Every time I visit Charles Leslie's SoHo loft, my eyes have to relearn how to see his apartment, to pick the individual players out of the sexual scrum. Then, like an erotic Magic Eye puzzle, a Warhol suddenly emerges from a thicket of phalli, and the coffee table resolves into a veritable Stonehenge of penises sculpted in glass, ceramic, and even whale bone.
Leslie lives not far from the museum that bears his name, The Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. "Lohman" refers to Leslie's longtime partner, renowned interior decorator Fritz Lohman, who passed away four years ago. The two spent 48 years together: traveling the world, collecting and championing gay art, and helping transform SoHo from industrial wasteland to artist enclave to moneyed playground.
The museum is their official legacy, but Leslie's apartment is a distillation of those years: a story of gay life existing on the margins during the buttoned-down 1950s, exploding outward in the '60s and '70s, surviving the "grim and ghastly plague years," and re-emerging triumphantly into the present — all told through homoerotic and homo-romantic art.
Charles Leslie (left) at the Leslie + Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art and a headshot of Leslie (right) from 1969.
Leslie began collecting gay art while stationed in Heidelberg during the Korean War, and continued afterward while attending the Sorbonne on the GI Bill. And over the course of his design career, Lohman had also gathered a small handful of such works. In fact, their shared passion for homoerotic art was one of the things that drew the two together.
Leslie purchased his loft in 1968 for a whopping $3,500. At the time, SoHo wasn't zoned for residential use. "It was an industrial slum," he recalls with an astonished laugh. When Lohman joined him a few months later, their collection of gay art began to grow in earnest.
And what a collection it is. It contains many of the most familiar names in the gay art world: Warhol and Haring and Mapplethorpe, to list but a few. But it also harkens back to pioneers whose work has faded from modern queer memory, such as Baron Wilhelm von Gloeden, whose early 20th century pastoral nudes turned the seaside town of Taormina, Sicily, into the European nobility's version of Fire Island. Leslie published a book on von Gloeden in 1980, and a half-dozen of his photos adorn a narrow wall by his guest room.
A good portion of Leslie's collection comes from artists who moved to SoHo for its cheap rents and large open spaces. Many of them made gay art in private, solely for themselves and their friends. In 1969, this led Leslie and Fritz to hold their first unofficial "homoerotic art fair" in their newly renovated loft. They expected maybe 50 people to attend. To their shock, hundreds showed up over the course of the weekend. "We sold every single thing in the show," Leslie recalls. "We always say three things happened that summer: Woodstock, Stonewall, and the art show."
Quickly, it became a yearly event, and by the end of 1972, Leslie and Lohman had become part of the first wave of gallerists to open in SoHo. They asked for a 25% commission, if the artist could afford it, or else just a piece of their work. As a result, their collection ballooned.
From 1970 to 1982, the gallery provided a welcoming venue for SoHo's burgeoning gay art scene. Despite having to shutter their doors during the AIDS crisis, they continued to champion gay work, with Leslie playing yenta between his long lists of struggling artists and would-be buyers. With the advent of effective AIDS therapies, SoHo's gay community rebounded in the 1990s, leading Leslie and Lohman to reopen their gallery as a nonprofit. In 2011, it gained official museum status, becoming the first gay art museum in the country.
Many artists involved in their earliest ventures became lifelong friends with Leslie and Lohman. Marion Pinto, whose full-sized portrait of the couple still hangs over Leslie's couch, eventually donated her estate to the museum, helping to create the endowment that ensures its future in perpetuity.
But though all of the work in his collection will go the museum when Leslie passes, the apartment isn't just high art. In classic camp fashion, the collection butts the absurd up against the sublime. A plastic Santa with his "stocking stuffer" on display has just as much a home here as a drawing by Jean Cocteau. In some cases, high and low are mashed together in a single piece, as in Darold Perkins' re-imagining of (gay) artist J.C. Leyendecker's classic advertisement for the Arrow Collar Man.
Some of the pieces have historic interest to them, such as a metal toy of two young men engaged in fellatio atop a brightly patterned carpet. A stamp on the base enabled it to be traced to a World War I German munitions factory, where an artisan must have made it in his spare time.
At 80, Leslie is less involved with the day-to-day operations of the museum, but he's still avidly collecting and supporting gay art. And even when he isn't out looking for it, the work has a way of finding him. "People are forever bringing me phallic serendipity," he says. And somehow, his loft seems able to hold it all, in a densely layered, palimpsestous celebration of homoerotic desire.
Hugh Ryan is a journalist and young-adult author in New York City. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Tin House, The Daily Beast, and many other places. He is represented by Meredith Kaffel at DeFiore & Co. He is also the founding director of the Pop-Up Museum of Queer History.