“Sometimes the publishers wanted a particular scene on a cover,” says Ernest Chiriacka, 90, who painted hundreds of covers for Dime Western Magazine and other pulps in the 1940s. “But otherwise they just wanted something exciting or lurid or bloody that would attract attention.” Publishers might even hand their writers an artist’s sketch and tell them to cook up a story to go with it. Like other ambitious painters, Chiriacka viewed pulp art as a way to pay his bills and simultaneously hone his craft. Eventually, he landed higher-paying work for “the slicks,” glossy family magazines like Collier’s and The Saturday Evening Post. “The pulps were at the very bottom of the business,” he says. He signed his pulp paintings “E.C.,” if at all. “I was ashamed of them,” he confesses.
“Chiriacka’s attitude was typical,” says Anne Pasternak, guest curator of the Brooklyn exhibition. “The artists, many of whom were trained in the finest art schools in the country, considered this a lowbrow activity. Nonetheless, their job was to make the most startling images they possibly could because there were so many pulp titles on the newsstand, and the competition was tough.”
Big-name artists like N. C. Wyeth and J. C. Leyendecker occasionally stooped to paint for the pulps, but most pulp artists were anonymous. The best of them managed to make names for themselves within this specialized world: sciencefiction painters Frank R. Paul and Hannes Bok; depicters of gangsters and victims in extremis like Norman Saunders and Rafael de Soto; fantasy-adventure artist Virgil Finlay; and a man admired by his fellow pulp artists as the “Dean of Weird Menace Art,” John Newton Howitt.
A successful pulp artist mixed vivid imagination and masterful technique to create images about as subtle as a gunshot. Brushstrokes were bold, colors raw and saturated, lighting harsh, backgrounds dark and ominous. In the foreground, often in tight close-up, two or three characters were frozen in mid-struggle, their anguished or shrieking faces highlighted in garish shades of blue, red, yellow or green. Pulp art, the late cover artist Tom Lovell told an interviewer in 1996, was “a highly colored circus in which everything was pushed to the nth degree.”
An all-too-common ingredient in the storytelling formula was a stereotypical villain, whether a demented scientist with bad teeth and thick glasses or a snarling Asian crime lord in a pigtail presiding over a torture chamber. The best covers were “painted nightmares,” says Lesser, who still enjoys horror films, good and bad. He’s unenthusiastic about the content of most traditional art. “You see a landscape, a pretty woman, a bowl of fruit,” he says. Decorative stuff, in his view. “Compared to that, pulp art is hard whiskey.”
The hardest-hitting covers (and the highest-paying for the artists who made them) were the Spicies: Spicy Detective, Spicy Mystery, Spicy Western Stories, and so on. Published by a New York City outfit that blithely called itself Culture Productions, the Spicies blurred the line between mainstream fun and sadistic voyeurism. When New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia passed a newsstand in April 1942 and spotted a Spicy Mystery cover that featured a woman in a torn dress tied up in a meat locker and menaced by a butcher, he was incensed. La Guardia, who was a fan of comic strips, declared: “No more damn Spicy pulps in this city.” Thereafter, Spicies could be sold in New York only with their covers torn off. Even then, they were kept behind the counter. By the 1950s, the pulps were on their way out, supplanted by paperback novels, comic books and, of course, television.
Few people then imagined original pulp art was worth keeping, let alone exhibiting. Once a cover painting was photographed by the printer, it was put in storage or, more likely, thrown out. The artists themselves rarely saved their work. When Condé Nast bought former pulp publisher Street & Smith in 1961, the new owners put a trove of original pulp paintings (including, it seems, some unsigned works by N. C. Wyeth) out on Madison Avenue with the trash.
“This is a genre of American representational art that has been almost completely destroyed,” says Lesser. “Out of 50,000 or 60,000 cover paintings, there are only about 700 today that I can account for.” If pulp paintings hadn’t been so inherently offensive, they might have fared better. “But people didn’t want their mother-in-law to see one of these paintings hanging over their new living room sofa,” Lesser says. “This is objectionable art. It’s racist, sexist and politically incorrect.” But since he has neither a sofa nor a mother-in-law, Lesser has crammed his own two-room apartment to impassability with pulp paintings, along with toy robots and monster-movie figures. Pulp art’s scarcity, of course, is part of what makes it so collectible today. An original cover painting by Frank R. Paul or Virgil Finlay, for instance, can fetch $70,000 or more at auction.
Lesser is the proud owner of the woman-in-a-meat-locker painting by H. J. Ward that so infuriated Mayor La Guardia. Although it’s included in the Brooklyn exhibition, the museum isn’t expecting any public outcry, says Kevin Stayton, the BrooklynMuseum’s curator of decorative arts.
“Although this art may have pushed the edge of what was acceptable, it’s fairly tame by today’s standards,” Stayton explains. “Things that were troubling to the public 60 years ago, like scantily clad women, don’t really bother us anymore, while things that didn’t raise an eyebrow then, like the stereotyping of Asians as evil, cause us tremendous discomfort now.”