A few months ago, we visited the latest exhibition of the brilliant “beef cake photographer” Bob Mizer titled Devotion: Excavating Bob Mizer at 80WSE Gallery. It covers several chapters of the artist’s illustrious career that spanned 5 decades, dealing with the male physique. It’s curated by Billy Miller and Jonathan Berger, in collaboration with Dennis Bell of The Bob Mizer Foundation. We loved the show so much that we decided to have a long chat with the curators Billy and Jonathan.
How did you two get involved with this exhibition?
Jonathan Berger: You should talk about your history with Bob Mizer.
Billy Miller: Oh, ok. I have been aware of Bob Mizer since I was maybe about 12 years old, and I was kind of fascinated by him for most of my life. I’m from Detroit, and when I moved to Chicago I discovered a publication called Straight to Hell, Boyd McDonald, and I had a correspondence with him and then when I ended up moving to New York in the 80’s Boyd McDonald and I became close friends and I ended up becoming the editor and publisher of Straight to Hell, which I still am. Straight to Hell, about a third to half of the covers are Bob Mizer photographs. Throughout Straight to Hell we used to advertise for Bob’s company, Athletic Model Guild. So one of the first things I wanted to do was meet Bob Mizer, so I went to California a couple of times and I met Bob. I had a long distance sort of casual relationship with him via letters and the phone. This is pre-Internet.
So you guys dated?
BM: No, we did not date at all. When I say relationship, it was a professional relationship. So he and Boyd McDonald died within a year of each other, and then Bob’s estate was sort of in limbo for quite awhile, and then a few years ago, about three or four years ago, I found out a guy named Dennis Bell had bought the estate so I contacted him about advertising Bob Mizer’s work in Straight to Hell and we ended up talking about doing a show. So we did a show first in Berlin that turned out well, and then we did a show last year at Invisible Exports gallery on the Lower East Side. And during that time, Jeffrey Deitch came in and bought a couple of pieces and that spawned a show that’s up right now in LA at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art. For a long time I’ve been talking to Jonathan about Bob Mizer, and Jonathan recently became the director of this gallery, so then maybe he can talk to you about his interest and how that came about.
Yeah, so if you could answer the same question. You guys were friends obviously before this?
JB: Yeah, I think I met Billy for the first time in 2006 through Vaginal Davis who we’d both known for awhile. And so we share similar sentiments about the art world, I think, and have shared interests in people who — and you should tell me if I’m being wrong — we think of as maybe visionary or highly influential but who are either misunderstood or haven’t received the recognition that they deserve because they’re operating for one reason or another outside of the systems that validate people. And so I knew who Bob Mizer was but I knew about him the way most people know about him, like through the sort of beefcake-only lens. Then because of Billy I knew about all this other work that he was discovering that Mizer had made that was much more complicated and strange and personal. And so when I ended up in this job here I thought it’d be great to work on a project together and I also thought it’d be great because this gallery is in a sort of unique position where it’s not a museum, it’s not really a normal non-profit gallery, it’s not a commercial gallery, it’s not really a university gallery even, it’s like attached to a studio art program and it’s much bigger than a gallery attached to a studio art program should be. So for me, the backdrop to this and the way that this gallery now is gonna operate is I feel like we’re in a unique position to do shows that could not happen anywhere else.
BM: But then the thing that happens is once a gallery like this or a museum validates something, then all of a sudden it changes everything. The show in LA is the first museum show of Tom of Finland and Bob Mizer that ten years ago they would have probably laughed at something like that, but now it’s happening. So now once it has happened, it’s a different world now in the sense that it’s happened. It takes someone to be the first one to do it. So in this case, it was Jeffrey Deitch and Jonathan Berger who decided to take that step, because a lot of people have talked to me in the past few years that I’ve been involved with this and have said they like it but they’re not sure. It’s too gay, it’s too this, it’s too something.
Just to clarify. When you said you run the magazine Straight to Hell and you advertise the work, does that mean you feature the work? or does the foundation pay?
BM: You mean the Mizer? There was no Mizer foundation. I should give you some backdrop. Bob was born in 1922. He started his company, the Athletic Model Guild, in 1945, which he ran until his death in 1992. So his company was called Athletic Model Guild, AMG. So in Straight to Hell we did an ad for AMG, and the photographs were actually credited as Athletic Model Guild and not Bob Mizer. It’s since Bob’s death that he has emerged as an individual, but during his lifetime and for most of his time people familiar with his work weren’t connecting it so much with a name but were connecting it with his company, AMG, and the various products that he put out. So we’re not recontextualizing him as an artist. And he was an artist all along, but he was an outsider, he wasn’t a part of the art world or the photography world, for that matter. So now 20 years have gone by and you can look at it in a different way.
