Cock Central: The Life of Charles Leslie

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A work from the 1950s by Don Wright, in the collection of Charles Leslie

“There is no such thing as pornography in art, in my view,” writes Charles Leslie. “If something is brilliantly done, no matter what the subject, that equals art. And if there is a brilliant work of pornography, that’s art too!”

This large book is about the fascinating life of art collector Charles Leslie, whose Prince Street loft in NY City has been dubbed “Cock Central.” The author of the book, Dr. Kevin Clarke (director of the Operetta Research Center in Amsterdam), says “It certainly is art-in-your-face, and there certainly are as many contemporary penises on display as anyone could possibly wish for.”

There is a lot to take in here, in more ways than one.

First of all this is a picture book, showing not just the home of Mr. Leslie but many of the artworks he has collected over his lifetime (he was born in 1933). The Stonewall Museum in Wilton Manors recently showed some of this art, and that included a 1956 painting of Glenn Bishop by George Quaintance. I also mention this because there is currently an exhibit of Quaintance paintings at the Taschen Gallery in Las Angeles (it opened July 1, 2015).

Quaintance, in the 1940s and 50s, was an illustrator who set the parameters of gay art for nearly half a century. He explored the limits of the male physique before other artists dared to. Likewise, Leslie was one of the very few people who, in the 50s and 60s, collected art dedicated to the male form.

The second aspect of the book covers his entire life in a series of chronological chapters, showing what he did and who he had flings with. A sample of the chapter subtitles gives you an idea of what to expect: Boys in the Band, Phallic Fetishes, Fucking in Khartoum.

His relationship with his partner Fritz lasted nearly 50 years until he died in 2009. The museum they founded, the Leslie+Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, can now be visited in New York City.

Painting of G. Bishop by QuaintancePainting of G. Bishop by QuaintanceThe book opens with several chapters by authorities on art, and these are most illuminating. Elizabeth Raether, an author for Zeit-Magazine in Germany, says that “gay men have always had more nuanced views about penises than women. It was gay men who introduced the penis to the history of art, where it had long been missing.” She suggests that this is the “perfect moment in history for men to generally pull down their pants and expose themselves.” A view I entirely share.

James Saslow, an art history professor at Queens College and the University of New York, explains that “the prime mover behind Charles’ unabashed promotion of gay art is his equally unabashed pursuit of gay sex. Five minutes in the loft will expose you to more penises than five years in a nudist colony.” But most importantly he identifies Leslie as “a person without whom today’s queer art world, both local and global, might never have been born.”

An intelligently written account of the past 80 years of gay culture in general, and one life in particular, this book deserves a place in any collection of art history or gay studies.

There is one typo on pg. 113: “where” should be “were”

The Art of Looking: The Life and Treasures of Collector Charles Leslie (200 pages) is $59.99 by Bruno Gmuender press in Berlin. This is the world’s foremost publisher of gay-related books, and an excellent source for anyone who wants to add some beautifully produced volumes to their library. Visit their website: www.brunogmuender.com

Here is the link to my article about the exhibit in Ft. Lauderdale at the Stonewall museum earlier in 2015:

http://sunnewsmiami.com/lifestyle/gay-life/item/604-stonewall-and-art

Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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