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.
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.)
"To me, the production -- working with the models, assembling the props and costumes -- was the most enjoyable part of the whole procedure," says Baer. Referring to his theatrical flair for composition (portraying a guillotine death in progress, one truly startling illustration's focal point is the victim's screaming mouth), Baer claims that black-and-white film noir of the '40s had a big impact on his pulp-era art.
"The one that really influenced me was The Maltese Falcon," says Baer. "Every shot that you saw of Sydney Greenstreet was looking up at him from the floor, which dramatically increased the menace. I tried to replicate that sort of visual tension in my own work."
Anyone accidentally strolling into his rental studio during one of Baer's photo sessions might have fled in terror, erroneously believing they'd stumbled onto a snuff-movie shoot. As photos in his exhibit attest, female models routinely feigned fear as bull-necked lugs threatened to rip their clothes off, stab them, pistol-whip them. In one case, a beefy baddie even lugged a "lifeless" body across "train tracks" -- in reality, the studio floor.
Baer, who frequently helped supply the tantalizing copy that ran across his illustrations, chuckles over that one. "Originally, the line was something like, 'He was laying her on the tracks!' Well, you couldn't say that back then, so we had to change it to 'He was dragging her on the tracks.' Today, no one would think twice about something like that, but back then, things like this were quite an issue."
If crime doesn't pay, Baer claims that illustrating illegal acts for men's magazines was even less lucrative. Depending on the magazine and how many colors the illustration involved, he was paid $400 to $500 per rendition -- half of which went to pay studio rent, models and photographers.
"I couldn't have lived on what I was making if it hadn't been for my wife, Catherine," says Baer, whose late spouse helped subsidize her husband's artistic aspirations by acting in off-Broadway and stock theater productions. "She was very supportive and inspirational. Through her connection with acting, I realized how illustration was allied to theater. I saw the magazine page as a stage, the manuscript as the script and the illustrator as a combination of director, set designer, lighting director and, in the case of models, casting director."
The men's publications Baer worked for were not in the strictest sense "pulps" -- a term purists reserve for the rough-textured magazines and paperbacks phased out in the late '40s. Although they boasted wide readership, the guns, girls and gore gazettes (along with confession, Western and detective magazines) were simply not in the same league as the high-paying "slicks" -- glossy general-interest publications like Saturday Evening Post, McCall's and Ladies' Home Journal.
"These were the magazines that I wanted to work for," says Baer. "That's where the money was. And if you got lucky, you could go from the slicks to advertising art. The only reason I got into the men's magazines was to have a showcase for my work and build a portfolio that would lead to better assignments."
It's difficult to find fault with Norman Baer's pulp artistry; his drama-drenched pictorials capture sensationalism in a way that no camera ever could. But perhaps unable to see past the horror-filled eyes and lolling tongues that often dominated his drawings, art directors at the slicks had a hard time visualizing how his style might lend itself to mainstream fiction.
Resigned to the fact that, approaching age 40, he'd probably never be moving up to a better paper stock, Baer left New York in 1962 to teach art in Boston.
"I guess my work just didn't show the sophistication they were looking for," he says.
While Baer would eventually go on to a successful career providing advertising storyboards for TV commercials in Boston, it's doubtful that he imagined his real legacy would be the exploitational splash pages he'd designed in magazines rarely seen outside barber shops, barracks and Eisenhower-era rec rooms and nightstands. Apparently disappointed that he never made a bigger name -- or bankroll -- for himself, Baer dismisses praise for his unsung magazine work.
"It's nice to know that someone likes something I did years ago," he says, "but that sure doesn't help me today."
If Baer fails to truly appreciate his backlog of morbid masterpieces, other art-world observers claim that works like his still pack a visceral punch.
"This is raw art," says Kent Whipple, director of Scottsdale's Meyer Gallery, which has staged five pulp art exhibitions in the past several years. "People are attracted to it because they understand it immediately; they don't need a curator explaining to them what it means."
A rapidly growing section of the art market, illustrative magazine art -- despite its humble origins -- does not necessarily come cheap, primarily because so little of it still exists.
"The evolution of television effectively killed this form of art," says Whipple, who is unfamiliar with Baer's work. "It was also seen as a disposable commodity, so a lot of it was destroyed or simply disappeared after it had served its purpose."
As a result, certain pieces -- cover art, in particular -- can draw relatively breathtaking prices. Asked to appraise an oil painting that graced the cover of Crackup in Suburbia, a racy paperback from the early '60s, Whipple told a local gallery owner the piece was worth somewhere between $5,000 and $6,000.
"Up until very recently, illustration has always been seen as the poor stepchild to fine art," reports Robert Weinberg, a national used-magazine dealer in Chicago. "That's slowly changing, but most of these guys who worked for the magazines labored in anonymity. A few made the leap -- like N.C. Wyeth -- but most of these people's names are totally unknown outside collector's circles."
Charles G. Martignette, a Hallandale, Florida, dealer who boasts the world's largest collection of illustrative magazine art, agrees that the genre in which Baer worked "has really begun to create a substantial niche in the whole umbrella of American illustration."
But please don't use the "p" word.
"Pulp art died in the late '40s, early '50s," he says emphatically. "Anything after that is simply not pulp."
Call it what you will, but Martignette includes cheap magazine illustrations in a broader context of what he calls "the real art of America."
"Cereal boxes, newspaper advertising art, subway posters, billboards -- this is the art that touched people's everyday lives," says Martignette. "As such, it's now being recognized as having been a very important part of the American scene. Most people, even in the '50s and '60s, had never been in a museum. For the majority of people, this art was the only real art they ever saw."
Perhaps that's why it's not surprising to learn that the biggest crowd-pleaser in the history of the Phoenix Art Museum is a current celebration of magazine art, albeit the work of the genre's best-known practitioner, Norman Rockwell.
At first blush, the two Normans' work could hardly seem less alike: Rockwell offered up an idyllic view of small-town America, while Baer graphically depicted what was going on out in the city's back alleys and seedier points.
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But look beyond the disparate subject matter -- and the glaring difference in their levels of fame -- and it becomes apparent the two artists share more than a first name.
"Critics can't abide Norman Rockwell," says Baer, in defense of his much-maligned contemporary. "But nothing is ever said about the composition of his work; it's composition just like a piece of music." Pause. "Most people can't get past the sentimentality -- they just see the pretty pictures."
That's one criticism that will never be leveled over Norman Baer's exquisitely executed dead bodies.