This is the text for a talk I gave at the Whitney Museum of American Art on May 16, 2015, on the painting Playboys (Feminist Movement), 1993, by Lutz Bacher (b.1952), as part of a series of in-gallery programs focusing on individual works of art from the Museum’s collection. I triangulated the biographies of Hugh Hefner, Marilyn Monroe, and Gloria Steinem as a way of understanding the painting, which appropriates a pornographic cartoon from Playboy.
1926 – Hugh Hefner and Marilyn Monroe are born, in Chicago and Los Angeles, respectively.
1934 – Gloria Steinem born in Toledo, Ohio.
1949 – Monroe, broke, trying to break into film, poses nude because she needs the cash. She is paid $50.00.
1950 – Monroe’s career begins to take off after she appears briefly in The Asphalt Jungle, and she signs a contract with 20th Century Fox.
1951 – Hefner, who works as a copywriter for Esquire, publishes a book of raunchy cartoons titled That Toddlin’ Town, A Rowdy Burlesque of Chicago Manners and Morals. The cartoons are set in Chicago landmarks such as Wrigley Field and the Art Institute.
1952 – Hefner quits his job at Esquire either because he is refused a $5.00 raise or refuses to move to New York. Restless and ambitious and unhappy, Hefner invests everything he has into a new magazine, and starts assembling the first issue of Playboy on an old card table in his Hyde Park apartment. He buys a nude picture of Marilyn Monroe for $500.00 to use as the centerfold from a suburban calendar company. Monroe becomes the first Playmate.
Lutz Bacher is born.
1953 – Playboy launches with Monroe on the cover. The first issue sells out in weeks. “We like our apartment,” wrote Hefner in his editorial for the first issue of Playboy, describing his ideal reader. “We enjoy mixing up cocktails and an hors d’oeuvre or two, putting a little mood music on the phonograph and inviting in a female for a quiet discussion on Picasso, Nietzsche, jazz, sex.”i
Gloria Steinem finishes her first year at Smith College.
1954 – Monroe marries Joe DiMaggio. They divorce later that same year. Monroe is quoted as saying: "He was jealous of me because I was more famous than he was. That is what ended our marriage."
1956 – Monroe marries Arthur Miller, and converts to Judaism to express her loyalty to Miller and his parents. "I can identify with the Jews,” Marilyn told a friend. “Everybody's always out to get them, no matter what they do, like me." After she becomes Jewish, Egypt retaliates by banning all her movies.
1959 – Hefner hires Alberto Vargas to paint his pinup girls for Playboy.ii
Now rich, Hef buys a mansion in the Gold Coast, where the plate above the doorbell reads, “Si Non Oscillas, Noli Tintinnare” in Latin. In English it means, “If you don’t swing, don’t ring.”iii The bedroom features a round bed that can accommodate up to twelve people.
1960 – the first Playboy Club opens in Chicago. There would eventually be forty such clubs throughout the United States and abroad.
Monroe wins a Golden Globe for Best Comedy Actress in Some Like it Hot.
1961 – Monroe and Miller divorce after completion of The Misfits, which Miller wrote and Monroe starred in. It is her last film.
1962 – Monroe is found dead in her Los Angeles apartment of an overdose of barbiturates.
1963 – Gloria Steinem gets a job as a Playboy Bunny and writes an expose of the way the bunnies are treated for the now-defunct Show magazine. To get the job she must be tested for venereal disease, stuff her bra, and wear fake eyelashes and three-inch heels. She learns the Bunny Stance (a model’s pose with one hip jutted out) and the Bunny Dip (a back-leaning way of placing drinks on low tables without falling out of their costumes). Among other indignities, including constant harassment by the male customers, Steinem reveals that Bunnies are poorly paid and must buy their own costume and accessories. On her first foray serving tables, she is assigned the “Cartoon Corner,” where the walls are mounted with framed Playboy cartoons. (Hefner himself edited the cartoons.)
