Inside the “Phallus Palace,” Charles Leslie’s Trove of Queer Art
No matter how open, liberal, or insistently not prudish one may be, Charles Leslie’s Manhattan apartment renders guests speechless. Entering the 1,800-square-foot space, lovingly dubbed the “Phallus Palace,” is akin to stepping into another world—an extremely adult, Narnia-like experience. Once Leslie opens his outwardly unassuming front door, the seductive and mysterious power of the erotic treasures inside proves too alluring to turn back.
I had my first encounter with Leslie and the Phallus Palace a couple of years ago, during an office holiday party held in a neighboring apartment. The enigmatic actor, art collector, gay activist, globetrotter, and doyenne of the SoHo scene has, along with his late partner J. Frederic “Fritz” Lohman (1922–2009), amassed the world’s premier collection of queer art. Together, the pair founded the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art—the first institution of its kind—which is down the block, on Wooster Street.
Poor, unassuming Leslie happened to poke his head out into the hallway to determine the cause of the ruckus; before he could shut the door, a group from the art magazine I worked for had charged their way through. This somewhat jaded crew of critics was frankly awed to find every available surface in the dusky, crimson Prince Street loft absolutely covered—let me repeat: covered—with explicitly homoerotic art in all styles and media, including various site-specific murals.
So I was thrilled to be back among this carnal chaos, blissfully alone, and equipped with hours of scheduled time to speak with Leslie, who, at 85 years old, is charmingly boyish, with a refreshingly unapologetic candor. His propensity to socialize and foster community remains strong. We met a few days before Thanksgiving, and he was in the throes of planning his celebration, interrupting our discussion to remind his assistant, Walter, to check if certain guests—a mix of artists and other creatives in his milieu—were coming to dinner. All day, he was bombarded with phone calls, emails, and incoming visitors.
But in conversation, he was hedonistic and anecdotal; open to sharing, but mischievously coy; unafraid to talk politics or sex—and quick with dirty jokes—but serious about the seriousness of sex, partnership, and eroticism, specifically the normalizing of love between men. He is also impeccably elegant, welcoming me that day wearing a typically loud, yet tailored outfit: an orange velvet blazer, a brightly striped shirt, and orange slacks. Some might mistakenly characterize his wardrobe as “eccentric,” but, like so much else about Leslie and his collection, it’s really daring, taking a perverse pleasure in teetering on the edge of vulgarity.
Entering the 1,800-square-foot space is akin to stepping into another world, an extremely adult, Narnia-like experience.
His apartment is full of kitschy souvenirs and ancient artifacts, mingling alongside phallic artworks by artists that range from the mega-famous ( L’Origine du Monde (1866), “why should the penis be so terrifying to everybody?” Leslie wondered. “So we decided to put it in your face.”
His wide-ranging collection cogently illustrates the changing landscape of public gay life and the civil rights advances incrementally gained since he began discreetly buying homoerotic art in the 1950s. Leslie has borne witness to the many injustices and indignities faced by the LGBTQ community, but has also played a distinguished role in civil rights advances, moments of progress and hope. It is only in the last three decades that homosexuality has gained legal protections in the United States. When the collection began to take shape, sodomy was outlawed (it still is in several states), and gays could be refused service at bars and other establishments.
So there were innumerable challenges to going about building such a libidinous, Uranian collection. Queer artists were largely closeted, without avenues to sell or display their work. Much like homosexuality itself, gay art was hidden away—tucked in the back rooms of galleries, with entry granted by codes and covert nods passed between figures who had to read the other as part of their circle.
