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
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.
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
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
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
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
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."