1966 – Hefner moves Playboy into an Art Deco building on Chicago’s lakefront; nine- foot-tall illuminated letters beam out the name Playboy from the rooftop.
1967 – Playboy releases a special issue themed Playmate as Fine Art, with interpretations of playmates commissioned by well-known artists such as Tom Wesselman, Alfred Leslie, Salvador Dali, George Segal (whose playmate is an older overweight woman slumped over in a beach chair), Andy Warhol, and James Rosenquist.
In an interview Hefner explained his choice of a rabbit as Playboy's logo:
“The rabbit, the bunny, in America has a sexual meaning; and I chose it because it's a fresh animal, shy, vivacious, jumping - sexy. First it smells you then it escapes, then it comes back, and you feel like caressing it, playing with it. A girl resembles a bunny. Joyful, joking. Consider the girl we made popular: the Playmate of the Month. She is never sophisticated, a girl you cannot really have. She is a young, healthy, simple girl - the girl next door . . . we are not interested in the mysterious, difficult woman, the femme fatale, who wears elegant underwear, with lace, and she is sad, and somehow mentally filthy. The Playboy girl has no lace, no underwear, she is naked, well-washed with soap and water, and she is happy.iv
1972 – Gloria Steinem founds Ms. magazine. Her first piece for the issue is called “The Woman Who Died Too Soon,” and is a tribute to Marilyn Monroe on the tenth anniversary year of her death. Steinem may have identified with Monroe because they both grew up poor, fatherless (at least in the case of Monroe; Steinem’s father was intermittently present in her life), with mentally unstable mothers, and were forced to deal with feelings of abandonment and scarcity at an extremely young age.
Later Steinem writes a short book on Monroe. In it she proposes an interesting theory about Monroe’s appeal, and male and female sexual attraction: “Since most men have experienced female power only in their childhoods, they associate it with a time when they themselves were powerless. This will continue as long as children are raised almost totally by women, and rarely see women in authority outside the home. That’s why male adults, and some females too, experience the presence of a strong woman as a dangerous regression to a time of their own vulnerability and dependence. For men, especially, who are trained to measure manhood and maturity by their distance from the world of women, being forced back to that world for female companionship may be very threatening indeed. A compliant child- woman like Monroe solves this dilemma by offering sex without the power of an adult woman, much less of an equal. As a child herself, she allows men to feel both conquering and protective; to be both dominating and admirable at the same time.”v
That year also saw the best-selling issue of Playboy ever, with its November issue, which sold over seven million copies. One-quarter of all American college men were buying or subscribing to the magazine every month.vi
1974 – Playboy publishes a profile of Gloria Steinem written by Frederick Exley. It is ruthlessly offensive. Exley writes: “...by the time we got to [Steinem’s hotel] room and I’d solemnly set up my tape recorder I was feeling somewhat catty myself and spoke to her with a wooden jollity. ‘One of those articles said you had small boobs. You aren’t too grand in the fucking jug department, are you?’”vii
1975 – Lutz Bacher makes her first documented work, Men at War, a series of appropriated photographs of young men lounging on what appears to be a beach, in various states of undress, and wearing sailor caps.
1986 – The original Playboy Club in Chicago closes, along with the other clubs and resort hotels.
1989 – Playboy, now run by Hefner’s daughter, Christie, downsizes its staff and moves out of the Art Deco building on Chicago’s lakefront and into smaller offices.
1992 – Liz Kotz writes about Lutz Bacher for Artforum, noting her focus on pornography. “The strategies she employs,” Kotz writes, “could not be further from those of antiporn feminists. For while Bacher acknowledges that the registers of fantasy and desire she investigates are deeply troubling, she dives headlong into the moral morass in all its grotesque hilarity, insisting that this terrain should be obsessively explored rather than proscribed.”viii
1993 – Bacher exhibits the Playboy series for the first time at Pat Hearn gallery.
Writing for the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman does not like the show: “What's disturbing is the calculation that because Vargas's illustrations have been appropriated by a woman, viewers can be persuaded through convoluted texts that they pose complicated questions about sexuality and politics.”