Generally, homoerotic works “were made for friends,” Leslie said, and they’ve only more recently been coming into the market. He cited the American artist
Leslie quickly learned how to ingratiate himself into like-minded scenes around the world. Born in the remote town of Deadwood, South Dakota, in 1933, Leslie had saved enough money by the time he was 17 to take a bus to Los Angeles, where he encountered his first gay community. It was an eye-opening experience. A couple of years into college, in 1950, Leslie was drafted into the military, shipped to Germany with the occupation army. After his two-year stint was up, Leslie enrolled in the Sorbonne in Paris before traveling throughout Europe, living in Venice and Amsterdam, known as the gay capital of post-war Europe. “The reason for that variety is because I had lovers in those places,” he told me. Indeed, his early biography, detailed in the revealing 2015 book The Art of Looking: The Life and Treasures of Collector Charles Leslie, reads like a Ricky Nelson song, with a lover in every port.
It was as a soldier in Heidelberg, however, that Leslie purchased the first artwork in his collection, which he now displays in the bathroom (yes, even the bathroom is covered in phallic art). Tipped off by a friend, Leslie “found a little old ticky-tacky shop,” as he recalled, that trafficked in the sale of homoerotic art. An elderly gentleman, whom Leslie perceived to be gay, sat behind the counter. “He certainly got my number right away,” Leslie said. “He brought up some male nudes. There wasn’t anything excessively vulgar about them; they were just charmingly done.” He bought two. In fear that the works would be discovered in his army barracks, Leslie sent them back to a friend in New York for safekeeping.
So began the hunt for often-buried queer treasures. “You find funny things everywhere,” he said. “There was always that kind of coding when you would go into a gallery.” Once Leslie was accepted as a non-threat, the proprietor would inevitably say, “I have some special things in the back.”
Throughout the 1950s, Leslie’s travels—and various acting gigs—led him through the Silk Road and beyond: Japan, China, Indonesia, Australia, New Zealand, Nepal, India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, South Africa, Sudan, and Morocco (he later bought a villa in Marrakech, and was part of Yves Saint Laurent and Pierre Bergeré’s retinue there in the 1970s). His travels provided the opportunity to collect an eccentric, international array of both kitsch and historical fine art. Crucially, however, this period allowed him to experience the nuances of gay culture around the world, which drastically changed his worldview.
“Why should the penis be so terrifying to everybody? So we decided to put it in your face.”
“Think of the horrible view we have of sex, even though we’re the most overly sexualized country in the world,” Leslie mused. “Scratch the surface and there is this Puritanism that goes on and on and on.” That “American prudishness,” he said, was absent in European culture. He recalled going to a government-sponsored gay bar in Amsterdam: “The first thing you saw when you walked in was this huge, long bar with a gigantic picture of Queen Juliana smiling out at her gay subjects.”
When Leslie returned to the U.S. in 1960, “I plunged into the gay rights movement instantaneously because so much bullshit was going on in this country,” he said. “It still is.” Around the same time, in 1962, Leslie met Fritz Lohman, a debonair interior designer 11 years his senior. “Fritz and I both had always been involved in gay rights issues,” Leslie said. They were especially active with the Gay Activists Alliance. “Poor Fritz, I got him arrested a couple times,” Leslie recalled, a bit impishly. “He was not accustomed to that sort of thing.”
Each had a “discreet collection” of their own, so joining forces “was another thing that bonded us.” They developed minimal criteria for their buying. It’s a misconception that their collection only features work by gay artists. “You don’t have to be gay,” he clarified. “The art has to resonate with gay people.” Otherwise, a work has “to at least be good,” Leslie said, “unless it’s such horrible junk that it becomes a ding an sich, a thing unto itself”—erotic camp, in other words. Mostly, the pair collected what they liked. (“Every time I hear about someone collecting something as an investment, it makes me almost vomit,” Leslie added.)
In 1969, the couple purchased the Prince Street loft. While SoHo is now one of the most chichi neighborhoods in New York, it was then, as Leslie reminded me, essentially an industrial wasteland where only few artists—and fewer gay people—deigned to live. “When we got this place, it was a mess,” he said, “but we cleaned it out. Arduously. I mean, you can’t believe how disgusting it was.” Lohman undertook the renovations and interior design, which wasn’t always glamorous: “We were dressed in raincoats and goggles and shower caps, pulling down sheets of the pressed-tin ceilings,” Leslie remembered. “Every time you pulled out a strip, rat shit, bat shit would fall on your head.” After nine months, they moved in together.
