The artist known only as REX has proved to be one of America’s most controversial and enduring artists. Over the past four decades his meticulously detailed pen-and-ink drawings have delighted and outraged a worldwide audience with their unapologetic homoerotic subject matter that fearlessly runs the gamut from romantic to raw.
His career in homoerotica began in the sixties in New York when such subject matter–and homosexuality itself was illegal in the US. Because signing your name to such art work risked imprisonment, he became known simply as REX. Although his work gained wide popularity underground, he became persona non grata to the American art establishment which to this day still refuses to acknowledge his work due to his subject matter. A controversial figure since the start, he has lead an unconventional and reclusive life as a cult artist with an international reputation spread first thru pirated reproductions of his work in print, and today available worldwide on the internet. Forbidden to exhibit in the US, he currently resides in Europe and is having his first major exhibit in Germany at The Ballery Gallery in Berlin during Folsomeurope from September 8th to 18th 2016.
„SURVIVING IS THE BEST REVENGE“ – An Interview with REX
Q: Your work has been enjoyed by gay men around the globe for nearly a half-century now, pirated in reproductions and on the internet across the globe. Two years ago a hardcover portfolio of your work appeared in Germany under the title REX VERBOTEN published by Bruno Gmunder. Despite all this, officially you remain off the radar in the academic art world both in the US and here in Europe. How do you explain the decades long descrepency between your enormous popular fame as a cult artist on the one hand, and being consistently ignored by the art establishment everywhere else it seems?
REX: Erotic artists have always been at odds with the establishment over censorship. It comes with the territory when you tackle subject matter that challenges the status-quo. This is true whether the offending work takes on political, religious or sexual issues. My work explored the once taboo subject of homosexuality, which chuch and state found particularly threatening to their propaganda on „how things are“ in this world. For most of my career–we’re talking decades now–it has been taboo to discuss my work in print or in public. My art seems to have been a guilty pleasure for millions of men who dared not speak my name. Even today the mere mention of homosexuality makes many Americans uncomfortable, as it does for many others still taking their cultural cues from the 12th century. The polarizing effect that homosexuality still has in America makes it very difficult to categorize my work as either art, or pornography. It’s always been much easier for the establishment to simply ignore me. To recognize art you must discuss what it is about, what it is saying and for whom it is intended, and that for America and the art establishment is too horrific a thought to contemplate evidently. The man in the street however has no such difficulty in discussing or viewing it, probably because he’s living life as it is, and not as church and state wish it was. You might say their perception of „reality“ is what holds my art back from public view. I do not deny it is pornographic in the classic sense, but I would also contend that pornography is a legitimate genre of art, as much so as landscape painting or portraiture. But up to now pornography as a „genre“ has not been invited into the gentlemen’s club of the art establishment. The legal definition of pornography is the depiction of sexual penetration or taboo sexual activity or fetishes. This is not to be confused with the „soft-core porno“ so evident in everyday commercial television and media advertising which tends to not show sexual penetration or genitalia, but rather „suggests“ them. This may seem a trivial distinction to the uninformed, but there is quite a difference between the two in the eyes of the law to which we all must answer. The criminal justice system is rife with arcane laws on the books identifying what parts of the male body can be shown in what positions and in how much proximity to other body parts or to the presumed age of participants who don’t exist accept in a „drawing“. It’s extremely difficult working thru this web of often contradictory laws that define pornography and thus define when I’m „breaking the law“ or not. It is made doubly confusing by the ambiguous way these laws are written, leaving them open to whatever wide interpretations a jury might interpret them according to whatever belief system about sex or art happens to be in vogue at a particular time and place. Confusing the issue further, many sexual activities which can be shown on film or described in literature, are still illegal to show in imaginary two-dimensional art. So there is a hypocritical–if not psychotic–relationship between what we are allowed to see in the real world, and what laws say we aren’t allowed to see in the creative world. In all fairness to the art establishment, it is no wonder with such hysteria surrounding the subject legally, they wish to distance themselves from the genre.
Q: Because of the legal controversy surrounding your subject matter, it seems however that your inimitable ink technique is never a factor for considering you as one of the more interesting American artists of the past half century. I mean, you are right up there with your contemporaries Robert Mapplethorpe and Andy Warhol in the eyes of many fans because of your influence upon other artists and even the gay public at large. You lived and worked in Manhattan when you started, interacted with both these men and moved in the same intellectual and social circles and yet oddly enough–unlike Mapplethorpe and Warhol–you seem to have been studiously–deliberately– ignored by the art world, as Mapplethorpe and Warhol were not. Instead you have garnered a reputation as the Loose Canon of the American Art World: How do explain this dichotomy between their acceptance, and in the art world your rejection?