Other critics are more sympathetic, if not entirely gung ho. Faye Hirsch reviewed the show for Art in America, writing:
“The familiar images provoke a creepy nostalgia as they conjure the often furtive contexts in which they might have originally been viewed. When I was a sneaky kid hunting for the Playboy stash I remember . . . feeling baffled by the joke[s]: I was simply extraneous to Playboy’s marketing department.”ix
2000 – Steinem, who famously said that a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle, gets married.
Lutz Bacher is included in the 2000 Whitney Biennial, and throughout the early 2000s, her work gains traction and critical attention.
2006 - A new Playboy Club opens in Las Vegas, though Playboy Enterprises is not managing it; just leasing out the name and bunny logo.
Now 80 years old, Hefner goes to the club’s opening with his three live-in girlfriends. "A post-feminist generation is thinking back to the 1970s and wondering what they missed," he says to a reporter, adding, "It's a great time for me."x
2009 – Steinem’s 75th birthday. "We've demonstrated that women can do what men do, but not yet that men can do what women do. That's why most women have two jobs—one inside the home and one outside it—which is impossible,” Steinem tells the New York Daily News. “The truth is that women can't be equal outside the home until men are equal in it.”xi
Lutz Bacher is the subject of a retrospective at MoMA PS1.
2012 – Lutz Bacher again included in the Whitney Biennial.
The Whitney also acquires Bacher’s Playboys (A Feminist Movement).
2013 – Steinem receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor.
2014 – Online rumors circulate that Hugh Hefner is dead. His wife, Crystal Hefner, is quick to dispel the rumors on twitter.
That same year, Gloria Steinem celebrates her 80th birthday. She tells New York Times columnist Gail Collins: “We’re so accustomed to narratives, we expect there’s going to be a conclusion, or explanation or answer to the secret. And probably the answer is, there isn’t.”xii
i. Joan Acocella, “Six Decades of Playboy Centerfolds,” New Yorker, March 20, 2006, 144.
ii. Maria Elena Buszek, “Of Varga Girls and Riot Grrrls: The Varga Girl and WWII in the pin-up’s feminist history,” catalogue essay for exhibition, Alberto Vargas: The Esquire Pin-Ups,” September 29 – December 30, 2001, Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas, http://www.spencerart.ku.edu/exhibitions/vargas/buszek.shtml
iii. Elizabeth Tieri, “A History of Hugh Hefner in Chicago,” Chicago Architecture Blog for Curious People, January 18, 2013, http://www.chicagodetours.com/hugh-hefner/
iv. "Hugh Hefner: 'I am in the center of the world,'" by Oriana Fallaci, LOOK Magazine (January 10, 1967), cited in Hugh Hefner, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hugh_Hefner
v. Gloria Steinem, Marilyn Norma Jeane, Kindle edition.
vi. Playboy, from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Playboy#Circulation_history_and_statistics
vii. Frederick Exley, Pages from a Cold Island, Kindle edition.
viii. Liz Kotz, “Sex With Strangers,” Artforum, September 1992, https://artforum.com/inprintarchive/id=33542
ix. Faye Hirsch, “Lutz Bacher at Pat Hearn,” Art in America, November 1993, 122.
x. Claire Hoffman, “Playboy Hopes It’s Back Front and Center,” The Los Angeles Times, October 7, 2006, http://articles.latimes.com/2006/oct/07/business/fi-playboy7
xi. Gina Salamone, “The Gloria Steinem Factor: On feminist icon's 75th birthday, she has much to celebrate, as do we,” The New York Daily News, March 24th, 2009, http://www.nydailynews.com/life-style/gloria-steinem-factor-feminist-icon-75th- birthday-celebrate-article-1.368736
xii. Gail Collins, “This is What 80 Looks Like,” The New York Times, March 22nd, 2014, http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/23/opinion/sunday/collins-this-is-what-80-looks-like.html