Pulp art at the Brooks School

Thrilling, fascinating, different!
By GREG COOK  |  May 23, 2011

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NEW WORLDS Paul Stahr’s pulp cover has a direct engagement with contemporary anxieties that had begun to disappear — and are still mostly absent — from fine art. 

A tank with a giant drill on the front erupts from under the street of a burning city. Marching behind it is an invading army in gas masks and armed with tommy guns. A woman flees. Secret Service Operator #5 — America's Undercover Ace reaches for her. A blond guy in a neat white shirt with a black "#5" armband, our pistol-packing hero leads a battered and bloody militia that's making a last stand in this late-1930s nightmare pulp fiction.

"America's greatest cities had been blown into bottomless pits by the terrible atomic bombs of the Yellow invaders," the cover painted by Rafael De Soto exclaims, "and nowhere was there safety from the foe which struck from underground!"

The pulp magazines (named for the cheap paper they were printed on) manifested the common dreams of the Depression and the onset of World War II, when much had gone to hell and it often wasn't clear who to blame or what should be done. As the Japanese were marching across China and the Nazis across Poland, Secret Service Operator #5 battled fictional Germans and Japanese invading America. The pulps — with their slam-bang cover art and prose — offered clarity and solace in stories of good guys protecting us from bad guys on the mean midnight streets.

"Pulp Fiction Paintings," at the Robert Lehman Art Center at the Brooks School in North Andover, returns us to this seductively black-and-white moral landscape. The 37 deliciously lurid pulp paintings, each framed with one or more magazines in which they appeared, are a promised gift to the New Britain Museum of American Art in Connecticut. They're drawn from nearly 200 pulp paintings from the 1930s and '40s in the collection of Robert Lesser, a retired Manhattan electric-sign salesman who began buying them in 1972, when even those who had painted them still considered them junk. Many canvases wound up in the trash. The school says Lesser's trove is "matched by no other pulp-fiction collector in the country." That sounds about right. Decades later, Thrilling Wonder Stories, Famous Fantastic Mysteries, and Astounding Science-Fiction live up to the hype. It's one of the best shows of the year.

The paintings capture passionate, sexy, breathtaking, death-defying moments at the peak of crazy dramas. In De Soto's 1940s illustration for the tale of The Spider and the Pain Master ("Thrilling, Fascinating, Different!"), the Spider arrives to save a brunette in a torn red dress who somehow keeps from being impaled on a bed of razor-sharp spikes by pulling herself up the ropes binding her wrists and ankles. The Spider is a masked gentleman in a fedora. His cape's been torn by the falling spikes of a portcullis he's just jumped under. He grips a pistol in one hand and with the other slugs a bare-chested guy in a turban wielding a curved sword. A tuxedo'd villain fires his pistol from the shadows. Coming around a corner are four knife-wielding turbaned goons. You can't help smiling at the scenario's ludicrous urgency.

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