Charles Leslie, 85, has been an icon of Soho’s queer art scene going on half a century. He was born in Deadwood, South Dakota, but left in his teens for Los Angeles and, later, for postwar Venice, Amsterdam and Paris. His travels took him around the world collecting art and lovers until the early 1960s, when he found himself in New York City and met his longtime partner, Fritz Lohman.
By 1969, the two were homesteading in Soho. The area was known for its abandoned lofts and daring artists making queer work nobody would show. So Leslie had an idea: they would put on their own art show, featuring artists who were making homoerotic work. They thought they’d get 60 or 70 attendees for the opening, but it was jammed with more than 300 people. Leslie and Lohman ran this underground art show for two years before opening up a proper gallery; they later turned it into a nonprofit art foundation and, eventually, a bona fide museum—with holdings of more than 20,000 pieces. Today the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art is among the most renowned LGBTQ+ art collections in the world.
Lohman passed away in 2009, but Leslie has continued expanding the collection and furthering their legacy. He’s currently working on prep for Art After Stonewall, a major retrospective dedicated to the 50th anniversary of Stonewall; it runs from April 24 to July 21. We sat down with him to discuss queer art, Stonewall and his idea of a perfect NYC day.
How have LGBTQ+ people changed the art landscape? Charles Leslie: They’ve always been a significant part of the whole world of art. In the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, straight artists would talk pejoratively about the “Queer Art Mafia.” But there were a lot of queer artists who made an impact. There were always gay people who were part of the scene.
What role did Soho play in this queer art scene? CL: It couldn’t have happened anywhere else. Soho was the last undeveloped frontier of the arts…one of the last areas with amazing space—unused and underused. The old Jewish and Italian owners were desperate to get their places rented or sold. We had to keep our art a secret at first.
Right now, the Guggenheim is celebrating Mapplethorpe and The Met has an upcoming exhibit on camp. Do you see a greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ art than before? CL: A lot of major artists have broken through. People like Keith Haring have become major international figures.
Who are some of the most important gay artists at the moment? CL: I love Delmas Howe. He is possibly my favorite male artist right now.
Why is it important for LGBTQ+ people to see themselves in art? CL: It’s an affirmation. Before we only saw men and women together. Until this queer revolution, the only breakthrough came from neoclassical and Renaissance art when painters took advantage of allegorical stories. It was a way to break the rules. When you look at Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci, it’s very clear to me that these men were gay.
Tell us what Stonewall means to you. CL: Long before Stonewall, there was this surging underground impetus toward some kind of change. It was a horrible time before Stonewall. Legally, you couldn’t serve a gay person a drink in a tavern. And then, it happened—people got sick of it. And people got sick of the Mafia running the gay bars. Every time we bought a drink, we put money in the Mafia’s pocket. It was the cumulative effect of people saying “Enough!”
Were you in the City when Stonewall happened? CL: The night the riots started, Fritz and I were at home in Soho. We got a call from someone at 2am who said to come down to Sheridan Square. By the time we got there, there were mobs of people. But it didn’t happen in just one night—it lasted three nights. Finally, the city council woke up and said enough is enough.
Can you give us Charles Leslie’s perfect NYC day? CL: I’m 85 years old now, so my perfect day has changed. My perfect day now is not accepting any appointments before noon. Then I love to go to a little restaurant called Little Prince for lunch. I admire them because they hang a gay flag. And the food is marvelous.