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:: By Taylor McNeil

:: Photography by Dan Dry

:: Pulp art Courtesy of the
:: Robert L esser Collection

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Features ::


One man’s determined quest to find—and frame—pulp art!

The call came on a winter day in 1972. An art dealer wanted to sell Robert Lesser a painting of the Shadow, the 1930s radio-serial crime fighter who famously knew “what evil lurks in the hearts of men.” The painting—showing the black-clad figure clawing a net he’d been captured beneath, a sinister look in his eye—had been made for the cover of the September 1933 pulp magazine The Shadow.

Lesser, AB’50, AM’53, a Manhattan businessman then at work on a book about comic art and memorabilia, snapped it up. “It just absolutely knocked me off my feet,” he says. “I never knew this stuff existed before—one-of-a-kind oil paintings done for pulp covers.” That propitious purchase became the first of many. He now owns some 180 pulp paintings, drawn to the sensational subject matter and the bold painting styles. It’s not a taste, he concedes, for everyone. Take his acquisition of a gruesome painting of a sweet-faced grandma sewing up a stool pigeon’s lips. He bought it several decades ago from a friend in a small town in Missouri, whose wife wouldn’t truck with having it in the house anymore. Lesser quotes the man’s wife: “I’m trying to raise two teenage daughters, and you have that painting? Send it to that weirdo in New York.” Lesser, of course, views it differently. “I think it’s one of my best paintings; it’s like a modern crucifixion.”

At their most popular in the depths of the Depression, pulp magazines sold in the millions, usually at ten cents apiece, distracting readers from their daily struggle to make ends meet. Newsstands were littered with titles, each vying for the eyeballs—and dimes—of passersby on busy streets. And that meant the covers had to grab readers: square-jawed, pistol-packing men and often scantily clad damsels in distress, painted in bright yellows and reds.

“It’s hard whiskey, it’s a punch in the face,” Lesser says. “Every painting is about death. Who’s going to die? The good guy or the bad guy? Is the girl going to be attacked? Is the animal going to tear the guy to pieces?”

Pulp was, above all, an American art form: no other country produced such paintings, Lesser argues, filled with violence, sex, murder, guns, and airplanes—“all the goodies you could have.”

“It’s really part of our culture, and Bob has preserved this,” says New York art dealer Steve Kennedy. “It’s now got worldwide recognition as a form of American art that was totally overlooked.” With recent exhibitions of Lesser’s collection at the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut and pulp memorabilia sprouting up from bookstores to Costco, pulp art is back on the pop-culture map.

Growing up in Chicago and New York in the 1930s, Lesser knew the pulps. His father, a salesman, had been a devoted reader of the classic Argosy, which emerged as the first pulp magazine in 1888. The publications, printed on cheap newsprint—hence the term pulp—appealed strictly to the testosterone crowd, with outlandish adventure stories told quickly and with machismo. “When my father would get Argosy magazine, my sister and I knew to leave the old man alone,” Lesser says. “He had just joined the French Foreign Legion.”

Authors like Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, and Isaac Asimov got their start in the pulps. Chandler later refused to let his pulp stories be reprinted: many elements ended up in modified form in The Big Sleep; Farewell, My Lovely; and other novels, and he didn’t want the world knowing he was cribbing his earlier work. But Lesser mostly dismisses the writing in the magazines. Authors were paid a quarter of a cent per word and cranked it out. “Most of this stuff is such crap that I can tell when the guy went to lunch—because when he came back from lunch, everything changed, and he didn’t have time to go back and look at what he’d already written,” he says. “Yes, you got Dashiell Hammett and The Maltese Falcon. You turn out that much pulp, you’re bound to get a pearl.”

Still, readers got the escape they wanted when they plunked down their hard-earned dimes. Back in the 1930s, “for ten cents you could get two hot dogs with mustard and sauerkraut, big and thick, a Hershey almond bar, a cup of coffee, two crullers,” Lesser says. “For a nickel you got a ride on the subway, right into the ’40s.”

Joining the vast array of pulp types—from stories featuring crime fighters, Western heroes, and detectives to adventure, aviation, and science fiction—were ones with titles like Spicy Mystery and Spicy Detective Stories. The so-called spicies, which began in the early years of the Depression, were as risqué as any publication could be, taking depictions of sex as far as they could, with scantily clad females on the cover and stories that went just as far—but no farther. The books sold for the princely sum of a quarter apiece. This was, after all, the era of Prohibition, movie censorship, and bans on gambling, a busy period for the Society for the Suppression of Vice. “The spicies were an incredible genre considering the times,” Lesser says with admiration. Their publishers “knew they would make money, but they knew they were going to get opposition. They could print them and publish them in New York, because New York was always a liberal city. You could always pay the cop on the beat five bucks to keep walking.”

