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EXHIBITION-ISM
An Appreciation of Charles and Fritz

by James M. Saslow

Published by LLGAF in conjunction with the exhibition, Forbidden Visions:
Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman

- Five Decades of Collecting Art, 2003.

$6 non-members • $5 members

 OUT OF PRINT 

EXHIBITION-ISM
An Appreciation of Charles and Fritz

By James M. Saslow

Front cover: Woodcut by James Snodgrass

 

Those above a certain age will remember the longtime ad slogan for Blackglama furs, "What becomes a legend most?" The answer, for such grande dame photo subjects as Marlene Dietrich, was a mink coat. For Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, who have become legendary in their own time and place, the answer is this exhibition.

 

There could hardly be a more fitting tribute to these two indefatigable aesthetes, whose long and eventful life together now spans a multitude of contributions to the arts. They started their careers individually — Fritz as a prominent interior designer, Charles in film — then joined forces as community activists, collectors, gallery owners, and fathers of a unique foundation and archive of gay visual history.

 

I hope no one will take it the wrong way when I say that Charles and Fritz are relics. I mean that in the best sense — they are veterans of miraculous historical events, rare and precious witnesses of an important era. Of course, some dishy queen could point out that "relic" also suggests something old. Well, sure — none of us is getting any younger, and the story of the modern New York art world, in which they have played a role, is on the way to becomig a legend itself. But they're hardly just vestiges of some vanished past — they are still very much part of what is happening now, and what is happening now is very much due to their ongoing labors.

 

They moved to SoHo before it was " SoHo ," and helped make it a bustling art center over the last three decades. Alongside that status, they are also relics of a venerable gay era, reaching back before Stonewall, when the social scene was presided over by gentlemen of a certain age who had taste, and artistic flair, and a little disposable income. And who threw parties for all sorts of interesting creative folk, and collected art, people, travel souvenirs, and/or home furnishings.

 

Charles and Fritz fit right into that stereotype, and I daresay they're proud of it — and justifiably so. Because they were never just shopping for baubles to adorn the walls of their own gracious loft. They were collecting in order to nurture a whole generation — now several generations — of representational artists, especially gays who were out, and proud, and having trouble reaching the fledgling queer audience. Their commercial enterprise started modestly, displaying a few pieces in Fritz's office, but soon outgrew that casual venue. Fortunately, having picked up some local property when it was still going for pre-Prada prices, they had space they could make available for their own non-profit gallery. With apologies to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, they as much as said to each other, "Hey kids, we've got a barn and all these pictures, let's put on a show."

 

That kind of pioneering, can-do attitude was more common in the pre-crash, optimistic "good old days" of SoHo — which overlapped with the post-Stonewall years, when the gay community was bursting out of the closet with the same energy. Of the half-dozen gay/lesbian galleries that have come and gone over the last 25 years, Leslie-Lohman was the original, and remains the sole survivor. As gay art went from underground to fringe to niche market, they stayed the course, continually raising its profile and advancing its cause. Their philosophy resembles the proverbial recipe for military victory, "Get there firstest with the mostest."

 

But their longevity must be credited to more than just good timing and real estate. Charles and Fritz also have the essential quality of perserverance, born of deep convictions fuled by their memories of the "bad old days." They can recall when nudes and erotica were deemed shocking and obscene, and "gay art gallery" was a euphemism for grainy, out-or-focus muscle magazines furtively displayed in some dingy backroom porn-shop- cum -peepshow. As long as Fritz's mother, an Edwardian lady from Indiana, was still around, whenever she paid a visit they felt compelled to take down the naked double portrait of themselves that's over the sofa — an early commission to their SoHo neighbor and friend, Marion Pinto. Heaven knows they have strong principles, and aggressively protest censorship — but, like many from mother's era, Fritz explains, "She would have croaked."

 

Perhaps their missionary zeal also sprouts from their understanding that, as Michaelangelo wrote, "The heart is slow to love what the eye can't see." They have dedicated themselves to making visible what was for so long forcibly invisible: male beauty and desire. As Fritz once said of secretive artists, "I'm convinced I was put on this earth to drag them out of the closet." Leslie-Lohman gives the gay audience the images and self-images we have so long been starved for — though, predictably, not without resistance. When the gallery was on Broome Street and visible to truck drivers, one of them was so outraged by the male nudes that he called the cops. They dutifully investigated, but the neighborhood officers, who were used to passing by various incomprehensible displays of contemporary work, "were so glad to see some art where they could tell what it was , they said nothing at all." And the foundation is a cultural Red cross, rescuing the art of deceased gay men whose homophobic heirs would have dumped it on the sidewalk.