The apartment was originally quite spare, but didn’t remain so as their collection quickly grew. Now it’s something like horror vacui. (The museum, which has 24,000 pieces of its own, often uses works in the apartment for exhibitions, so they are constantly cycling in and out.) Sitting on the couch in his living room, Leslie and I were propped up by a neat line of embroidered pillows with penis illustrations by the late Italian artist Nino de Faveri. On a half-moon-shaped canvas framing the couch behind us, a life-size double portrait by Marion Pinto of Leslie and Lohman reclining in the nude. Strewn over the nearby coffee table—the glass top supported by two naked bronze boys—was an array of phallic objects and other small artworks and exotic tchotchkes.
Leslie picked up an exquisite elephant ivory and brass object, its smooth, oblong shape resembling a sleek
So Leslie and Lohman reached out to a friend who was a curator of Japanese art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She was able to translate the inscription: “36 views of Mount Fujiyama,” a reference to famous print series. Apparently, it had once been fashionable for ladies and gentlemen of culture to use the phrase if they saw something that they felt surpassed perfection. “So whoever made this,” he deduced, “decided that this was worthy of that praise.” Leslie initially had a more ironic reading—he thought that if one experimented with the sizable godemiché, “that’s what you saw: 36 views of Mount Fujiyama.”
Once Leslie was accepted as a non-threat, the proprietor would inevitably say, “I have some special things in the back.”
Such objects clarify that centuries of erotic art have existed out in the open, barely concealed through evocations of antiquity and other allegorical guises. How does he go about finding them? “Once we were established as collectors,” Leslie explained, “we’d get these calls from people we’d never heard of.” Dealers and artists came out of the woodwork. “There simply were not other avenues to publicly show this work,” he said.
In 1969, inspired by the openness of Woodstock, the couple put on the first exhibition in their apartment. They planned a show over one weekend featuring erotic work by around 13 artists—“two of whom were straight, but desperate to get their work shown”—and sent out invitations to friends in a plain brown envelope. “We thought we’d get maybe 60 or 70 people through,” Leslie said. But before the weekend was over, nearly 400 individuals had come to see the exhibition. Even more surprising: Every single item had sold.
Progress came about incrementally, for civil rights and the gallery. “There was another step which made what we were doing more permissible,” Leslie said. “Then later, another step.” The Stonewall riots on June 28, 1969—an early-hours protest against a police raid on the Stonewall Inn, a gay club in Greenwich Village—were a major turning point. “Usually, we were out at a disco on weekends, but that night we were at home,” he remembered. “We got a phone call at 2 o’clock in the morning. Our friend Craig said, ‘You’ve got to come to the Village right away. We need all the people we can get.’” They got up and dressed. “We came into this maelstrom—it seemed like thousands of people.” From that time on, he said, everything started changing.
The first official Leslie-Lohman Gallery opened on Broome Street in 1972. “Finally, this art could come out of the closet,” Leslie said. “We also showed lesbian imagery, which was somewhat less contentious,” he observed, “because straight men love lesbians.” Still, many challenges remained. That year, an elderly Italian neighbor called the police from the rectory of a local Catholic Church, disturbed by an exhibition of Marion Pinto nudes.
Though the gallery was “above-grade,” cops showed up anyway. Ever the smooth-talker, Leslie greeted them: “Oh hello, officers, are you here to see the show?” The police tried in vain to convince Leslie not to hang the paintings on the walls. “They were so clumsy, they didn’t know what they were doing,” Leslie said. At the end of it, “the police couldn’t do anything. It was painting!”
Their support of queer artists extended beyond the gallery. Leslie led me to the spare bedroom, where his roommate lives. He pointed out Before Time Changes Them (1970) by Andrew Sichel, a fractured, blue-toned blow-job scene covering almost an entire wall. The title is a line from a Constantine Cavafy poem, and Leslie couldn’t help but wax poetic about Cavafy, who “wrote magnificent, rhapsodic gay poetry.”