But even New York wasn’t ready for the April 1942 issue of Spicy Mystery, which hit the newsstands with a cover showing the inside of a butcher shop’s meat locker. “This guy who looks like Lenny the Monster is there with a knife,” Lesser says. “Hanging up on a meat hook, next to the carcass of a cow marked ‘U.S. prime,’” is a Rita Hayworth look-alike: “Her dress is torn, she’s scared, and this monster with a pimple on his face is about to cut her up. In the lower right-hand corner is the gun of the hero who is going to save her.” New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia took one look and decided the spicies had gone too far. He banned the magazines and made it stick. “I have that painting,” Lesser adds proudly.

The demise of the spicies presaged the end of the pulps as a genre. With the advent of World War II, American males didn’t need to read about adventure: they had more than enough of their own. The arrival of mass-market paperbacks and television also had an effect: in the early 1950s pulp fiction bit the dust.

After buying his first painting of the Shadow—he now has four in his collection—Lesser says, “I began to realize, my God, for these little ten-cent pulps, they had magnificent oil paintings for the cover art. I was amazed how great some of it was, how well trained these artists were.” The painters lived mostly in New York, and many had attended the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn or the Art Students League in New York. Many wanted to be fine artists and, like the writers, viewed their Depression-era work in the pulps as a dirty little secret. It was a way to earn quick money in hard times (around $50 per painting) and, if they were lucky, move on to the slicks, like the Saturday Evening Post or Harper’s. “They were ashamed of being pulp artists,” Lesser says. Most didn’t want their paintings back when the publishers were through with them, and few signed their work.

Lesser met one of the great pulp painters, Rafael De Soto, known for his hard-boiled detective paintings, late in the artist’s life. He asked De Soto to sign a painting—a New Detective cover showing a bald man emerging from an Egyptian sarcophagus, one hand covering a struggling woman’s mouth; with the other hand he’s shooting at someone outside the frame—but the artist refused. With the practiced flair of someone who’s told the story before, Lesser recounts De Soto’s response: “Robert, I’ll explain it to you once, and I’ll never explain it to you again. If a pretty girl comes up to you and says, ‘Robert, I want to sleep with you because I like you’—that’s fine art. If a pretty girl comes up to you and says, ‘I want to sleep with you, but it will cost you $100’—that’s commercial art. Only whores paint for money.”

“That’s the 1930s cultural prejudice they had in their minds,” Lesser says, a prejudice that led to the wholesale destruction of almost all original pulp art. Based on the number of magazine issues published, the collector estimates that some 50,000 pulp paintings were produced; he believes fewer than 1,000 survive.

Because the painters didn’t want their work back, some publishers offered them to readers for as little as proofs of purchase from six issues plus shipping costs. Lesser tells the story of a pulp-art collection Condé Nast inherited when it bought longtime pulp publisher Street & Smith in 1961. The magazine publisher offered the paintings at auction, but they didn’t sell. So it offered the art for free to employees. Again there were no takers. (“I couldn’t hang that in my house—my mother would throw me out,” is Lesser’s imagined response to the offer.) So Condé Nast “put them all on the street, gave them to the Department of Sanitation, and they became pecking pieces for the seagulls in the Staten Island landfill,” Lesser says. “Hundreds of paintings, including ones by N. C. Wyeth, destroyed.” 

The prejudice continues. Few art museums exhibit pulp paintings, or other forms of art considered illustration as opposed to fine art. Lesser says both the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the New Britain Museum of American Art tried to interest other museums in showing their pulp exhibitions, but neither found any takers.

Then there’s the snarky New York Times review of the Brooklyn Museum’s exhibition of pulp art from Lesser’s collection. Although art critic Roberta Smith acknowledged that the 2003 show was “essential viewing for anyone interested in American popular culture past or present,” she dismissed the painters as “journeymen” and the paintings as “gaudy.”

But the prejudice against pulp art is receding in some parts of the art world. This past fall New York’s Guggenheim Museum featured an exhibit by Richard Prince, who incorporates pulp images in his art, and asked Lesser to record audio for guided tours of the show, detailing the history of pulp art.

Without Lesser that history—and the art itself—might have vanished. “Since his is the only collection that I know of,” says Douglas Hyland, director of the New Britain Museum, “if he had not done it, there is a very good chance that there would be no collection. Without Bob, this would be lost forever.”

“Bob has had an enormous effect,” art dealer Kennedy agrees. “Now you can go into Barnes & Noble and see pulp calendars. You see this imagery that would have been lost. It is part of our culture and unique to America.”

Collecting, Lesser jokes, is a family disease. “My cousin feels it’s a genetic defect,” he says, deadpan. “He has probably the best collection of antique cameras in the world. My sister collected dolls; my mother collected Wedgwood, Wedgwood, Wedgwood; my father collected clothes.” Though he had a taste for American Indian collectibles as a youngster, when Lesser joined the air force as a teenager during World War II, he thought he’d be immune to the acquisition bug. After all, it’s hard to lug trunks of valuables from one posting to another. After the war he arrived at the University of Chicago and, not exactly rolling in dough, resisted the itch to collect.

