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This new volume published by Bruno Gmünder is a historic retrospective of the erotic illustrations published in US magazines from the 1950s to 1990s. Although they were freely available, their often closeted readers put them under their mattresses. Stroke rediscovers these treasures and puts them together with vividly told stories and previously unpublished material. The book was composed by Hunter O’Hanian, director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum, and artist legend Robert W. Richards. It features works of over thirty artists, among other luminaries such as Tom of Finland, Harry Bush, Michael Kirwan, and George Quaintance.

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© David Martin – Collection of Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art / © Tom of Finland – Courtesy of the Tom of Finland Foundation / © Oliver Frey

“Art and desire make a potent combination, and there is nothing like a little prohibition thrown in to make it more exciting. In the 1950s, when a large-scale effort was underway to crackdown on what was termed “sexual perversion”, gay life was pushed into the closet. Regardless of those strictures, gay men still needed to explore their own sexuality and true identity.

As a result, a number of magazines became widely available. Early titles included Grecian Guild Pictorial and Tomorrow’s Man featured the work of great artists like Tom of Finland and Bob Mizer. The work was printed in magazines designed for gay men and available on nearly every street corner or local drug store in America from the 1950s to the 1990s. More likely than not, when the magazines were purchased, they were secreted away in a private place.

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© Kent Neffendorf / © Richard Rosenfeld / © Robert W. Richards

Many of the early magazines pretended to be bodybuilding, strength, and health journals. Sometimes they were called “anatomy guides for artists”. However, most of the men bought these magazines because they were gay. It was one of the few opportunities to see handsome, well-built, virtually naked men. Buying one of these publications required an act of courage, especially if the small-town drugstore owner knew the buyer and his family.

By the late 1960s, with the impact of the “sexual revolution”, the rise of feminism, and the Stonewall Inn riot, the demand for the magazines mushroomed. Later titles included Blueboy, Torso, Honcho, Mandate, and InTouch. Each issue typically featured masterful illustrations by major artists such as Antonio Lopez, Mel Odom, George Stravrinos, Richard Rosenfeld, and others. Many of these artists also made work for mainstream publications such as Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times, and Playboy.

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© Harry Bush – Courtesy of Robert Mainardi / © Rob Clarke / © Colt (Jim French) – Collection of Leonard Paoletti

In March 2014, the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art organized an exhibition of the original work from these magazines in Stroke: From Under the Mattress to the Museum Walls (March 28 – May 25, 2014). It was curated by Robert W. Richards. As predicted, the exhibition was immensely popular. Younger visitors were intrigued to learn how the work was actually made. Older visitors were thrilled to see much of the work they had known for years. It was also a pleasure to see the response from women—many told us they had never had the opportunity to see the work or the magazines until the exhibition. Stroke holds the record for the largest single daily attendance at the Leslie-Lohman Museum.

Through the work of these artists, the exhibition -and now this book- tells an important story about how art -really good work- served to fill a void in men’s lives at a time when their society, and often their own families, abandoned a critical part of their identity. Despite the power of this work and its impact on a major segment of the gay population, it is still shunned simply because some fear its content. In fact, the work of one talented artist, George Stavrinos (1948-1990), who made work for many of the magazines, was deliberately excluded from inclusion in this book, as his heirs inexplicably refused to grant permission to have the images reproduced. Decades after one’s death -and so much acceptance in so many other areas- we find continuing efforts to silence an individual’s true identity. Feel free to view George’s work by simply typing his name in any web browser.

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© Benoit Prevoit / © Mel Odom / © Antonio – Courtesy of the estate of Antonio Lopez and Juan Ramos

This is the work of artists who made beautiful work depicting intimate, sexy relationships between men, sometimes with more than one partner, but always with the intention of connecting us with the humanity shown. These works allow us to visualize the reality of  a physical relationship with an object of our desire. They were created specifically to tell us that our desire wasn’t an aberration, but was in fact a common, normal impulse.

Although some of the magazines have survived, for the most part, they became a victim of the technologically diverse digital age; in any case, their heyday has passed. But the work of these artists endures and still continues to be made.”

Robert W Richards and Hunter O’Hanian

Stroke – From under the mattress to out in the open / Written by Robert W Richards and Hunter O’Hanian / Published by Bruno Gmünder / 144 pages / Full color / 49,99€ – 59,99$

By Eric Lanuit