That’s interesting, because we just saw a show on Jim French’s polaroids, and he repped Colt Studio.
BM: Yeah, that’s what I mean. Most people would know Colt and not Jim French. Of course, the difference between Jim French and Bob Mizer is like worlds apart, because Colt is one thing. You can see as many as you want and there would be a picture of a different guy, but they wouldn’t be so completely different that you would be like, is this the same person that did it? People who’ve walked through this show who are very familiar with Bob didn’t even know it was his work until they asked me. One guy who’s very familiar with the work, who was actually a model for Bob Mizer, came up to me and said, “Who’s work is this?” So that just shows you the range.
Who came up with the title for the show ‘Devotion: Excavating Bob Mizer’?
JB: I came up with the word “devotion” but then the “excavating” part we came up with together, and that refers to the part of this exhibit that is showing this sort of largely unknown work that people are unfamiliar with or don’t associate with Mizer, and then the sort of second part of the show is that we’re processing a significant portion of the estate for preservation in the physical exhibition itself. The idea is that that processor relates to the kind of images we’re showing, it’s this stuff that was discovered that was not known about. So that process kind of continues in the exhibition. There are people in here working every day for the entire run of the show. So when you come, you see the images but you also see people working, scanning negatives, cleaning transparencies, doing this work.
Yeah, we found it revolutionary. We thought it was a great treat to see that. How do you think that impacts the viewer’s experience of the show?
BM: What I think is neat about this show, and I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen a show like this, is the stuff on the walls is the show but more importantly to me at least, and what we’re trying to get across, is that this is just a process. This is such a huge archive, it’s over a million and a half negatives, thousands of films. I couldn’t go through all that in my lifetime. It’s like part of an ongoing thing. So we’re just trying to get people aware and have an interest in it, because a lot of people may think because Bob’s been around for so long, and his pictures are all over the place, they think this has already been seen. But we’re like, no way, you haven’t even begun to see it yet.
So this show is just the tip of the iceberg?
BM: It’s totally the tip of the iceberg. This doesn’t even count. I mean, a million and a half? This isn’t even an umpteenth of it.
So how much of it did you want to archive by the end of the show?
JB: There are people in here working everyday and it’s not really about how much we get done, and again, this I’m saying in my capacity as the director or whatever, but as a gallery that’s in an academic institution, it was important for me and I like the idea that the show is offering a service. It’s not just we’re doing the show with this work, we’re contributing to this effort. So we’re not just showing this artist, we’re investing in the preservation of his legacy. I think it’s more about that. Obviously we want to get as much done as we can, but we want to send everything back in a better state than when it came here. And we want to participate in every level in establishing Mizer.
BM: Another thing is we were very adamant that no one think this is a retrospective. Which is why we have so much on this one aspect, because a retrospective would be in a much bigger place than this. I don’t even know if a retrospective is possible. But if we did present this as a retrospective, then it would be like ok, we did that, it’s over with. So I want to make sure it’s possible in the future to do more stuff.
JB: I was thinking about this the other day, I think it’s interesting and I would say significant that all three of the people who worked on the Mizer show, like me, Billy, and Dennis were all gay and were all really adamant that the show not be like “Bob Mizer the Gay Icon.”
BM: Yeah, I fight against it but at the same time I wonder if people misunderstand, because people keep coming back to that with the pounding in of the gay, gay, gay stuff.
JB: And straight people, too.
BM: Yeah, and I feel like it’s a moot point. It’s like, with Warhol, every time you say his name do you put the ‘gay’ in his name? It’s like, duh, you get that. So I wanted this to finally get to a point where you don’t have to keep saying that, where you go beyond that and look at what it’s about.
JB: It’s also just reductive. Part of what’s been interesting to me about this is that when I send the images to people, and I’ve worked on projects that have been really difficult or transgressive or what one would think would be more difficult than this work, but the response to this selection of pictures with people’s backdrop of knowledge about Mizer, people have a really hard time with it. A lot of people are like, “what the fuck am I supposed to do with this range?” It’s like people don’t want to accept that one person was more complicated than the extreme variety that this guy produced. It’s like you have this beefcake, softcore gay porn business, and then he would make all these different sorts of images which presumably point to many more kinds of pictures. We live in a society where, especially with artists, still, people want you to do one thing. They want to understand you as someone that they can, I hate this term, but put in a box or reduce to something that’s understandable. I think our society is naturally resistant to complexity, it just is.