At Chicago he started out as a physics major—working part time for three years on the University’s cyclotron project with the likes of Enrico Fermi and John Marshall—but ended up an English major. After graduating, he worked in Chicago in the advertising-sign business, trading bonds on the side. “I became the top sign salesman in Chicago, working with Mayor Daley,” he says. “I had the contract for the federal center, the civic center, O’Hare Airport—no competitive bidding. That’s the way we did it in those days. This is Chicago, after all.” He moved to New York in 1965, made his way in the Wall Street bond market, and continued in the electric-sign brokerage business, mostly working for himself. And sure enough, what’s bred in the bone will come out in the flesh. “When I came to New York, the disease really hit me,” he says. “I started collecting everything relating to American comic memorabilia, starting from about 1896 with the Yellow Kid,” a lead character in one of the first Sunday supplement comic strips.

The field was wide open. “There was nobody there. I have the gene that gets me in about 20 years ahead of everybody else,” he says. “Everything was a brand-new experience. It’s like a pretty girl moves on the block, and you’re the only guy available. I started collecting the character watches. I had probably the best Buck Rogers collection back then.”

Then he took up a new field of endeavor: robots and space toys. He built up a strong collection, complete with such items as a 1950s Machine Man; a large, boxy tin robot; and a Yonezawa Jupiter Robot with its original box: period pieces marking the world’s fascination with all things outer space. Displayed at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in 2000 and 2001, it then moved to the Museum of Science and Industry in Hyde Park, where it was shown twice, most recently from 2005 until 2007. This May he’s selling it at auction; the auction house calls Lesser’s collection “one of the last of the intact pioneer collections of its type.”

Lesser jokes that he needs to sell the robots and space-toy collection because he’s running out of space. It is a full house: besides his pulp art—each piece framed with the cover of the actual magazine it appeared on—he also has collections of models of movie monsters: some 130 movie posters from 2002 to 2006, a period “when the studios hired real artists”; custom-tailored clothes he ordered for himself during his working days; and his wardrobe of cowboy boots, “the best money could buy.”

“I guess what I am is a thingist,” he says wryly. “I believe in things; I’m a materialist.”

When Lesser started buying pulp art, the paintings were worthless. “People would say, ‘Why would you collect that?’” At pulp conventions, magazine collectors told him he should be reading the stories, not searching out the paintings. “They said, ‘You’re like the Three Stooges. They come out on stage, each has a candy bar. They open the candy bar, throw the candy bar away, and eat the wrapper. Nobody wants this art.’”

The derision worked in Lesser’s favor: in the 1970s he mostly got the paintings for a song, paying $125 to $250 per canvas. But because there was no market, the paintings were hard to find. Lesser describes with glee how he amassed the collection. He put the word out in the art-dealer community and at pulp conventions that he was interested in these paintings. When a dealer arrived with one, usually not knowing much about pulp, Lesser would put on his act. ‘I’d say, Oh my God, that’s the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. I’ll pay whatever you want.’ And he thinks he’s found a fool.” The next time the dealer found a painting, he’d come to Lesser, knowing he had a sure sale. “That’s how you build a collection: be stupid, don’t bargain, but don’t pay too high a price.”

Deciding what he wanted was simple. “I was born with a third eye: I can tell a good painting from a bad painting in 30 seconds,” he says. “Either you have that third eye or go away, you’re wasting your time and your money.”

Up until about 1989, he had the pulp-art market to himself. There were other collectors, but they were amateurs compared to Lesser. He bought up their best paintings, according to Kennedy, to make his own collection stronger.

“I don’t know anybody as intense and dedicated as him; he’s totally focused,” says Kennedy. “He’s married to what he does.”

“He has the mentality of a 20-something kid,” says Jamie McDonald, a filmmaker whose award-winning 2005 documentary Pulp Fiction Art: Cheap Thrills and Painted Nightmares (Kultur) uses Lesser as a primary source and guiding voice. “He’s got that robust energy. He’s always looking, he’s always creating, he’s always discovering.”

In 1997 Lesser published a large-format book, Pulp Art: Original Cover Paintings for the Great American Pulp Magazines (Gramercy), which has managed to sell out several editions without a single ad or review. He’s also worked on other writing projects, including 11 plays (four produced) and four novels: “I’m one of these guys that gets up in the morning and has something to work at.”

Now the kinds of paintings Lesser bought low are selling high—very high. A friend of his, he reports, recently paid $300,000 for two pulp cover paintings. Science-fiction pulp art runs between $50,00 and $100,000, Kennedy says, reflecting a spate of acquisitions by Paul Allen’s Science Fiction Museum in Seattle. Film directors are big buyers as well. It’s a natural, Kennedy says: the vivid, imagistic storytelling in pulp covers is their stock and trade. 

But the money doesn’t interest Lesser. He recently decided to give his pulp-art collection to the New Britain Museum of American Art, figuring at a smaller museum it will be a core collection and not get lost as it might at a larger institution. At first, he wasn’t sure if that was the right place to go. “When they called me, I said, ‘Look, some of your New England ladies may take umbrage at the fact that these paintings have sex and violence,’” Lesser says. “And I got a message back from the director, who said he had a message from the New England ladies, that they love sex and violence.”