest in Art and showed me a few items he also had for sale. Among them were a large signed and numbered print by Australian artist Sidney Nolan and a small pastel portrait by Jared French. The names of the artist were vaguely familiar to me. The Sidney Nolan also went to my brother, but I kept the Jared French and it still is my favorite piece of art.


In 1974, young New York artist, Mylo Quam, stayed at my guest house. He was showing paintings and collages of saints and sinners in the Paul Kessler Gallery in Provincetown. This was the age of flower children and Quam's off beat work reflected the cultural climate of the day. I bought a Saint Sebastian, for its strongly decorative image and because it was a frontal male nude. Male nudes were seldom seen in any galleries in Provincetown so I jumped at the chance to buy one.


The winters in Provincetown are long, cold, and dreary. To pass the time I began to do art on my own. At first I thought I would do simple pencil sketches of the male nude. Those early pieces were never good enough for me. I thought that if I had an original drawing by the then preeminent master of male art, Tom of Finland, I might be able to study his technique. Target Studios in New York, an off-shoot of Colt Studios, was selling prints of Tom's work. I wrote to the owner Lou Thomas and eventually acquired my third male nude, a Locker room scene, for $250. In 1975, that was a lot of money for me, but I had a great piece of original gay male art. By then, I was addicted and wanted more.


The following year, I went to New York, met the artist Rex and bought Shaving from him. Icons, a magazine devote exclusively to the work of Rex, had provided contact information. Rex Viertel was the name by his buzzer. Rex played the role of artist well. Wearing sunglasses at night, a tight white tee shirt, jeans and black construction boots, he appeared to have stepped out of one of his own drawings. Rex enjoyed playing the role of motor cycle tough, but his very skilled art had connections to the shocking work of the nineteenth century Victorian artist, Aubrey Beardsley, as well s that of the sixteenth century Italian scoundrel, Carravaggio. The pieces carefully arranged upon his drafting table, dramatically lit, bore witness to this. For Rex, Art was, and still is Drama.


In the mid seventies, in the aftermath of Stonewall, New York, and the gay community in particular, were in a state of flux. Gay clubs and disco were suddenly in vogue. After-hours clubs, with their sexual debauchery were the in place to be. Amidst the shadows and strobe washed rooms, celebrities and average folk could be found cavorting in all sorts of dress and undress. Jeans and mustaches became the uniform of the day. Art until then just seen in magazines and on bar posters now were finding their way into galleries, often devoted predominantly to male images.


One of the first such establishments devoted to the male image was The Leslie-Lohman Gallery. Located on the second floor of a building in Soho, the Leslie-Lohman Gallery generally carried artists beyond my price range. Often these were artists who had successful careers in the arts but who had never displayed their "gay" art openly. Fritz Lohman, a well known New York decorator, and his partner Charles Leslie knew many artists and were instrumental in convincing them to show their art. So I would visit the gallery and admire the art but rarely could afford to purchase any. One exception was the work of Olaf Odegaard whose work I first discovered at Leslie-Lohman.


The Robert Samuel Gallery was another venue in New York where I admired the work but could not afford to buy. Sam Hardiman, of The Soddy Daisy in Provincetown, was involved with the Robert Samuel Gallery in New York. For a few years he operated a summer branch in Provincetown. There Sam showed me photos by a New York artist Robert Mapplethorpe and more by New Orleans artist George Dureau. At that time I was not interested in collecting photos, so I passed on both artists work. A number of years later, when Sam was ill and closing the P-town gallery, I did buy a large drawing by George Dureau and a few of his photographs. By then Mapplethrope had become very famous and expensive. Just before his death, Sam was also to sell me a small drawing of a cow which is purported to have been done by John Singer Sargent as a child.


When I had visited Rex, I had done so with a close friend, Jim Cuzytek, who had recently moved to the city. Jim and I had similar taste. He often visited me on the Cape and about twice a year I would visit him. Jim would keep me abreast of what was happening in the gay scene in New York. So when I went to New York, our days were filled with visiting the new gay shops and galleries springing up everywhere, evenings were at the theater and nights were at the Anvil, the Mineshaft and other such venues. Mornings
we slept.