BM: What people have noticed that don’t know this work, the more you know about Mizer, some of these pictures start to make a little more sense. But if you don’t know about that, you’re like, what? Why should there be a Nazi standing there with a dog with that weird crazy background? What is that about and why did somebody even take a picture like that? That’s the thing with a lot of these pictures. You look at them and you’re like, wow, that is so weird because it doesn’t make any sense through the modern idea of what porn is. I mean, why would you bother doing all that, you just get someone who’s cute and take a picture of them. So it pulls in history. To understand this work, if you want to understand it, you have to learn a lot of stuff. What goes on behind there and the history of the sexual revolution.
Why do you think it took so long for Bob Mizer to have his first institutional solo show in the United States? Is this a good time for it?
JB: That’s a complicated question because in terms of this work, the plain side of it is that this work wasn’t know about until relatively recently.
BM: It’s really been in the past several months.
JB: So that’s one thing.
BM: It has to do with a lot of things. Homophobia is part of it, and also the way the art world now is different than it was even five years ago. It’s sort of like what I was talking about earlier, once a door opens, things change. People have asked me, young people, I say he started his studio in 1945 and they say, well, what gallery represented him? And I’m like, you really think someone in 1945 would be putting homo shit like this up on the wall? The context that made this possible has only just started to appear. So there are things that are happening in the world that are larger, with the marriage equality and all this other stuff, it really has nothing to do with this but it just means that the environment is more conducive to even talking about certain things. Bob Mizer was an outsider, so it’s only recently that the art world was able to embrace him or there would be an audience for his work. Also collectors are different than they used to be. Institutions are just starting to do shows that they wouldn’t have done several years ago.
Did Sam Wagstaff have an interest in Bob Mizer’s work? Mapplethorpe’s lover and patron. I would imagine he would have been really into Bob.
JB: I was thinking about that, although I don’t know. Even though Wagstaff had this really deep appreciation of vernacular photography and anonymous photography and all that stuff, AMG was seen functionally as pornography and kind of like kitschy, cheesecake-y, mid-century. So there’s a part of me that thinks Wagstaff wouldn’t have had an interest in him.
BM: It depends on how old you are, too. It’s a generational thing. I was at this thing with my friend Dennis and someone said something about Mizer being tame in the 50’s. And I was like, no! If you look at the context of the 1940’s and 50’s, any of this stuff would have blown most people’s minds. You just have to look at it in context. He was revolutionary and was really pushing the boundaries. He went to jail for this imagery. So in its time, in a time where just doing anything — I mean, when I was growing up, this was just an unspeakable thing. Who would you talk to about that? You would never go to a museum or a gallery and start talking about dicks. It just wasn’t language that you even used in everyday talk. So now that the whole landscape has changed, people look back to apply that template, but you really can’t do that. The thing about the world now is you can take all of these things and you line them up next to each other and they look like they’re all the same, but historically…
JB: I think the other thing, just to go back to your question about the climate in which this is happening now, is there are all these artists, and a lot of this is only really coming to the surface now, but there are a lot of artists who consider him an influence. David Hockney has a connection to Mizer, Jack Pierson, the photographer, was both photographed by Mizer and very influenced by him. I don’t know if formally Collier Schorr was, but I would think that she’s certainly aware of him, which often is the case with these marginal figures because artists often are more avid researchers than people that just consume art. I think his influence has trickled down into contemporary art through those all sorts of people.
BM: Also, because he was an outsider, it was like almost the way you would look at porn. People still don’t take porn seriously. You can borrow from it, take it, and do all this stuff you want to, but you don’t have to acknowledge it because it’s not real, it’s not really part of the art world, in a way. So I see Bob Mizer, his work was used in collages by Jack Smithand all these other people, and you keep seeing it over and over again, and I’d show that to someone and they’d say, “Oh, yeah, they probably took from all over the place.” And I was like, “Well yeah, but they keep taking this over and over again.” And they’re like, “Oh, well.”Because it’s not fine art, or because they don’t think it is, it’s almost like it doesn’t count. But if it keeps popping up over and over again and the influence is so vast, there must be something about it to take seriously.
Do you think that’s one of the reasons probably why this work wasn’t archived before?