Painted by Sichel for Cornell University’s master’s degree exhibition, Before Time Changes Them “created such a crisis in the student body and among the faculty it had to come down,” Leslie said. “Someone called us and told us about it. So we went up and bought it.” Even though Leslie described the painting as “ugly,” they showed it publicly, and their support “salvaged [Sichel’s] amour propre.”
The flourishing of gay life in the 1970s soon gave way to the AIDS epidemic of the ’80s. “The whole decade was like a nightmare,” Leslie recalled with a shudder. “We were endlessly at bedsides and memorials and cremations. You’re always with friends trying to do something and you can’t do anything. Three people died in our house.” Everything closed down: the baths, the bars. Even the gallery had to close: “No one came anymore,” Leslie said; artists stopped bringing work. “It was such a pall over the city.” Still, it was during this decade, in 1987, that Leslie and Lohman created their nonprofit foundation, which was accredited as a museum in 2016.
Even after the peak of the AIDS crisis, Mayor Rudy Giuliani—“a great, honorable Catholic,” Leslie couldn’t help but jibe—“finally managed to kill public gay life in New York.” The gallery reopened, but “we started having some backlash,” he said. During an exhibition of
Leslie remains hesitant about the so-called “openness” of today’s society, and warns against complacency. “It’s just not true that it’s so wide open,” he said. “There’s still this strange, knee-jerk reaction to anything homosexual.” He hopes that his collection, and the museum, will educate a generation that he perceives to be largely uninitiated with gay history. (“I’m getting so curmudgeonly about young people because they are totally unaware of history and they don’t care,” he kvetched.) He remembered seeing the 2005 film Brokeback Mountain—then an unusual mainstream depiction of gay romance—in theaters. “A friend and I were sitting behind two young gay men,” he recalled. “After the final scene, one of the guys turned to the other and said, ‘But why didn’t they just move to San Francisco?’ I could have killed him!”
Where should the current generation begin? With ancient Greece, of course. Leslie’s own collection and interest in art were largely awakened by
The process to acquire the work had a similar veneer of secrecy to his Heidelberg experience. Cadmus told him about a seemingly innocuous postcard shop that sold the prints. When he entered the shop, the owner “came around the counter and went to the window. He turned the sign to closed and locked the door” before taking Leslie into a back room and pulling out a file of male nudes. Ultimately, Leslie wrote a book about Von Gloeden’s work.
“There’s still this strange, knee-jerk reaction to anything homosexual.”
Von Gloeden offers even further proof that gay art is by no means a new phenomenon, just one that has only recently been permitted to see the light. Now, Leslie wants to liberate us from our own puritanism, hatred, and fear. “I just want to tell people they should relax about male imagery and not be so horrified all the time,” he said. “People are nuts.” Historical precedents for queer art renders this priggishness especially odd. “The measure of art education used to be the life class,” he explained. “Now, that’s no longer true. Now, you put a garbage lid on the floor and put cotton balls in it, and that’s high art.”
As a collector and community builder, Leslie has been a linchpin in the process of normalizing queerness in art; his support of artists both living and historical has quite literally secured their names for the record books. (During the 1980s and ’90s, as artists died from AIDS-related complications, Leslie and Lohman would acquire their estates before they could be lost or destroyed.) To this day, he, and the Leslie-Lohman museum, offer much-needed patronage and exhibition support—sometimes, even Leslie’s spare bedroom is available for artists to crash in. Leslie’s impact on the art world is so profound that he and the museum still get messages from artists all over the world. “We invite everyone to submit work,” he said. “We see some that’s quite wonderful, and if it’s wonderful, we do something about it.”
Julia Wolkoff is an Editor at Artsy.
Header image: Charles Leslie in his SoHo living room, among the erotic treasures he and his longtime partner, the late Fritz Lohman, amassed over the past 60 years. Photo by Max Burkhalter for Artsy.