When thinking of Bob Mizer’s photography, the first image that comes to mind is not usually a cat…or any kind of pussy for that matter.
However, New York University’s 80 Washington Square East Gallery’s exhibition focusing on the famous, as much as infamous, beefcake photographer begins with just that–a large, stunning photograph of a somewhat cross-eyed Siamese cat, which appears more like a freakish Diane Arbus photograph than the muscled men from Mizer’s Athletic Model Guild (AMG).
The first institutional solo exhibition of Bob Mizer’s expansive career, DEVOTION: Excavating Bob Mizer delves into the little known and barely seen photographs separate from his career as the penultimate beefcake photographer. It’s not all posing straps and prison fondling here! Even though a beefcake fan will still be satiated by the satisfying amount of body builder posing, DEVOTION reveals the wide range of Mizer’s photographic talent and interests.
Being completely honest here, as you know I always do, frequent filthy readers, Bob Mizer’s non-beefcake photographs are unabashedly bizarre ranging from a strange photo of a woman playing with a monkey to a still erotic photograph of a naked Leonard Chambers in a flask. Like a peek into Hollywood’s campiest studio, Mizer’s photographs, which are just now being unearthed from his extensive archives, are hilarious, beautiful, compelling and more than just a little confusing, as all good art should be.
Organized by Straight To Hell’s Billy Miller and 80 WSE Gallery director Jonathan Berger in collaboration with the Bob Mizer Foundation’s Dennis Bell and students and faculty from NYU, DEVOTION participates in the increasing interest in archiving and the rapidly spreading archival impulse that is dominating not only the fine art world but also queer scholarship, particularly surrounding art and art history.
Like the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art’s exhibition Paul Thek and His Circle in the 1950s, as well as Phaidon’s major publication Art and Queer Culture, DEVOTION: Excavating Bob Mizer dives into the queer past that was filled with coded behavior, kitschy muscle mags and queer pulp fiction novels. Largely assumed to be a period of the closeted, the conservative and the repressed, pre-Stonewall queer culture is having a new resurgence as the queer culture and intimacies are studied and celebrated rather than easily dismissed.
While Mizer’s photographs may have not been classified as fine art by many before this exhibition, Mizer’s influence on contemporary art is undeniable, inspiring queer artists from Andy Warhol to Robert Mapplethorpe and David Hockney.
Before we get into the significance of Mizer’s archival trash trove, let me introduce Mizer to those uninitiated to the muscle mag icon.
Born in 1922 in Hailey, Idaho, Mizer eventually moved with his mother and brother to Los Angeles where he continued to live and photograph the subcultural scenes of LA until his death in 1992.
Primarily known as the founder of the Athletic Model Guild, a physique photography studio and…ahem…”talent agency” in 1945, which operated out of his house, Mizer found his “talent” among the surfers, juvenile delinquents and wannabe actors around Downtown, LA. In 1951, Mizer founded Physique Pictorial, described by art historian Richard Meyer in Art & Queer Culture as “a magazine populated by pictures of oiled, muscular and nearly naked young men, sometimes outfitted as Roman gladiators, prison inmates or sailor buddies “ (118). Not only featuring Mizer’s iconic and alluring photographs, Physique Pictorial is also notable for publishing the filthy, leather-bound imagery of Tom of Finland.
Now this muscled kingdom was certainly not all fun and games for Mizer who had his own share of legal trouble over his photographs and films. In 1947, he spent a year in prison for taking nude photographs of a 17 year old and in 1954, he was convicted of distributing obscene material through the mail.
As queer men became more visible and increasingly accepted after Stonewall, Mizer continued to heroically push the boundaries of taste and acceptability, removing the posing straps and taking all nude photographs and films.However, as shown in DEVOTION, this beefcake photography was certainly just a small part of Mizer’s prolific photographic practice.
Unmistakably drawing inspiration from Hollywood films and West Coast subcultures from surfers to car culture to greasers and beatniks, many of Mizer’s photographs in DEVOTION portray single models who are playing to these types. One of my favorite photographs is a hysterically threatening greaser in a leather jacking, holding a switchblade up to the camera. I can just hear the wild rockabilly music and squealing tires now.
While many of these photographs still seem semi-erotic with the use of costumes, a few of the photos depict truly off-the-wall and random scenes, celebrating some sort of bizarre West Coast irreverence. For example, one of the most unlikely photographs in the exhibition depicts a young boy smiling and holding a rooster. I mean, what is that doing there?
In addition to the never-before-seen photographs, DEVOTION: Excavating Bob Mizer brings Mizer’s extensive archives to the gallery space where viewers can observe the actual excavation. Immediately upon entering the gallery, the viewer is confronted by an enormous wall of archival boxes, stuffed to the brink with negatives, as well as an organized section of costumes and posing straps. Even though I know you want to ask, please stifle the urge to sniff the posing straps.
As the press release explains, Mizer’s archive consists of “nearly two million negatives and slides, three thousand films and thousands of objects.” Not only are the archives part of the exhibition, but students have been working on processing the archive through the run of the show during gallery hours, making this archival work public, sharing photographs, films and objects as they are discovered.
Reintroducing viewers, as well as the archivists, to Bob Mizer, DEVOTION creates an intimate and increasingly complex view of Mizer’s incredible and long career, developing a more nuanced and complete understanding of Mizer than a pervy beefcake photographer who reinforced the clone image. While many have relegated Mizer’s work as an anachronistic, romanticization of hyper-masculinity, DEVOTION complicates this view, stressing the importance of Mizer’s work in the legacy of queer culture-making and eroticism.
While we here at Filthy Dreams have always loved the pre-Stonewall trash era of queer culture and camp, it is undeniable that contemporary LGBTQ politics have tried to leave this filth behind, replacing it with flash mob marriage proposals. Yeuuck…I’ll be with Bob in his compound.
However, some queer theorists such as Heather Love have worked on reconsidering the necessity of looking to this pre-Stonewall history. While Love focuses on the backward past of modernist queer representation in her Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History, her critique of the erasure and avoidance of difficult pre-Stonewall queer creations in the name of progress is still relevant to the revisiting of Mizer’s work.
As Love states, “‘Advances’ such as gay marriage and the increasing media visibility of well-heeled gays and lesbians threaten to obscure the continuing denigration and dismissal of queer existence. One may enter the mainstream on the condition that one breaks ties with all those who cannot make it—the nonwhite and the nonmonogamous, the poor and the genderdeviant, the fat, the disabled, the unemployed, the infected and a host of unmentionable others. Social negativity clings not only to these figures but also to those who lived before the common era of gay liberation—the abject multitude against whose experience we define our own liberation” (10).
To be sure, Bob Mizer is definitely not one of these “acceptable” queers, one easily assimilated into mainstream gay culture and politics with his willingness to cross the line and push people’s limits.
Which is precisely why we need Mizer right now.
Arguing for Mizer’s significance and influential and diverse aesthetic, DEVOTION: Excavating Bob Mizer contextualizes Mizer’s photographs into the realm of fine art where it belongs. An essential piece of the timeline of queer art and sexual culture, the more we excavate Mizer’s archives, the more he emerges as an important figure in the genealogy of queer creation.