REX: I have a reputation for being difficult because at that time I wouldn’t play the game of the New York art establishment: Mapplethorpe and Warhol pulled their punches visually to a level acceptable to the art establishment. They produced what they were told to produce by bankers and agents etc. Their medium was primarily photographic, and there again we have this odd double-standard between photographic pornography being somehow more acceptable than showing the same act as fictional art. Both Mapplethorpe and Warhol were essentially domesticated by the art establishment in order to market them to a wider public as a brand commodity. They had world-class advisors in the art world directing their careers. While their work was considered shocking in its time, in hindsight it reads as merely „risque“ burnished to a glamorous sheen. Their work is titillating but non-threatening, but hardly tackled any trenchant new insights into male sexuality that make viewers sit up and take notice–after the initial „shock“. These once „shocking“ images today seem little more than the investment instruments they were originally intended to be for their clients. And they have proved to be very good investments indeed. In addition to their monetary worth, their work possesses a technical finesse and style that can not be denied or easily dismissed. Their influence on the art world was profound thru shrewd promotion. But the question still remains, is this stuff really as good as we are told it is by the critics? Or do they simply have a vested financial interest in having the public continue to believe so? Make no mistake, the art world is about money, not about art no matter how much they do protest otherwise. I was simply not a good investment because my art was too ahead of its time. The homosexual world I dared to portray fifty years ago, I’ve now lived to see become a reality in cities all over the world. My work was threatening! It was also visionary and a preview of homosexuality that the world could not handle at that time.
Q: Tom of Finland is perhaps your most famous contemporary working in the same field and the artist you are most often compared with. Didn’t he also explore the unvarnished image of homosexuality?
REX: Yes of course he did, but in a more romanticized and idealized way than I do. And on that idealized level his work is more profound and sensually engaging than my work. His intellectual approach to male sexuality is never mean or crass, but positive and emotionally uplifting. Those are extremely difficult emotions to successfully convey as he did, when set in purely sexual and sometimes demeaning situations. Tom avoided portraying degradation even in his early S&M work, where there is an atmosphere of playful camaraderie and male-bonding euphoria that is nothing short of inspirational. He came from an era when it was very important to portray homosexuals as proud and strong, lending self-esteem to counterbalance what the wider society denied them. His drawings draw from the Greco-Roman view of Men as Gods, while I seem more interested in portraying mortal men being „pereceived“ as Gods–if only in those moments of suspended disbelief, when all men in the throes of ecstasy seem to become Gods to one another. Tom’s work has a more universal appeal with a generic viewpoint which transcends all cultures where homosexuality exists. His work is timeless and suggestive of something ethereal. There is no darkness in his vision. His men are absolutely clean and flawless, mine are rough and unwashed as I’ve known men to be. These men have a dark side. Tom’s medium was lead pencil which is soft and pliable, lending a smooth satin finish to his work. My medium is pen and ink which is hard and unyielding giving my work a sharp hard edge. In psychological terms I could never cover the same mental territory that he did: I work the other side of that street.
Q: The men you portray are seldom in clean, comfortable or attractive surroundings. Rather, these men tend to have holes in their socks – if they even have socks – and dirt under their fingernails. Your settings are painfully unattractive in the conventional sense. Yet these often grim settings are rendered with such insight you reveal to viewers the hidden beauty of something as utilitarian as a battered garbage can. The men in your drawings seem eternally disheveled. Nowhere is there any indication of the upper or middle-class man to be seen. Why is this?
REX: I find upper or middle-class lifestyles don’t lend themselves to good raw pornography. And note, I did not say those upper and middle-class men were not good sex. Many gay artists, like Mapplethorpe, David Hockney and Warhol, directed their work to upper and middle-class audiences who vicariously went slumming when viewing their „risque“ work. And frankly because those are the classes that can afford to buy art. My fans can hardly pay their rent, and are frequently unemployed as they view work as an interruption to their sex lives. The upper classes buy art to impress their peers and flaunt their fine aesthetic taste. On the other hand people who buy my art are terrified to let their friends and family know they even own it, let alone display it as something they „approve“ of. Because so many successful artists come from upper or middle-class backgrounds they have no affinity to outcasts in any intimate or extended sense. They have little empathy with the class of men I draw, whom I would charitably characterize as men most likely living under freeway overpasses. It’s difficult for the upper classes to explore their natural instincts outside the protection of their own class because they are move in a world of obligations and expectations they are dutybound to live up to in order to maintain their material and social status. But in the process I observe they are often scrubbed clean of their humanity and civilized to the point that their primal instincts are bred out of them.
Q: What other artists have inspired you?
