13 October 2010

George Quaintance (Part Two)

George Quaintance Photo

Lest Old AcQuaintance Be Forgot:
The Legacy of
George Quaintance
by Donny Jacobs

Quaintance’s world is a largely female-free dreamscape of perfectly-muscled glamour boys showing their bodies to one another but never doing anything so salacious as kissing. This is a utopia of good clean fun and, fifty years ago, was more than enough to pack an erotic charge for men starved of homoerotic imagery. From our perspective today it looks rather innocent . . . Quaintance (shows) us as much naked flesh as possible, (while) always ensuring that a shadow, wisp of smoke or trail of cloth falls across the forbidden area (this also ensures that your eye is drawn to that very place).

This assessment of George Quaintance's oeuvre comes from artist and blogger John Coulthart. While valid as far as it goes, it understates Quaintance's importance to the field of Gay erotic art. He was arguably the first American artist to adapt homoerotic scenes into a true art form; despite their suggestiveness, his compositions aren't "dirty pictures" by any stretch of the imagination. He was the first artist to portray men in Levis as sexy. He was the first artist to eroticize masculine archetypes such as the cowboy, the Indian brave, and the matador; without him, The Village People might never have been concieved! Like The Village People, Quaintance wasn't just selling homoeroticism, either. He was selling male iconography, as well as the romanticism that was attached to it.

George Quaintance was much more than a pin-up artist. He was a serious craftsman. The main purpose of his paintings was to depict sexual attraction between men, but that wasn't enough to make them legitimate works of art, and he knew that. Accordingly, he presented most of his male images against a backdrop of exotic cultural, mythological, pastoral or historical themes. What was going on behind the hunks was almost as interesting to look at as the hunks themselves.

"Mr. Quaintance is a devoted student of the folklore of (American) Indians and of the North and South American continents and has . . . prepared several dramatic paintings illuminating (them)", noted his publicist in 1953. "In the year to come, Quaintance will be working on a new series of Western paintings . . . his models will be men of the land, Navajo and Apache Indians, young ranchers and rodeo stars, and that fascinating cross-breed of Indian and Spaniard known as Mexican." These new paintings would be some of his most memorable: "Sunset" with its rambunctious outdoor shower scene, "Navajo", a more tranquil depiction of men bathing; "Saturday Night", probably the first time a Gay Western bar was depicted on canvas; the lakeside nudes of "Lake Apache"; and such smouldering chiaroscuro masterpieces as "The Bandit" and "Noise In The Night." Quaintance claimed that, on average, his compositions took "two weeks to a month to complete."

The Bandit, 1953

Much has been written about the aggressive machismo of George Quaintance's male figures. This is certainly an exaggeration! His men were masculine enough, but they looked anything but macho. Like photos of Quaintance himself, they exhibited a visible blend of male and female. He conveyed this blended look through languidly effeminate poses and gestures, hard bodies with soft and fluid curves, and androgynous-looking faces . . . not to mention those Brylcreem-slick Tony Curtis hairstyles! "George Quaintance's men did look more angrogynous," agrees Douglas Simonson. "He was into those soft, 'blend-y' kinds of lines." The impossibly butch, Straight-acting men that Tom of Finland favored were nowhere to be found in George Quaintance's world. You could never imagine one of Tom's leathermen camping it up, but picturing a Quaintance cowboy with a switchy walk wasn't hard to do at all.

The idea of Gay men being persons of neutral gender(an idea that many Gay men reject to this day) was strongly embodied in George Quaintance's paintings. The combination of subtle androgyny with less-subtle homoerotic suggestion is probably what gave his artwork its unique appeal. Yes, there were artists who could draw the male figure as well or better than he did, but few could make them look so indentifiably Gay! On the other hand, there were physique artists whose drawings of men looked so stereotypically Gay, they were off-putting. Quaintance knew how to put the right elements together. His ability to create images of men that came across as both masculine and homosexual was ahead of its time; and unlike most of today's homoerotic artists, he knew how to convey Gay male sexuality without needing to show males engaging in sexual activity. Whether Quaintance would have if he could have is a question worth pondering: Would have wanted to tamper with his winning formula?

