But Is It Art...? Well, Yes

by Shirley Christian

A Trove of Pinups at the University of Kansas Is Admired by All Sorts, Including Some Feminists

Lawrence, Kansas - Maria Elena Buszek, self-described nerdy graduate student who reads comic books, recalls having a drink in a Chicago bar when her eyes were drawn to a pinup girl tattooed on the arm of the bartender. "He slammed my bourbon down in front of me, and I grabbed his wrist and said 'That's a gorgeous Petty Girl.' He said, 'Everybody thinks it's a Varga.' and I said 'No, there's a difference.'"

That difference has been a consuming interest since 1994, shortly after Ms. Buszek arrived at the University of Kansas on a graduate fellowship in art history and learned that the University's Spencer Museum of Art was the repository of a matchless collection of the original airbrushed watercolors of pinup art published by Esquire magazine.

The impossibly perfect females created by Alberto Vargas (editors at Esquire made him drop the "s" when signing his work because they thought it sounded like a possessive), George Petty and others accompanied American men through the depths of the Depression and to the battlefronts of World War II and Korea. Bob Hope was once quoted as saying, "Our Amercan troops are ready to fight at the drop of an Esquire"

The issue of how to handle a collection that has the potential to embarrass a serious art museum but is admired by some people as magnificent art produces consternation and a touch of defensiveness among Ms. Buszek's elders at the helm of the Spencer, people with a little gray in their hair and sensibilties shaped by the 1960's and 70's.

The question has come up off and on in the 18 years since Esquire donated its archives to the university, but it has acquired much currency with the rising prices such art brings at auctions and in galleries. Rough estimates indicate that the approximately 300 pinup pieces at the Spencer - about half of them by Vargas - may be worth $10 million to $20 million.

Museum officials ask themselves whether to seek grants for a major exhibition of the material with scholarly analyses and a hundred color reproductions. Should they lend it to commercial galleries or let a Japanese aficionado mount a touring exhibition and - Heaven forbid - make a profit for both himself and the museum? Or should they keep it tucked away in its temperature- and light-controlled vault, available only for scholarly study?

Stephen H. Goddard, senior curator of prints and drawings, who has primary responsibility for the collection, has maintained a policy of making it available not only to scholars but also to those who make pilgrimages to this campus atop the steep bluffs of the Kaw River.

"One family that came from California was in fashion design," he said. "They were interested in Varga art from the standpoint of shoes and apparel. A number of people are interested in the art for design reasons. Some embroider it on leather jackets."

Others, he noted, are into nostalgia and admire the Esquire collection as the inspiration for pinups painted on the noses of aircraft in World War II. They are especially thrilled by the original of Petty's "Memphis Belle," which adorned the noses of many bombers. One of the few times the Spencer lent its pinup art was for the opening of a new hangar at the Memphis Belle Museum.

"Some people see it as great art," Mr. Goddard said. "One man said, 'You want to tell me that Michaelangelo was a great artist, but for me this is better.'"

Tattoo Aficionados Find Inspiration

The Esquire pinups are also a major source of inspiration for tattoo artists and those who wear tattoos, like Simon Worman, a Lawrence man with a red-haired January 1946 Varga Girl tattooed on his left arm and another on his back. Mr. Worman, who plans to manage a new tattoo parlor in Lawrence, said he first went to the museum to look at some of the Varga Girls after buying a calendar with a reproduction of the January 1946 pinup and noticing that the Spencer Museum, just a block from his house, was credited as the source.

What he and other visitors see are watercolors on paper varying in size from 15 by 20 inches to 26 by 39 inches, sometimes with traces of rubber cement and other elements used to prepare them for reproduction and printing. The first pinup Vargas did for Esquire, in 1940, depicts a woman with blond hair stretched out in bed in a short black nightgown talking on the telephone. Others show curvaceous young women in Navy blues or other kinds of military dress, including one as George Washington in flowing cape. Skin-tight short shorts and negligees are favored. A cowgirl in bright blue shorts brandishes two six-shooters.