BM: It has to do with money and history and all kinds of things.
How do you think Bob Mizer’s work has influenced the aesthetic of the male physique? I don’t know if you guys want to add anything to that, you covered a lot of it. What other artists who followed Bob do you think he influenced?
JB: Bruce Weber, Mapplethorpe.
BM: There’s a lot of other people that you maybe wouldn’t have heard of before that I see. His sort of protege was a guy called David Hurles, “Old Reliable,” and he’s still around. He’s the direct sort of inheritor of Bob’s stuff. He used the same models and everything. He was very different than Bob but also like Bob.
Bob is an earlier generation, you guys probably don’t have any specific record of who influenced Bob?
BM: Oh, I know. I don’t have any record or anything, but like all photographers of his generation he was influenced by Hollywood, and he lived in LA. So there were Hollywood-era photographers, like… I can’t think of his name, but he did all of these glamour photos of all the movie stars of the 30’s and 40’s.
BM: Horst is one of them, but…
George Platt Lynes?
BM: No, not George Platt Lynes. Hurrell… Do you know Hurrell? George Hurrell. It’s hard to know because that was just the standard of the day, and a lot of it you have to go back further because they were imitating paintings and things like that. But Bob learned his craft, a typical photographer’s craft which people don’t learn anymore, but if you had gone to even a normal photography studio in the 1930’s and 40’s, they would be doing some approximation of that same kind of lighting with different levels of skill. But there were certain standards. But Bob’s most experimental period, I believe, was in the 1950’s where he did all this stuff with rear projections and double exposures and costumes and layering of things. The 50’s was really his heyday, because he was ahead of everything. He was at the head of this vanguard of homosexual movement and art and publishing, and just going off in every direction, and he was very successful at it, so I’m sure that motivated him more and more. He had a long career, and he was innovative through all of it, but I think the 1950’s was really when he was ahead of the pack.
Did you ever meet Bob?
BM: I did meet him, but he wasn’t my boyfriend, no. Although when he was young, he was really good-looking. He looked like a farm boy when I met him. He wore overalls. And he also had really leathery skin.
Are you guys working together on any other queer-centric projects that we should know about?
BM: Well, I’m coming out with a new Straight to Hell issue.
Ok, good. It’s been awhile, right?
BM: It’s been a couple of years. Also, we have seminars coming up…
JB: During the last two, three weeks of the show, so between January 28th and February 15th we’re gonna do a series of public programs. The performance artist Karen Finley is organizing two of them. One of the ones she’s doing is a conversation between her andBruce Yamamoto, who’s a photographer who does similarly interesting tableau photography. So they’re gonna be in conversation about both their work and Mizer. She’s also organizing a bunch of graduate students here at NYU University, they’re each gonna talk briefly about one photograph, so it’ll be four people and each person will talk about one photo and that will be sort of a tour in the gallery. Andrew Lampert, who is senior curator at Anthology Film Archive, is curating a program of Mizer films and that will be here, at an auditorium in NYU. He’s gonna show film on film, which is exciting, so it’s not just gonna be digital transfers. It’ll be film.
I don’t know if I maybe misread, but is there going to be a book after this exhibition?
JB: Yeah, Brendan Doogan, who runs that operation, is gonna publish for us in collaboration with the gallery and the foundation. It’s not really gonna be a catalogue, I don’t think, but it will be a book that in some way kind of encompasses the nature of this project.
BM: Well, it’s an extension, is the way I’m looking at it. It’s all part of the ongoing, archaeological dig. The thing about Mizer is no matter where we go, if we keep looking we’re gonna find a bunch of other stuff. Just from going through this, the process of putting this together, we discovered things. There’s a picture over there, that guy with the Zorro mask on. I just thought it was a picture of a guy with a Zorro mask on, but then we figured out it’s Tyrone Powers, the movie star. It’s stuff like that, where you’re just going through and we’re like, wait a minute, this looks familiar. And then you do a little research and find out about that. Just since we’ve been here, there was a picture of a guy in a motorcycle jacket with a knife. The person who’s head of the costume department found that leather jacket in the photograph, so now we’re able to tie an object to the photograph. There’s such a wealth of material that the more you go into it the more you find, and then you’ll turn a corner and all of a sudden there will be this whole other thing you didn’t know was there. There’ s a lot that hasn’t been seen. We recently found 400,000 new negatives.
DEVOTION: Excavating Bob Mizer is on view at 80 Washington Square East Gallery until February 15th, 2014.