REX: I’ve been more influenced by writers like William S Burroughs and Henry Miller. I relate to their iconoclastic vision of the outcast, which is why my homoerotica offends many gay men because these portrayals work against the contemporary stereotype of themselves as clean-cut conservative married couples emulating a materialistic lifestyle once associated with the same straight bourgeoisie who formerly wished them dead. These men flinch at seeing their „secret“ desires reflected back at them in my work and understandable that many homosexuals who live respectable professional lives find my work unsavory. But I find Respectability boring as subject matter; whereas outlaws seem endlessly fascinating. Therefore I’m drawn to outcasts as subject matter, living on the edge in reduced financial and emotional circumstances at the bottom of the feeding chain. These are also the Men whom the art world–and governments alike– work so hard to hide from view in order to deny their existance. These salt-of-the earth types represent to my thinking the majority of all men living in diminished circumstances the world over. Social and sexual etiquette has little place in their lives because they are simply too preoccupied just trying to survive from day to day, from hour to hour. For these men sex becomes a religiion, for it is primarily all society allows them as a reward in life. The media seldom presents these men as anything more than objects of ridicule or pity. I present them as the unvarnished Sex Symbols that so many of these „natural“ men are, if only one has the courage to perceive them that way. I also see these outcasts as the prototype men of the future. Why waste my time catering to the middle-class whose days are numbered anyway?
Q: What about the technical aspects of your work, which are usually taken into consideration when judging art. Your pen-and-ink technique is an extremely difficult and obscure medium–seldom seen these days executed with such precision. The technique is suggestive of 19th Century engravings and etchings. The best of your pen and ink work is rendered in a virtuoso pointillistic style seldom attempted anymore in our time. One could argue it’s of such a high technical finish it’s staggers the mind to believe such quality has been ignored for decades by the art world who supposedly pay attention to these things. Most who view your work in reproductions haven’t a clue as to what medium you are working in, it seems at times so enigmatic in texture. Why hasn’t your work been championed apart from the subject matter, on its other merits such as originality, superb design, high style, composition, and dazzling technical execution?
REX: Whenever sex rears its ugly head the art world tends to freeze up like a deer caught in the headlights. Yes, the quality of my technique does pose an ethical dilemma in terms of objectively that critics would rather ignore. By ignoring the technical aspects of my work critics have therefore lost their credibility in the eyes of many in the art world. Critics would prefer technical skill on this high a level be reserved exclusively for politically correct subject matter, and not „wasted“ on subjects they think undeserving of such attention. A few brave critics have tried on occasion to champion my work on a purely technical level, but still aren’t allowed to discuss the subject matter which rather negates their reviews for readers. Those reviews that do get published read like someone sweating bullets trying to praise work whose subject matter they are terrified to describe.
Q: But isn’t this a natural reaction, given the rules of society so that reviewers are obligated to protect their paycheck?
REX: A problem with the art „establishment“ is its inability to face the fact it is nothing more than a handservant to the wider corrupt society, and not the independent thinkers they fancy themselves to be. They are part of the problem; not the solution in allowing new genres of art to flourish. In my case many Art critics can not objectively get past the sexual content of my work because in doing so, they might just have to confront their own sexuality in some dark alley of their own libido. Which is exactly what’s my art is intended to do; instigate an open dialogue about male sexuality in society. Also, in order to judge „sexual art“ objectively it’s helpful to be on familiar terms with the subject matter being portrayed. Few art critics I’ve ever known have lived their lives as the sexual athletes I portray in my drawings. And if not that, than what is their opinion–as the gate-keepers of art–worth to inform others on the merits of my work? My work is judged by critics evidently not moving in the same stratum of society that my art depicts. In blunt terms; the lower class. Therefore they are not really positioned to pass informed judgement on what they are viewing in a social context, or appreciate the upside of its „texture“. My public seems to recognize the voice of experience in this work which I assume is why it is interesting. What was these critics have dismissed a „REX fantasy“ for decades is fast beginning to look uncomfortably like the real world outside your door. Is the disheveled world I have portrayed so unrelentingly for decades a crazy artist’s delusion divorced from reality, or was I simply warning of things to come? Reality is only a momentary delusion every society accepts to survive. But If one is open minded enough and steps back a few paces, one could easily view my work not so much about dirty uncouth men but rather a portrait of Human Nature flailing in the web of contemporary political and spiritual suffocation. Not saying that’s what my art is, but on the other hand go look outside your door. Art is like sex; what we admit to liking in public and what we actually like in private at 2:30 at night after the bars close, are two different things. No one dare say in public they dislike Rembrandt for to do so borders on intellectual heresy. So take opinions on art with a grain of salt, because our stated views on both art and sex are not so much based on what we „really“ think, but more on our social conditioning and psychological fears of how our peers will judge us should we actually express liking unconventional viewpoints or desires. When people denounce my art, I understand fully it is the only acceptable answer they are permitted to give in public due to their societal conditioning. But in private these same critics may actually be avid secret collectors of it as I’ve known many to be.
