SOHO — A new exhibit at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art shines a light on images that were hidden — and then forgotten — for decades.
"Stroke: From Under the Mattress to the Museum Walls" showcases the work of 25 gay illustrators, whose explicit drawings of men having sex with each other appeared in magazines dating back to the 1950s.
The museum's director, Hunter O'Hanian, is excited at the opportunity to display works that were dismissed as pornographic cartoons, but are in fact the little-known works of well-known illustrators and artists.
"This is really good art — this is not something that has to be hidden underneath somebody's bed," O'Hanian said.
The images are hyper-masculine, often with the chiseled pectorals and sinewy muscles of comic superheroes. The artists, too, picked noms de plume that recalled superhero monikers, like Blade and The Hun.
The magazines that featured the illustrations were available in drugstores and newsstands all over the city, and during the post-war period, they were the only available depictions of the desires gay men felt but couldn't express publicly, O'Hanian said.
"It was really the only way a lot of them could have any kind of connection to the gay world," O'Hanian said.
The Leslie-Lohman Museum started as a foundation, formed in 1987 during the height of the AIDS crisis, to save the gay-themed artwork that was often thrown away by family members when a gay man died of AIDS.
The museum now holds exhibitions in a 20,000-square-foot gallery on Wooster Street, with a permanent collection that includes 20,000 objects and is still growing.
In addition to erotic images, the "Stroke" exhibit features letters between artists dating back three decades, showing how they felt about their work.
"Most of my works are pornographic illustrations, not works of art," Tom of Finland, one of the artists featured in the exhibit, wrote in a letter.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is a table of magazines featuring the drawings. None of them are still in circulation.
"That media has pretty much died out," O'Hanian said. "The magazines were important, but they were replaced by the VHS and then the DVD and then the Internet. There are whole generations who don't know these magazines existed."
A handful of the living artists will be at Thursday night's private opening, and the museum is planning a number of talks and panels over the course of the next two months.
"Stroke: From Under the Mattress to the Museum Walls" opens to the public Friday, March 28 at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art at 26 Wooster St. in SoHo. The exhibit runs until May 25.