Lake Apache, 1954

Quaintance's tantalizing way with male nudes became internationally popular among an underground community of Gay erotica collectors, and even though he's not as well-known as he once was, it has remained so. His nudes influenced nearly every physique artist who came after him, most notably Harry Bush, Etienne, Japanese erotic art legend Sadao Hasegawa, and Quaintance's most successful imitator, Tom of Finland. Finland, now recognized as the preeminent Gay erotic artist of all-time, is renowned for taking physique art into territory far more sexually explicit and aggressivley macho than Quaintance had ever dreamt of; even so, he was following a path that George Quaintance blazed.

It was his association with Physique Pictorial that made George Quaintance's reputation as a physique artist. His ads appeared right next to the contents page in early issues; many featured a dramatically-posed photo of himself, his well-developed biceps bulging out of a tight black sport shirt. (His marcel-waved hair was immaculate, of course.) He sold original paintings priced between $50.00 and $1,000.00, with photo prints and color slides at $1.50 a pop; a set of six slides was a bargain at $5.00(although these prices were considered rather hefty in the 1950s). A mere 25 cents would buy you a catalog of Quaintance model photos. He also penned occasional how-to guides on figure drawing for PP. His physique drawings graced every cover from November 1951 until October 1953, when Bob Mizer began opting for photographic covers. (The censorship uproar over "Aztec Sacrifice" may have precipitated this change.)

Aztec Sacrifice

By popular demand, Quaintance paintings graced the Fall 1956 and Fall 1957 covers. Tom of Finland had debuted in PP by that time, and the two artists would surely have competed for cover honors for the rest of the decade had it not been for Quaintance's untimely death. But Quaintance didn't limit himself to a single outlet: in addition to Physique Pictorial, his work was featured on the inside and outside of Adonis, Vim, Demi-Gods, Body Beautiful, Grecian Guild Pictorial, Your Physique and other '50s physique periodicals. He was so popular, all the muscle mag editors wanted to work with him. Some of them commissioned him to do paintings of major bodybuilders of the day like Everett Sinderoff, John Farbotnick and Steve Reeves, who went on to find fame as the definitive cinema Hercules. These cover paintings are so dynamic, they fairly leap off the page; they easily rank with his best non-commissioned work.

Hollywood-based "Art-Bob" and Andrew Kozak were early imitators of the Quaintance style, as well as his main rivals for space in Physique Pictorial. By 1955, Mizer seemed to be favoring the cartoonish style of "Art-Bob" over Quaintance's more sophisticated renderings, but by then the man from Shenandoah Valley had more mailorder customers than he could handle. "Business has grown to fantastic proportions in the last few months," he wrote to a friend in the early '50s. "I'm practically out of my mind trying to keep up with it!" In addition to the highly popular color slides of his oil paintings, Quaintance sold nude sculptures and male physique greeting cards. These latter keepsakes were the precursor of the Gay sex greeting cards sold today; the set of twelve 4 X 9 color images was marketed toward the end of 1957, shortly before his death. Among them is one of his campiest compositions: A drawing of an impish blond man whimsically posed naked inside a giant champagne glass. It's an excellent example of how George Quaintance liked to infuse his work with an unambiguously Gay sensibility.

Quaintance Calendar Boys

He almost always painted from photographs, and at any given time, a bevy of hunky male models were either disrobing or posing in his studio. His first regular model was Fred Boisiewick, who posed for early physique studies like "Crusader" and "Pearl Diver". Later on, the aforementioned Angel Avila became one of his favorite camera subjects. Other Quaintance models included British bodybuilder Ron Nyman, Jim Shoemaker, Jim Glasper, Bill Bredlau, Bob Kirkwood, Syrian emigré Ahmed Dene, Bob Jewett, Mexican model "Edwardo", George Coberly, Zaro Rossi and, infrequently, Quaintance himself, photographed by his lover, Victor García. He captured them all on canvas (and sometimes in bed, too) at Rancho Siesta, the studio he opened in Aztec Park, Arizona, sometime in 1953.