Q: You talk about your work in political and philosophical terms. You seem more interested in those aspects than its sexual or artistic aspects.
REX: I think politics and philosophy go to the very heart of the role art plays in various cultures, sometimes politically and sometimes philosophically; sometimes both. The philosophy behind Walt Disney’s art was to bring pleasure and delight to children. The philosophy behind my work is to bring pleasure and delight to adult men. Does it really matter as long as our targeted audience gets what they came to be entertained by? In each case, the philosophical intent is to give pleasure and delight. In political terms it beggers the question, why don’t our elected leaders give us pleasure or delight? Instead they give us rubber bullets and tear gas on a daily basis at the slightest provocation, which is tabout he only thing that seems to give them pleasure and delight. And art has the potential to make you start to think about those comparisons. And when leaders threaten you with jail for drawing a picture or writing a word, art takes on Political ramifications very quickly. That’s what makes working in pornography such an „interesting“ medium, because it spits intellectually in the face those psychopaths heading Church and State, and the unrelenting misery and discord these institutions perpetrate in order to dominate and control our lives. And they are the first to call what I do in life, „obscene“?
Q: Are you bitter about being ignored by the art establishment?
REX: I had no illusions about courting the art establishment because I knew my subject was anathema to the art world when I started 50 years ago. I took it as a given they would reject my work, but frankly I was more impressed by the Disney approach, taking his art directly to the People and letting them – and not the art world – decide for themselves whether it was worth seeing. Walt Disney was also anathema to the art world when he first appeared 90 years ago because the great unwashed masses embraced his work right from the start, while academia was trying to force Titian and Velazquez down their throats. Now there is nothing wrong with Titian, but he simply did not relate to the man in the street 90 years ago as did Walt Disney. And if art isn’t meant for the man in the street, then who „exactly“ is it meant for? Intellectual snobs; the wealthy? So much of what you see enshrined in the graveyards we call museums, are today works by artists like Picasso or Dali whose work was also disparaged in their time by the art establishment. A century after their „shocking“ art appeared it seems merely tepid and decorative now because the world has caught up with the future they were „previewing“ in their work. Once art becomes acceptable it tends to have outlived its purpose as a harbinger of new ways of thinking. Even Mickey Mouse has gone thru many make-overs in order to remain relevant to todays audiences. Have you checked recently on how he looked like in 1928? One day my art will become obsolete when it has outlived its purpose.
Q: You’ve talked very little about sex in your work. Why is that?
REX: I suppose it’s all about the penis. I was taught that art was suppose to „move you“ in some way or at least encourage you to think in new ways. Without „stimulating“ your thinking in some way art is no more than what it has become in our times – valium for the brain. Art doesn’t necessarily have to focus on sex, but art’s historic purpose has been to lead mankind into progressive ideas different from what has come before. It’s been my observation that nothing grabs people’s attention more than flashing a penis at them whether it be in two or three dimensions. In our age of information overload and short attention spans, art has a lot of competition when people can not focus beyond their cell-phone screen. So I find homoerotica an excellent antidote to the brain-dead art pawned off to a world increasingly trained to „not think“ about anything. To not question what passes for „reality“ these days. The imputus behind my work has been to challenge this contemporary myopia and present new perspectives on how we view male sexuality. It’s a two-dimensional „lie“ that make us see the „truth“ behind homosexuality. The penis in all its varied „states“ grabs your attention as little else does in life, if only for the fleeting moment of recognition and revulsion it takes to turn away from it. So the penis as „image“ really does have the potential to emotionally and physically fulfill the maxim that art should „move you“. In the case of pornography the artist is presented with the option to literally move his viewer with „physical“ results that few other art forms can match, bang for the buck.. The physical „stimulation“ of erotica seems to me a win-win situation for both the artist who gets creative satisfaction from creating it, and an audience that often gets delerious „satisfaction“ from viewing it. So I’ve had to ask myself, does the world really need more images of kittens rolling balls of yarn to get the most intellectual stimulation art has to offer? Or should I squander my limited talents on presenting viewers with the endlessl fascination and joys the penis bestows on man and woman alike. Humor aside, the penis and male sexuality lie at the core of our being as humans no matter how much Church and State may tell us otherwise. Perhaps my work is saying to Church and State that – look–the penis is here to stay! Get over it, you’ve got far more pressing issues to devote your failing misguided institutions to.