For me, two of the most interesting galleries/shops were Physique Memorabilia and Stompers. Physique Memorabilia was in a third floor loft on E. 12th Street in the East Village. The owner was an eccentric older gentleman who had a parrot which never stopped squawking. The place was generally ordered chaos. Basically there were bins of old magazines, photos and some drawings. A treasures-in-trash shop, where one would never know what you might stumble across. On one visit I noticed a beautiful and familiar print hanging on the wall, the logo for Colt Studios. But it was not a print, it was the original drawing, signed Lüger.


Lüger was the name Jim French had used when he originally began to publish his drawings. In a recent interview, French remarked that he liked the German word because of the umlaut over the "u." Later he would continue the gun motif when he renamed his studio Colt. But as his drawings, and later his photographs generally did not deal in violence, he transformed the image to that of a young horse later adopting as the studio symbol the head of the horse from the Parthenon. For me Jim French had always been the pre-eminent male artist of his time. The art of Tom of Finland is better known, but there is a wonderful elegant lyrical quality to the drawings of Jim French. They have a style and grace, that for nearly a decade no other artist came close to attaining. George Stavrinos would eventually do so.


I had never seen an original Jim French drawing before this. In fact, I was not sure if this was an original. But I bought it and it is. Curiously the drawing is based upon a photograph from an issue of Physique Pictorial. Considering how Colt Studio was to become famous for its photos and these photos were to influence the way gay men have looked in succeeding generations, it is unusual that the photo used as the basis for the original Colt studio logo might not have been an original Jim French photograph. This particular drawing has long been my second favorite piece in my collection. Wherever I have lived this drawing has been on display


Stompers was a boot store down in the West Village, but it had a back room where the owner, Lou Weingarden, proudly displayed gay art work, often deemed controversial for its s/m themes. Rex now showed here. Throughout the 70s, on my semi-annual trips to New York Jim Cuzytek and I would visit both Stompers and Physique Memorabilia. Lou introduced me to the work of Brick, Domino, and others. Brick's s/m drawings fascinated me. While some portrayed scenes I might have witnessed the night before at The Mineshaft, others were unique and highly original. Lou explained that the drawings had been meant to be illustrations for the John Preston novel, Taking Care of Mr. Benson, which was being serialized in Drummer magazine. John and Brick (Billy Burke) had been lovers but when they broke up, the plan to publish the drawings ended. The debauchery of a bathtub scene caught my attention. I purchased it but rarely displayed it.


A year or so later on another visit Lou told me that Brick had died and his gallery had on display one superb pastel drawing which had not been exhibited before. With many overlays of chalk, Brick had produced a stunning, almost glowing, image of hands snapping rubber bands on feet. For me it looked like a combination of work by Mantegna and Georges de La Tour. I had to have it. But it was part of a group show and there were also drawing by Rex and Domino which I liked. Eventually I bought one drawing by each of these artists. The amount killed any purchases for the rest of the year. As luck would have it, a few days later there was an original George Quaintance on the walls of Physique Memorabilia. I have always regretted not buying it, but I am happy to say that it is now part of the Leslie-Lohman permanent collection. A few years later when I was interviewed by John Preston for an article about me and my own paintings for The Alternate the tamer version of Drummer I asked John about Brick. But all John would say was that Brick drank too much and that it was better that they parted.


Another treasure that I found at Stompers was my second Colt drawing, a bondage scene. Once I saw that it was signed Colt, I knew that I had to purchase it. By then gay male art was beginning to rise in price but I told Lou I would buy it and he held it for me. Lou was a fascinating man. Heavily into the s/m scene of New York, he also was very interested in both the ballet and opera. I should not have been surprised at this. One night at the Mineshaft when I was quietly having a beer I overheard a conversation between two men heavily decked out in leather comparing the voices of Renata Tebaldi and Maria Callas. Also by then the smash hit on Broadway was Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. At intermission, the foyer looked like a gay leather bar.


