Art Pulpitations

Sun City artist Norman Baer looks back at babes, blood baths and bazookas.

When Norman Baer arrived in New York City to carve out a career in the advertising field in the early '50s, the art school grad's head was filled with visions of Madison Avenue skyscrapers, high-level meetings with top clients and the opportunity to create ads that would convince consumers no American could live without a Cadillac.

Instead, he soon found himself submerged in a lurid world far from the gleaming corporate landscape he'd envisioned. Holed up in a variety of less tony addresses for nearly a decade, he was paid to shoot scantily clad women and to draw blood. And, when the mood struck him, to cavalierly rub out sketchy characters.

Bad scenes don't come much worse than this.

That darn gat: From model photos to the printed page, Baer exhibit shows evolution of art for a Mickey Spillane potboiler.
Click here to enlarge photo
That darn gat: From model photos to the printed page, Baer exhibit shows evolution of art for a Mickey Spillane potboiler.

Click here to enlarge photo

But instead of executing his grisly sounding chores with switchblades, revolvers and acid baths, Baer used charcoal crayons, a large-format camera and an eraser -- all standard tools of the trade for anyone supplying illustrations to the scads of cheaply produced magazines that then choked the nation's newsstands. In order to compete for readers' attention as they scanned this sea of sensationalism (in the '30s, during the heyday of escapist monthlies, there were nearly 100 Western titles alone), the magazine industry employed vast armies of anonymous artists to crank out the flashy art that was the genre's stock in trade.

A contributor to titles such as Argosy, True, Cavalier, Saga and other men's adventure magazines of the '50s, Baer honed his craft by providing hyper-realistic renderings of man's inhumanity toward man, woman or anyone else who stood in the way of an antagonist's dastardly deeds. During his 10-year tenure in the pulp trenches, grifters, guillotine operators and bound-and-gagged gals galore were all grist for Baer's fertile inkwell.

Fans of pulp art can see Baer's bygone brand of sensationalism at an exhibition at the West Valley Art Museum in Surprise. Running through April 22, the show displays several dozen charcoal-and-ink magazine pieces Baer donated to the museum's permanent collection. Because many of the panels are accompanied by staged photographs Baer used for modeling purposes, as well as tear sheets of the art as it appeared in print, the exhibit also offers a mini crash course in the bygone world of magazine illustration.

Baer's pulp work is not for sale. But a series of his still lifes and character studies rendered in a contemporary realism style in bright acrylics were auctioned off earlier this week, with proceeds helping Baer launch a newfound interest in computer-generated art.

Now living in Sun City (he and his late wife moved here in 1998 for health purposes) and exhibiting no outward signs of the fevered imagination that once inspired him to sketch a grave-robbing expedition from the corpse's point of view, the unassuming 78-year-old retiree's fascination with vivid illustration began as a child.

Growing up in the Boston suburb of Everett, the then-fledgling artist describes how he'd race down to the local moviehouse once a week, where he'd copy the posters for that week's double bill. Working from his own drawings and newspaper ads for the films, he'd then spend the week creating his own version of the poster; when the marquee changed at the end of the week, he'd start all over again with new sketches.

"I've always been attracted to drama," says Baer, whose fascination with theatrical visuals would follow him through life.Years later, when he finally decided to tackle the New York art scene, he was armed with credentials from such prestigious institutes as Brooklyn Museum School, Rhode Island School of Design and the Massachusetts School of Practical Art in Boston.

But as things turned out, Baer's career would have far less in common with Michelangelo than it would Mickey Spillane.

And a good thing, too -- as an illustrator for men's mags catering to a testosterone-charged readership, his pulse-racing tableaus were always more fevered than anything that actually transpired in the article.

"That was the whole point of the illustration," says Baer. "An attractive illustration that would stop you in your tracks, then get you moving on to the next page -- where, with luck, you'd stop to look at the next ad."

One of a legion of largely anonymous freelance artists scrambling for assignments in what was then an already dying market (TV was rapidly replacing magazines as America's pastime of choice), Baer says his experiences were not necessarily typical of other illustrators plying their trade in the pulp game.

More established artists, he says, were hired by large studios that provided magazine work on a steady basis. Too inexperienced to crack that market, Baer rented space in a smaller studio that catered to struggling illustrators like himself. Eventually, Baer hired a rep who specialized in the men's magazine market and began working from his home in Brooklyn.

After landing an assignment (two or three pieces, in a good month, none paying more than a few hundred dollars), Baer would rent a photo studio and restage the splashy two-page opening illustration using models, most of them out-of-work theater actors. (Trivia footnote: One of Baer's models, a square-jawed Buster Crabbe look-alike who posed for a beach layout, had starred in an early TV version of Flash Gordon.)

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