By then, George Quaintance had modified his personal appearance to reflect his interest in the Western man. He enthusiastically reclaimed his rural roots, adopting an early version of the Gay "clone" look which would become so popular in the 1970s: Boldy-colored western shirts, Levis, bandannas, and elaborately-tooled cowboy boots. His heart problems notwithstanding, he exercised regularly and maintained a trim and solid physique; all the better to show off the skintight clothing he increasingly favored. A strawberry blond toupée concealed what was left of his thinning brown hair; baldness wouldn't become a fashion statement for another 25 years or so, and at any rate, the former celebrity hairstylist couldn't bear to have anyone glimpse his bare scalp!

Red Dust, 1955
1955: RED DUST

The mailing address of Rancho Siesta was listed as Box 192, Phoenix, Arizona(zip codes had yet to be invented in the '50s). However, by 1957 Quiantance was again based in Los Angeles, listing his original Terminal Annex post office Box. Then, suddenly, he was gone. Bob Mizer announced Quaintance's fatal heart attack in the Winter 1957 issue of Physique Pictorial, shocking the many fans of his work. Mizer's obituary cited strain of overwork as the probable reason for his death, but the possibility of a serious drug addiction was also hinted at. He may have moved back to Los Angeles to seek treatment; the full circumstances surrounding George Quaintance's sudden demise have never been revealed and probably never will be. His body was cremated.  It was reported that no funeral was held, but Victor Garcia's nephew disputes this claim: He remembers attending the service with his mother.

His estate, including countless photographs, sculptures and approximately 60 oil paintings, was left to Victor García and García's other lover, Tom Syphers. Somehow, most of this material ended up in the Tom of Finland archives, where it was found by Richard Hawkins, a photographer friend of Quaintance. From the art collection of two Hawaiian brothers came near-complete set of color negatives. These treasures belonged to another friend of Quaintance's, and they've all been restored. They are the source of most of the Quaintance artwork now in circulation, and they're also the basis of a long-overdue Quaintance retrospective that Germany's Taschen imprint will publish later this year.

So much of what comes out of the Gay arts community these days can be classified as "gotcha" art. Labeled "queer art" by those who create it (an insult both to Gay people and to artistic traditions), it's designed to shock, and can be counted on to be heavy on explicit sexual content and negative stereotypes. The classic work of George Quaintance serves as a reminder that Gay art doesn't have to come across that way. In addition to being provocative, depictions of same-gender sexuality can be subtle, beautiful, noble, fun and altogether fine. Even more important, the male nude, rendered with his kind of exceptional skill, can be every bit as respectable and valuable as any female nude.

In the 1940s and '50s, nobody could imagine Gay visual erotica being shown in a mainstream gallery; now such exhibits happen all the time. In fact, a retrospective of physique photos taken by George Quaintance and Victor García recently had a showing at a Paris art gallery. The artist would no doubt have greeted this renewed focus on his work with both pleasure and disappointment; after all, he didn't make his name as a photographer. He would've wanted the attention focused on his oil masterpieces. A major Quaintance painting exhibition is certainly long overdue; there's no American physique artist who's more deserving of the honor.

Shore Leave, 1952

Thanks to Douglas Simonson, Ken Furtado 
and John Waybright.

See the complete surviving Quaintance Collection at:
Vintage photo of George Quaintance by Edwin Townsend, courtesy of the Finter-Salvino Archive.  Watch for The Art of George Quaintance, a deluxe hardcover volume to be marketed by Taschen Books this Christmas.