One afternoon while browsing through the art at Physique Memorabilia, I noticed that there were a lot of drawings by "Adam." Many of them were illustrations for the covers of a series of very popular gay pornographic novels. Although there might be an s/m theme to the novels, Adam's drawings usually depicted a softer, more intimate moment of pleasure. As his style reminded me of the work of Colt, Jim French, I asked where they had come from. I was surprised to learn that the artist Adam was Jack Bozzi who lived in the loft just above Physique Memorabilia. Jim Cuzytek and I visited him a couple of times. Jack was always very cordial and happily displayed his landscapes. This was the art he truly enjoyed doing. The erotica was to make a living. I never did buy the landscapes but have a few of the male pieces.


A similar artist was David Martin. He also was doing beautiful erotic pencil pieces, generally more finished than Adam's and almost on a par with Colt drawings. His work graced a few gay novels, articles and a few greeting cards. I had bought a print or two, but it was not until years later after he had died that I discovered that Martin, more of a West Coast artist, also did beautiful landscapes. Mostly in pastels, these works were usually scenes of Los Angeles. Eventually I was able to purchase some of the erotic pieces, including a few porn pieces which he did under the pseudonym of Anos Nemos.


By the late 70's, there was a plethora of male art to be found in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco The art of Etienne/Stephen intrigued me. But they were a bit cartoonish and the finished works that I saw were often marred with white-out which the artist had used to improve the piece for reproduction purposes. Cartoons, generally, did not interest me. Although I did purchase two drawings by Bill Schmeling (The Hun), for the most part I sought out images that were more realistic. It was rare that I could afford to purchase a painting, so drawings still remained my main interest. When I did purchase a painting such as, Nocturnal Submission, by Pollack, it was a totally realistic image. The work of Tom of Finland was, of course, fantasy but it was grounded in realism. The enormous dicks and tiny hands and feet do border on cartoon but the skill in the drawing is so high, that Lou Weingarden of Stompers used to compare Tom's work to that of the Italian Renaissance. There was definitely a renascence occurring in male figurative art in the period of the seventies and eighties, but I am not sure that I would go so far as to compare Tom's work with that of Botticelli and Raphael as Lou often did.


For me the decade of the seventies was one of excitement and discovery. My little business in Provincetown was beginning to be successful. My own art was being shown in town and occasionally I would sell a piece or two. I had deliberately chosen to paint an aspect of Provincetown that thus far had never been depicted on canvas, the gay male scene. The beach, but in particular the social scene of Tea Dance at the Boatslip, dominated my subject matter. Although I had no intention of doing so, I was recording a bit of gay history. And under the pseudonym of Dirk, I was also creating drawings which were appearing in Stallion, Honcho, and similar magazines


The second half of this article appears in The Archive No.14.

 

 




empty
George Stavrinos
Bather, 1977
Colored pencil
on watercolor paper
11" x 11"
Gift of Len Paoletti


empty
John Silk Deckard

Mother May I!, c. 1977
Etching, 10/15
9" x 6"
Gift of Len Paoletti


empty
Milo Quam
St. Sabastion
/Self Portrait,
c. 1970
Oil, paper and
metal on board
24" x 18"
Gift of Len Paoletti


empty
George Dureau
Black Fright, c. 1980
Charcoal, conte
and white chalk
on paper
40" x 30"
Gift of Len Paoletti


empty Jim French
(aka Colt, Lugar)
Classic Pose,
Logo,
1965
Pencil on paper
14" x 17"
Promised Gift of Len Paoletti


empty Billy Burke
(aka Brick)
Rubber Bands, 1975
Pastel on paper
19" x 16"
Promised Gift of Len Paoletti


empty David Martin
Centaur, 1979
Pencil on paper
11" x 14"
Promised Gift of Len Paoletti


empty
Jack Bozzi
(aka Adam)
Highway Hustler,
c. 1975
Pencil on paper
9.75" x 7.25"
Gift of Len Paoletti

 





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