From Spicy to Subversive


In 1942, Mayor Fiorello La Guardia spied a Spicy Mystery magazine on a New York City newsstand. H.G. Ward (a pulp cover artist who never missed the chance to lovingly delineate a mons veneris under

clingy fabrics) had portrayed a woman strung up in a meat locker and threatened by a hunchbacked butcher. Apparently missing the compositional nod to Caravaggio’s Abraham and Isaac, Hizzoner forced the publisher out of the pulp business.

The Spicy line was not alone in the battle for down-market sales: Along with more subtle male fantasies, women were strangled (“Two Hands to Choke”), immersed in steaming vats (“Black Pool for Hell Maidens”), and branded (“Six-Gun Saga of Blue Strange”). So, for the “Pulp” show, the BMA wanted a female curator who could separate the artistry from the misogyny. It might also have specified that she be a bug-eyed alien and hail from the mysterious East, since tentacled blobs, bucktoothed Japanese soldiers, and long-taloned Chinese gang lords menace many a pale ingenue, justifying the righteous beatdowns they receive at the hands of vengeful white guys. (Finally, the BMA has a show Rudy can love!) Independent curator Anne Pasternak (who curated the “Tribute of Light” memorial after 9-11) took on the challenge, happily finding some images “imbued with subversive content.” When not being exploited, women were acknowledged to have their own sexual desires, a vital assertion at a time when female suffrage, and later, easy access to birth control, were political dynamite. And as Pasternak points out, Franklin Roosevelt, the progressive who appointed the first ever female cabinet officer was also “a huge pulp enthusiast.”

Amid the glow of New Deal promise, a future giant of American painting, Philip Guston, was making sincere but clunky frescoes warning of hooded conspirators. The pulp artists unveiled the Klan’s villainy in a more lurid fashion: H.L. Parkhurst’s Monster Fringe depicts one of these self-proclaimed defenders of female virtue dragging a screaming blonde to her death (or perhaps just her desecration). In a contemporary addendum to the show, Pasternak uses two 1990 Andres Serrano photographs to update this theme. The disturbingly blank eyeholes in Klansman (Great Titan of the Invisible Empire) convey true malice, an evil more pathetic, and more perverted, than anything the pulps ever dreamed up.

Return to R.C. Baker’s review of “Pulp Art” at the Brooklyn Museum