NBMAA – Pulp’s Passion and Power – The Robert Lesser Collection
by Laurencia Ciprus
Suffering for art. There have always been those underappreciated/misunderstood painters with a long vision aimed too far ahead of the curve – jumping the gun and prematurely delivering a level of exceptional work to the wrong place and at the wrong time. Maybe this is why the work of the finest artists capture the highest value in dollars and popularity only when the artist is six feet under. Humiliation and poverty are often big parts of the deal. Jackson Pollock, Norman Rockwell, and Vincent Van Gogh – driven mad for his genius – lead a long list of creatives tortured both by social bias and the arbitrary opinions of the latest and greatest art gurus and power pundits. Then there is Pulp Art.
The Pop – Populist Art of the 1930’s and 40’s was the sucker punch of all time to a superlative A List of epically talented illustrators and artists. Mostly guys and a few gutsy women – many classically trained at the most respected art schools – cranked out scores of deeply detailed and dazzling covers for the cheapest low-brow publications and were paid next to nil for these 20”x30” original works on canvas. But America was hurting, and these were tough times. Generally this was one of the few avenues that these illustrators and painters had, so they could continue to make their art and keep food on the table. Dubbed “Pulp” – because these quick visual hits were printed on the cheapest junk that could legitimately pass as paper – it gave the predominately working class male reader an escape and cheap fantasy from long grinding hours, horrible working conditions, and the darkest times with the 10 cent read of the minute. American Pulp Fiction was pretty much the Reality Television of that era.
Not everyone was as excited about this cutting edge art form. The steamy, sexist, and uber violent stuff was unapologetically offensive and rendered in a limited eye popping palette of vivid red, chrome yellow, and cobalt blue. These visuals hit the raw nerve of the traditionalists and highbrow art critics; more comfortable with a socially acceptable, conventional, and more mainstream work. Despite the detailed execution of Pulp Art covers, this was definitely not the art that would wind up on a collectors wall, in a gallery, or distinguished museum. The social censors forced the roughest stuff out from the public view, stashing the magazines behind the counters of local smoke shops and newspaper stands. The sheer volume of output by these artists was amazing; some illustrators creating up to seven images per month in impossible detail without any sacrifice to quality or precision. The formula was simple, and the competition for attention on the stands fierce. It was the artist’s job to capture the reader with a vivid cover shot full with primary color, unlimited gore, cowboys, mobsters, and space aliens – with an image of half naked women thrown in and subjected to the darkest depravity – to hawk magazines like Spicy Mystery, Weird Tales, Thrilling Wonder Stories, and Detective Tales. The characters needed to be strong, the fast action in freeze-frame, and overall, darkly menacing and dangerous.
Despite the quality of the work, its lack of popularity in the fine art world rendered it useless and the canvasses disposable. Theses artists rarely wanted the canvasses returned, unless they were going to paint over the images to turn around another cover. At the time, the cover art held absolutely no collectible value, and the stockpiles couldn’t even be given away. Canvasses was thrown out with the garbage or even burned when publishers like Conde Nast and Popular Publications had to deal with a backlog stashed in their warehouses. But ironically, many of the Pulp Fiction writers had a better outcome to their career path. Writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Ray Bradbury all moved up into the realm of higher end publications and into legitimate and respectable publishing. Many also shifted into script writing and jumped onto an emerging Hollywood scene, with the film industry having little or no elitism in their content. In contrast, works by artists like science fiction illustrators Frank R. Paul – with his impossibly detailed Futuristic landscapes and Hannes Bok were ignored even by Sci-Fi fans, as were the stunning works of Norman Sanders, E.L.Parkhurst, and Margaret Brundage – the most famous female illustrator in Pulp Art.
Fortunately for the legacy of these painters, Robert Lesser took notice in the early 1970’s and hatched a methodical plan to recover the surviving pieces of Pulp Art. On a personal mission to preserve this part of American culture, he began amassing the original cover art he managed to find – either through auctions, persistent word-of-mouth, or luck. With the majority of canvasses gone, Lesser only managed to recover a fraction of the total original output which hadn’t been destroyed. Decades later, the Robert Lesser Pulp Art Collection carries an amazing legacy of artists who offered lent talent to a fascinating genre. Looking at it with today’s eye, this was good art – even great art, with many similarities in the composition of the scene, figure detail, and color work consistent with the makeup of highly regarded classical paintings. At one point, the collection held an estimated value of $9 million dollars in the current market, set by an offer to purchase from a single collector. Instead of opting to sell it off, Lesser set out looking for a museum to house and preserve it. This was not an easy undertaking, since most museums still held a tight and arbitrary prejudice against Commercial Art. Finally, Lesser connected with Douglas Hyland – then, the current Director of the New Britain Museum of American Art – in the early 2000’s. The two visions clicked, they began a like-minded dialogue, and moved on in collaboration to mount a stunning Pulp Art show at the NBMAA, which drew a steady stream of visitors and a fresh fan base for the genre.
In 2003 Robert Lesser published his fascinating and comprehensive full-color volume about the genre, entitled Pulp Art: Original Cover Paintings for the Great American Pulp Magazines. With full-page color plates, history, and commentary on this historic time in art and publishing, Lesser has managed to tell a great story, along with the help of a variety of editors, writers, and storytellers who have/had a connection with the genre and came forward to provide individual essays. Notable among them is Danson Burroughs, the grandson of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author and creator of Tarzan. Unfortunately, this great book remains out of print, but the title is still easily available for purchase online and is on the shelves of select public and university libraries.
Fast forward: comfortable and confident in his ongoing relationship with the NBMAA, Lesser made the decision in 2013 to present the museum with his entire 200 piece collection – even adding to it with a further donation of $1.3 million to ensure its continued conservation into the future. The works are displayed with both the original artwork and a copy of the published magazine cover. This remains timeless stuff of fantasy; now given the proper lighting and wall space, the color, action, and artists’ imagination pulls you in. The depth of the collection is astounding, and it is an ongoing exhibition with the collection shown in rotation. There have been special exhibitions mounted over the years to introduce and re-introduce the works to a fresh viewing public.
Visit the NBMAA for the opportunity to experience this fascinating artform through the Robert Lesser Pulp Art Collection. This is a rare, first-hand look at the unique and vibrant artwork that marked a unique period in American Popular Culture.
For more information go to: www.nbmaa.org
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