Many artists drew pinups for Esquire after it began publication in 1933 as a magazine aimed at affluent men with a taste for stylish clothes and beautiful women, but George Petty emerged from the pack early. By 1940, Esquire thought he was demanding too much money, so it brought in Alberto Vargas, a Peruvian-born artist who had already made a name drawing the stars of Florenz Ziegfield's shows. Vargas left Esquire in 1946, put the "s" back on his last name, and did illustrations for other media, including Playboy in the 1960's.

A Feminist View For a Ph.D. Thesis

Louis K. Meisel, who owns the SoHo gallery bearing his name and who is co-author of "The Great American Pinup," said the works of Vargas are probably worth from $10,000 to $75,000 each, those by Petty from $10,000 to $20,000, and the others $5,000 to $10,000 each. "This is a very, very hot and strong sector of American art," said Mr. Meisel, whose gallery (at 141 Prince Street) is having an exhibition of works by five pinup artists, including Vargas and Petty, through Nov. 28.

To the 27-year-old Ms. Buszek, Varga Girls - she prefers them over the work of Petty - are nothing short of feminist icons. In her "third-wave feminist" view, pinups are "an all-purpose icon for the sassy, tough, punk-rock, sexy woman." The pinup, she argues, was a major weapon in World War II, a "modern war goddess." Although she originally intended to do her doctoral dissertation on a "dead European guy" (the 19th-century Spanish artist Mariano Fortuny y Carbo), she now intends to analyse and defend pinup art from a feminist perspective.

But Andrea Norris, the director of the Spencer Museum, and a generation older, revealed something about the gap in thinking on the subject as she walked back and forth in front of a selection of works that Mr. Goddard had hung on the walls of a prints study room. "To think," she said with a tone of disbelief, "these are the sort of figures that when I was 10 years old we aspired to be."

How a 9-Ton Gift Landed in Kansas

The pinup art arrived at the University of Kansas in about nine tons of material from the archives of Esquire, most of it camera-ready art for production use, all donated in 1980 after the magazine changed hands. Lee Young, a retired journalism professor who represented the university in dealings with the magazine, said Esquire executives selected the University of Kansas because of the journalism school's first-issue magazine collection and its designation as official repository for the Magazine Publishers Association.

Mr. Young said that of the 40,000 pieces in the gift, probably 38,000 were "little bits of editorial art" that are stored on campus. The other 2,000 or so pieces, including the pinup art, were turned over to the Spencer, which stores and maintains them and provides scholars the opportunity to peruse a card catalogue of all of the material. In addition to the pinup art, the collection includes 31 photographs by Diane Arbus from the 1960's, among them shots of Blaze Starr in her living room; the aging Mae West in her frilly, pink bedroom, and Jayne Mansfield with her daughter.

"At the time," Mr. Young recalled, "one of the people at Esquire said he hoped pieces of the famous art wouldn't show up hanging in deans' offices. I assured him that that would not happen."

Part of the reason very little of the pinup art has even been seen hanging in the museum, Ms. Norris and Mr. Goddard said, is that there is no curator on staff who feels competent to deal with it. Ms. Norris specialized in Italian Renaissance scupture when she earned her doctorate at New York University; Mr. Goddard's specialty is the Northern Renaissance and 16th-century history of prints. "I could be the facilitator of a show based on the Esquire Collection," he said, "but not the main essayist."

Bridging a Gap Of Definitions

Still, both seem willing to try to reach across the generational and cultural divides that separate them from the true fans of the Esquire Collection, including the two long-haired undergraduate men who confronted Ms. Norris at a recent reception and asked why a show was not being done about "an important cultural figure like Vargas."

"There's no reason not to be comprehensive about what we permit ourselves to consider as art," Ms. Norris said. "If you include illustration and design in art, then this falls in that category."

Mr. Goddard said: "It's art. There's no question about that. It's simply a matter of how one perceives it and wishes to interpret it. This work captures, in a maybe naïve way, some of the preoccupations of mid-century America and allows us to revisit that time. It is much tamer than most people would imagine."

New York Times, November 25, 1998