 

Charles isn't shy with his opinions, and he's an enthuasiastic raconteur, with stories ranging from his gilded youth in Hollywood and Europe to the early days of downtown. One reason he has always been supportive of younger artists is that he's never forgotten how, when he abandoned his childhood South Dakota home at seventeen for the gayer pastures of California, older men there helped him. He knows the art he likes, and hasn't much patience for the kinds he doesn't. He likes cocks — preferably uncircumcised — and is frank about defining the gallery's major focus as the body beautiful. Within that subject, the taste is broad and eclectic: Charles admits to a fondness for the "homo-romantic," and over the years the couple have bought everything from Demuth to Warhol to 1950s bodybuilding pix.

 

Although Fritz has slowed down physically in recent years, his spirit has kept right on going. When the annual Gay Pride Parade got too strenuous, he hired a pedicab to drive him down Fifth Avenue . Sporting one of his signature outfits — understated yet flamboyant, with splashes of color and fabulous jewelry — he rode in style like a dowager empress, complete with a parasol (and a hunky driver). At home, he's most likely to be found holding court (there's that royalty metaphor again) in his throne-like chair, smiling and wisecracking and rolling his eyes in bemused mock-shock at every tidbit of gossip — which is even funnier because in fact nothing shock him, Mary.

 

For a couple of small-town boys who escaped the Midwest , living well is the best revenge. Following the previous generations of gay expatriates who went to North Africa — from Wilde and Gide to Allen Ginsberg — they divide their year among homes in Manhattan and in Marrakech, Morocco — plus the country place in Maryland. It's a good thing they have so many houses, or they couldn't display even the fraction of their "holdings" that they do. Another reason for all these domiciles is that they love to entertain at home — a dying art, almost vanished from the fast paced, take-out world of 21 st -century Gothan. Their parties — cocktails, dinner, or the long-running New Year's Eve gala — mix painters, critics, scholars, and patrons into an international art-lovers' stew, spiced by hot bartenders. But the atmosphere is always relaxed and unpretentious. One sit-down affair had already reached the appetizers when the chefs realized that, due to an earlier failure of communication, the roast hadn't been fully defrosted before it went in the oven. An embarrassed Fritz kept checking the snail-paced rise of the meat thermometer, all the while passing more bottles of wine and whatever other intoxicants were at hand. When the beef finally hit the table after 10:00 p.m., the ravenous but slap-happy crowd dug in like cavemen. Fritz sat back with his trademark grin and said dryly: That's how to make guests appreciate your cooking: get them stoned and keep them waiting."

 

Not to leave you with the impression that all is fun and games chez Leslie-Lohman, they have many serious notches in their professional belt. Just to take a few examples, they helped save a unique chunk of gay Americana . In the 1940s, before you could print gay imagery commercially or distribute through the mail, graphic designer Neel Bate wrote and illustrated male erotic stories, signing himself "Blade." His friend, the fashion photographer George Platt Lynes, snapped the individual pages, then made copies in his own darkroom. Bound sets were sold literally "under the counter" by a Village bartender, but he got raided, and the vice squad confiscated the prints. Lynes's negatives survived, and Charles and Fritz acquired them for the archive, then published them in "real" book form.

 

And then there's the pioneering German photographer Wilhelm von Gloeden. It wasn't enough for our heroes to own a few of his prints, which had circulated among connoisseurs since he catered to Oscar Wilde at his Sicilian studio. Charles trekked to Italy to hunt down the story of the expatriate baron and his suggestive shots of local men and boys in Grecian undress, and came back with enough images and dish to publish the first English monograph on him. Of the photos Charles unearthed, some still grace the loft, some are in the archive, and some have been sold to other devotees — all helping to make von Gloeden a household word, at least in households who care about gay history.

 

I could go on, but you get the point. Gay art would be much poorer if not for their tireless service, and so would the downtown scene. Look around you on the walls of this exhibition, with its tantalizing evidence of their ever-expanding collection of historic beauty. In Japan , the government honors influential people as "living national treasures." If we ever declare the same category here, Charles and Fritz should be first in line for the honor. They haven't just displayed the art of our time — they've helped to create it.

 

© 2003 James M. Saslow
The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, NYC

 

 

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