Photography by Johnathan M. Lewis
The handsome young men kick back, arm in arm, often shirtless, in front of beachfront cottages, sporting deep tans, tousled hair, canvas sneakers, and khaki shorts. They could be models from a recent Abercrombie & Fitch or J. Crew shoot, but these are in fact previously unexhibited 1950s photos of gay artist Paul Thek and his friends Peter Hujar, Peter Harvey, and Joseph Raffael.
In this amazing collection, recently on view for the first time at New York’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, previously private images reveal the intimate, carefree bonds among young, urban gay and bisexual men in an era when declared homosexuality often spelled career and personal ruin.
“I just think they’re wildly romantic, sexy, and erotic, and a wonderful story of love between individuals,” says Hunter O’Hanian, perusing the works on a steamy summer afternoon in the museum’s 1,800-square-foot space in SoHo. As director of the museum, O’Hanian, 58, takes particular pride in the show for revealing the rich gay creative milieu out of which Thek went on to create his acclaimed paintings and sculptures in the ’60s and ’70s, before he died of AIDS in 1988. “When the Whitney Museum did a Thek retrospective two years ago, there wasn’t one mention that he was gay,” O’Hanian grumbles. “It was the same thing with the recent MoMA show of Jasper Johns and Robert Rauschenberg, which never mentioned that they were lovers.”
For O’Hanian, a Rhode Island native who came to the museum after stints running Provincetown’s Fine Arts Work Center and Aspen’s Anderson Ranch Arts Center, framing art in the gay context in which it was made is a top priority. “There’s no question that sexuality influences art,” says O’Hanian, who sports heavy arm tattoos and a salt-and-pepper beard. “I spend a lot of time thinking about what makes a work gay.” It’s not just work by a gay artist or with explicitly gay themes, he says. “Take Polly Apfelbaum or Yayoi Kusama. There’s a vibrant pop outsider quality in their work that feels very gay to me.”
Speaking of outsider art, O’Hanian and his staff of seven at Leslie-Lohman are sitting on a trove of it — 40,000 donated items in all, he says, with more coming in every day. Since Charles Leslie and Fritz Lohman, who were lovers, started showing their collection of gay erotic art out of their SoHo loft in 1969, the venue has become the resting ground for the private collections of the gay deceased, especially in the AIDS-plagued 1980s. “Survivors would drop off collections of Harings, Warhols, George Platt Lyneses — having no idea what they were worth,” says O’Hanian. Among the museum’s most valuable pieces are some of Warhol’s late-’70s “cum paintings,” which mixed semen and paint on canvas. O’Hanian estimates their current worth as up to $100,000.
But much of the collection is made of the obsessive, bizarre, and kinky art that unknown gay people made or collected privately over the past several decades.
O’Hanian walks over to 73 boxes recently donated by the surviving lover of a 93-year-old man. Inside are thousands of cut-outs from vintage porn magazines, decoupaged onto paper with bondage cuffs slavishly applied over every model’s wrists and ankles.
“The fact that this work represents people’s secret lives is really astonishing,” marvels O’Hanian.
He also delights in showing work portraying open secrets. Through December, the museum will hold the first U.S. exhibit of the works of Sascha Schneider, an early-1900s German painter and sculptor who depicted beautiful naked men in an art nouveau neoclassical style.
“He made these works for straight people in public buildings,” says O’Hanian, looking through a catalog of Schneider’s perfectly muscled demigods. “He actually kept a gym in his studio for his models.” O’Hanian’s favorite work? A painting titled “Hypnose” that shows a hooded muscle daddy beaming white light into the eyes of a stricken, naked ephebe (in a garden of lush flowers, of course).
“I posted that one on Facebook and a friend asked which of the two I was,” says O’Hanian with a laugh. “I said it depends on the day and the relationship.” (For the record, O’Hanian has a boyfriend in Provincetown, where he still keeps a house filled with works by local artists.)
“I love the absolute frankness of it. It’s about the exchange of power between people,” he says.
Other upcoming shows O’Hanian is excited about include “Stroke,” starting next March, featuring illustrations from gay magazines of the 1940s through the 1990s, and “Sex! Art! Music!” in summer 2014, which will explore queer influences on the music scenes of the 1970s and 1980s.
Meanwhile, there are a lot of boxes for O’Hanian and his staff to catalog their way through, both in the museum’s current Wooster Street space and the original basement gallery space on nearby Prince Street. “It’s a daily slog,” he admits. His ultimate goal?
One giant, consolidated space. “It’s too early for us to be looking” — the museum’s current budget, after all, is only around $1 million — “but in five years, we could easily have a site with three 2,000-square-foot galleries, plus an auditorium.”
O’Hanian won’t stop until it happens.