Until I met SoHo gallery owner Louis K. Meisel last week, I didn’t know that the all-American pinup is an early example of the art movement known as photorealism.
Mr. Meisel should know. Besides collecting the art, he has published 16 books on either photorealism or pinups. And there’s a show called “The Great American Pin-Up” at his gallery on Prince Street. It runs through May 2.
“I made up the word ‘photorealism,’ ” in 1969, he told me.
I felt better about myself and my taste in art after discovering that pinups are part of a legitimate art movement.
Previously, I’d been under the impression that I was responding more to the quaint lasciviousness of scantily clad young ladies engaged in pastimes such as dusting, bowling, painting, scolding puppies, donning stockings and playing shuffleboard than art-historical considerations and the poetry of the female form.
“There was a great tradition of realism in America,” Mr. Meisel went on. “Going back to the luminists, the Hudson River School. Then you had Hopper and Homer and Eakins.”
From now on, I’ll be able to enjoy such imagery guilt-free.
To be honest, my exposure to the pinup, whose popularity probably reached its zenith around World War II, was pretty much limited to the art of Alberto Vargas in Playboy magazine. And I didn’t pay particular attention to it there either, distracted by photographs of real-life women, airbrushed though they might have been.
I was curious how Mr. Meisel, who was born in 1942, developed his passion for the pinup, assuming it might be traceable to a seminal adolescent encounter.
I didn’t think it a difficult question. Since such moments have a way of engraving themselves onto one’s memory.
But the gallery owner, whose office and home is filled with prime examples of both the pinup and photorealism—including the work of the great Richard Estes and Mel Ramos—misunderstood the nature of my inquiry because he seemed to skip over his adolescence completely.
He launched into a tale about hanging out with the abstract expressionists at the Cedar Tavern.
“Who knew from porn?” he eventually said. “Who knew what a Vargas looked like until you were out of college?”
Mr. Meisel started collecting pinups in the 1970s when he acquired a bunch of paintings by pinup artists such as Gil Elvgren. They’d been featured on calendars by companies such as Sylvania and NAPA Auto Parts but were more prevalent in gas stations than in people’s homes.
“The wife says, ‘The minister isn’t going to like that,’ ” Mr. Meisel said, explaining the pressure of those who found themselves in possession of an original to deacquisition it.
“The first time I saw one they were $300,” he recalled. “Today, they’re $300,000.”
Speaking of wives, I wondered how Mr. Meisel’s wife, Susan, reacted to his taste in art.
I once bought a pop-art painting at Sotheby’s, after it neglected to sell at auction, though I refuse to believe the subject matter had anything to do with it.
The canvas depicts a well-endowed nude whose face, for reasons that will probably forever remain inscrutable, is hidden behind a black cloud. However, the smile parsing her lips suggests she feels she has nothing to ashamed of. And taking my cue from her, neither did I when I bought it.
I’m not sure my wife agreed. Though she eventually warmed up to it and now describes it as a “color field painting.”
“You’re going to see a lot of paintings up there nude and otherwise,” Mr. Meisel said, referring to his loft apartment, located directly above the gallery at 141 Prince St. He added of Susan Meisel: “She was behind it all the way.”
Sure enough, Ms. Meisel, herself an artist and photographer, who was in their kitchen preparing a plate of prosciutto for a cocktail party that night, had no issues with her husband’s taste.
“I think of it as days gone by that were so charming,” she explained of the dozens of pinups that graced the loft’s walls. “The ’50s was a good time, even though I was a baby, given what we’re going through now. Women in them are joyful. They’re very happy with their sexuality. And the fact they were real models. They weren’t figments of somebody’s imagination.”
Then again, Ms. Meisel might not be considered an entirely neutral observer. While not a pinup model herself, there are images of her scattered throughout the apartment—some clothed, some not—by well-known artists, including Chuck Close.
“There’s Susan as Barbarella,” her husband stated proudly. “There’s Susan by a science-fiction illustrator.”
Perhaps the best way to think Mr. Meisel’s passion as foremost about collecting, the randy subject matter almost secondary.
“I have 150 collections,” he boasted as we examined one devoted to vintage photographs of giant torpedo-shaped dirigibles maneuvering into cavernous hangers.
Mr. Meisel contended they were among the most risqué pieces of all.