Photo of Charles Leslie by Alex Geana
Once considered the standard of artistic achievement, the male nude is now an afterthought — and that’s partially our fault. Due to the visibility and power of the LGBT movement, it’s difficult for many to look without seeing male nudes in anything but a homoerotic context. In The Art of Looking (Bruno Gmünder), author Kevin Clarke examines that progression by analyzing the life and collection of Charles Leslie, one of the key people who collected and supported artists who made homoerotic work from the 1950s to today, especially through the times of the AIDS crisis and official government homophobia during the Reagan years.
Leslie's voracious need to collect was an act of emancipation and liberation, and it culminates in his New York City SoHo apartment, “the phallus palace,” with its horde of artwork that includes a coffee table of crystal and ceramic penises and ancient Japanese dildos. Clarke spent about two years working on the book — which includes essays, interviews, and copious reproductions of sexually graphic paintings and drawings — and came to understand Leslie’s triumph in political terms. “He is his apartment,” Clarke explains. “And all these penises are gay history and liberation from the past 40 years.”
Curator and art historian Jonathan D. Katz agrees, calling Leslie one of the “progressive activists in the art world,” in one of the book’s essays. The man’s obsessive culminated in the founding of the Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, the first of its kind in the world and what, as Katz explains, “constitutes the largest gift ever given to any LGBTQ cause of any kind anywhere in the world at any point in history.”
We asked Clarke to explain why he decided to investigate Leslie's massive collection and what it was like sleeping with so many phalluses nearby.
Pictured: Kevin Clarke in Charles Leslie's living room
Out: What initially inspired your interest in interviewing and profiling Charles Leslie?
Kevin Clarke: Some years ago, a friend mentioned that there is a guy in the US who has “the biggest penis collection in the world.” This made me curious. I had just finished the book titled Porn: From Any Warhol to X-Tube and thought a penis collection book might be a worthy follow-up. As it turned out, there was a lot more to these penises in the American collection than I bargained for, namely the man behind them all: Charles Leslie. For him, supporting artists who make homoerotic work in times of the AIDS crisis and official government homophobia during the Reagan years was an act of emancipation and liberation.
So it's also, at its heart, a book about gay history as well?
As an author and board member of the Schwules Museum* in Berlin, I’ve been heavily involved with hay history for years; I was fascinated by Charles’s life story and how his art collection reflects the major turning points of gay history — from the early 1950s until the present. After getting the basic and juicy facts from Charles himself, and after examining his collection closely, I set out to put it all together with as many original quotes from him, and as many uncensored art works as possible. The story culminates in the foundation of the Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, the first of its kind in the world. I find that not only a worthy climax of a rich and exemplary life, but also a powerful example to other gays and lesbians as to what to do with their lives and money.
How long did you work on the book?
All in all, it took nearly two years to write the text, get the images together, get the copyrights cleared, get a great art director on board, find a way to combine the different style of photos and art works, and get it all financed. I’m very happy with the final result, thanks to our art director Raoul Horvay from the Verein der Gestaltung, and Bruno Gmünder Publishing, who never lost faith in this project as an important addition to their catalogue with the slogan “publishing gay culture.” Charles’s life is certainly “gay culture” to the max. So is the art in his collection and the museum that sprung forth from this.
You lived at his flat for a bit. What was it like being surrounded by so much homoerotic art?
To be honest, I found the overflow of penises too much on my first two days. But if you actually live with them — in this magic place on Prince Street — you start looking at them with new eyes after a while. You accept them as something totally natural and beautiful. Something that reflects the personality of one man not ashamed to expose his sexual personality to the entire world. I admire that. After the week in SoHo, I stayed with a friend in a very chic house in Harlem. It’s much more “standard” — and I missed the visible personality Charles’s apartment expresses. He is his apartment. And all these penises are gay history and liberation from the past 40 years.
Do you have a favorite piece from his home collection?
Actually, yes: Andrew Sichel’s “Before Time Changes Them” from 1970. It’s massive and hung in the guest room. I woke up every morning looking at it, thinking I’d love to have this in my own home. The colors, the style, the message, the innocence…. I love it. But actually, Charles’s entire apartment on Prince Street is an artwork in itself. It was a privilege to stay there for a while, and it was another privilege getting to know Charles so well, and all the wonderful people at the Leslie + Lohman Museum. They will present my book there on June 4 at a Founders Dinner. Naturally, I’m flying over from Berlin for that event which Charles will host personally, and look forward to sleeping with Andrew Sichel one more time!
The Art of Looking: The Life and Treasures of Collector Charles Leslie is available now.