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Pin-Ups or Pop Art
The Paintings of Gil Elvgren
In the early 1970s, Brown & Bigelow (B&B), a publishing company specializing in promotional products, sold off much of the original art used to illustrate its calendars, scratch pads, matchbooks, and other ephemeral products. B&B had initially found success employing popular artists such as Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish, but subsequently became best known for publishing "pin-up" calendars by artists such as Rolf Armstrong, Gil Elvgren, Earl Moran, and Zoë It is his edge that brings him into the realm of fine art. American pin-up artists, most notably Elvgren, have been called "the original Pop artists, speaking to the cultural moment.” Mozert. With their depictions of glamorous models, movie stars, bathing beauties, and always fashionable but often provocatively dressed women, the pin-up artists captured the zeitgeist of the 1940s and 1950s. When tastes changed in the 1960s, this style of work fell out of favor and was replaced by more graphic and largely photographic imagery. Unaware of the future value of the original illustrations, B&B sold off hundreds of oil paintings and pastels from the company archives. By chance, I was living in St. Paul, Minnesota, the home of Brown & Bigelow, and was offered the opportunity to purchase a collection of work by Gil Elvgren. Enlisting the financial assistance of a college friend, Al Ravitz, we went ahead and gambled on these beautiful paintings.
Soon after purchasing this collection, I moved to Washington, D.C. Downtown D.C. was still recovering from the race riots of the late 1960s, and lofts in largely abandoned commercial buildings (within minutes of the White House) were readily available. In 1974, I put together a show of original pin-up art in a raw loft space above a gallery of tribal art. Word of mouth for the show was good and it was reviewed by Paul Richards, an art critic for the Washington Post. The show came to the attention of an amateur "cheesecake" photographer and early collector of pin-up ephemera named Art Amsie. Art purchased four Elvgren paintings from me and opened a shop called The Girl Whirl in Alexandria, Virgina, where he bought and sold pin-up collectibles. The Girl Whirl soon came to the attention of Charles Martignette, an avid collector of erotic art who had developed an interest in original pin-up art but was having trouble sorting out the relative values of the various artists. Art referred Charles to me who sought me out to essentially ask one question: Who was the most important pin-up artist, and why? Although at that point little was known about the depth and breadth of the field, I immediately responded Gil Elvgren as he was clearly a master draftsman, highly skilled oil painter, and his work had an edge that I recognized but had yet to fully understand. Charles went on to become one of the premier dealers in the overall field of original pin-up art. At the heart of his collection were several dozen Elvgren paintings that he hid away on his bedroom walls.
Ten years later, while exploring the galleries in the Soho neighborhood of NYC, I came across the Louis Meisel Gallery. Louis is a specialist in photorealist art, and his gallery shows works by the best in this field. I soon went back to his gallery and introduced Louis to the work of Gil Elvgren. He immediately recognized the quality of the work, its photorealist aesthetic, and asked me to curate a show in his gallery. In the spring of 1983, we did just that. Nothing sold but we had a great time. I put the collection back in storage and thought little more about it. In the meantime, Charles and Louis joined forces in collecting and promoting pin-up art. Louis is a born researcher at heart and tried to catalog the nearly five hundred paintings done by Gil Elvgren, many which were then known only from calendars and scratch pad covers. He and Charles published a compendium of pin-up art in 1996 which they titled The Great American Pin-Up. Containing over nine hundred illustrations, The Great American Pin-Up has gone through multiple editions and is still in print. Unfortunately, Charles died at age 57 in 2008. His enormous collection of original pin-up art including several dozen Elvgrens went to Heritage Auctions who built their illustration auctions around his estate.
What is it about the work of Gil Elvgren that proved me right in my insight into his preeminence as the most important artist of this genre? What is the edge in Elvgren's paintings that I felt but couldn't put my finger on when I first met with Charles Martignette? With the recently renewed appreciation for figurative art, the painting skills of many illustrators have come into focus. None are more revered than Norman Rockwell and Gil Elvgren, "the Norman With the recently renewed appreciation for figurative art, the painting skills of many illustrators have come into focus. None are more revered than Norman Rockwell and Gil Elvgren, "the Norman Rockwell of pin-up artists.”Rockwell of pin-up artists.” Will Cotton, a prominent contemporary painter, speaks of being inspired by Gil Elvgren, and can be seen painting with a copy of an Elvgren tear sheet taped to his easel. While collectors are drawn to the mastery of Elvgren, it is his edge that brings him into the realm of fine art. American pin-up artists, most notably Elvgren, have been called "the original Pop artists, speaking to the cultural moment.” The work of Richard Hamilton and Allen Jones, two seminal British Pop artists, make this clear with their incorporation of Elvgren imagery throughout their work. The expression of Surrealist ideas is perhaps a more important, though less recognized characteristic of Elvgren’s early works. During World War II, many European Surrealists fled to the United States. Their aesthetics, particularly the role of the unconscious mind in the creative process, influenced many post-war artists. Freudian symbols abound in the work of Elvgren and are at the heart of many of the works from this collection. I will leave the exploration of this iconography to the future art critics who will put Gil Elvgren in his unique place in the canon of modern art.
A few notes on the collection: Charles Martignette and I remained friends until his death. He frequently tried to buy or trade art with me for another Elvgren to add to his hoard. He especially coveted the painting One for the Money which he felt was one of the great "All American Girl" pin-ups. Art Amsie, on the other hand, wanted Something Borrowed, Something Blue, perhaps in an attempt to marry the bride of his dreams. Proto-Pop art imagery can be seen in Good Looking where a blank television screen was used to provide space for advertising. By picturing the emerging medium of television and its commercial potential, this painting anticipated the seminal tenet of Pop Art as art based on popular culture and the mass media, especially as an ironic comment on traditional fine art values. Freudian imagery can be seen in Popular Number, A Neat Display, In the Red, Haven't I Got Swell Eggs, and especially in Did Someone Whistle? with its open manhole, open purse with red lining, and "men at work" sign. In the Red also illustrates Elvgren's thoughts on the contemporaneous art movement of Abstract Expressionism in a manner similar to Rockwell's The Connoisseur. It can be seen both as a parody and homage to modernist sensibilities.
Gillette (Gil) Elvgren was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1914. After high school he studied architecture at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts before shifting his focus to art. He relocated to Chicago and enrolled at the American Academy of Art graduating in 1936. Around the same time he began painting pin-ups for the publisher Louis F. Dow, and many of his works were reproduced on military aircraft during World War II. Shortly after graduating, Elvgren found steady work as an artist for the prestigious advertising agency, Stevens and Gross working with Haddon Sundblom who would become his mentor and good friend. In 1944 Elvgren started working exclusively for Brown & Bigelow producing imagery for advertising and calendars, a partnership that would last nearly 30 years.
From working with important clients such as Coca-Cola and General Electric, to illustrating stories in publications such as Good Housekeeping, Redbook and The Saturday Evening Post, Elvgren established himself as one of the greatest in the field. A fine painter and excellent draftsman, his work portrayed the American dream through depictions of the comfort and convenience of the modern American lifestyle. Featuring idyllic family imagery to glamour girls and pin-ups, his work was widely distributed and popular both within the United States and with American soldiers abroad. Today, his work is being defined outside of its commercial value and Elvgren stands out as one of the most important pin-up artists of the 20th century.
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