In 2011, a surprise appeared on the website of a fairly obscure gallery and boutique in Santa Fe, New Mexico of all places…some 15 pristine, large, original Eugene Bilbrew drawings and paintings from the late 1950s. They were as sharp as the day they were produced, and by one of the most unusual (most would say taboo) African-American artists of the 20th century. Several were original illustrations used as covers for the notorious Exotique publications, the extraordinary prescient fetish digest produced by Leonard Burtman for a brief period in the late 1950s. That they exist at all is an astounding story, as even the magazines are scarce today.
The paintings, and they ARE paintings, not the cartoonish demented line drawings the artist is best know for, are striking.
The late 1950s were conservative times, yet the works depicted women in black leather garb which revealed every muscle. In fact they revealed a considerable amount of anatomy which had hardly ever been seen at all. In several examples the women depicted were observing or participating in extreme bondage and sadistic activities. Burtman used the artist for his fetish magazines and digests, having apparently arranged to hire the artist from Irving Klaw, the "Pin-Up King" best known for posing fashion icon Bettie Page in bondage. At one time, the artist was even listed as "Art Director" on Burtman's publications. As such, he was one of the earliest examples of an African-American artist placed in an executive position in a publishing endeavor, though he hardly "uplifted" the race. That, and he hardly "directed" anything. He drew. Still, the artist remains virtually unknown today.
For Irving Klaw, Bilbrew drew a number of graphic cartoon serials depicting what have become noted examples of the "femdom" branch of sexual proclivities. The works are increasingly being appreciated as the forerunners of modern-day graphic novels, but at the time were only sold, undercover, to a small but particularly "devoted" group of aficionados. They have been reprinted, most notably in the "Bizarre Comix" series in 2002 by Belier Press.
Most of the work Bilbrew did for Leonard Burtman's line of smut was one-panel works, although he also churned out a few comic strip pieces for the magazines. Filler for the most part. He also created a few fairly traditional "gag" cartoons similar to Bill Ward and a hundred other illustrators working in the 1950s for the "Humorama" Timely Features line and other pin up men's cartoon publications. Most of Bilbrew's paintings were illustrations intended as covers, and later (as photographs became affordable and practical for smut covers) as pieces to run inside along bad fiction. Horribly bad fiction, some of it written by Lenny himself.
Nearly all original works the artist painted are long gone. Discarded in haste as censoring zealots descended, or simply tossed after being printed. The artist worked on commission and did not keep his own work. Despite having studied for a time at the forerunner of the School of Visual Arts in New York, his career never really emerged out of the sexual underground in which he worked. In which he may have even participated…but then very little is known about Mr. Bilbrew. What is known, or speculated rather, is that the artist for part of his brief life was a heroin user. There are those who say heroin, at least initially, allows one who draws the ability to concentrate on fine, detailed lines. At least initially.
Bilbrew was certainly not much of an archivist in any case.
Bilbrew's friend Eric Stanton worked in a similar vein, and even at the two "publishing houses" at the same time . He was a bit more responsible, and he continued to create exaggerated fetishistic drawings well into the 1990s. Stanton's contribution to the invention of no less prominent a superhero than Spiderman is increasingly being recognized, but his friend Bilbrew passed away in 1974.
How did these unusual works end up over 50 years later in a women's sex-friendly shop two thousand miles away?
The person who kept the drawings in such good condition for decades was kind enough to share his story, and a remarkable story it is. Mobsters, a night club performer, a millionaire pornographer and peep show operator, an early "swing and swap" club created long before the notorious "Plato's Retreat" and more...and all representing a percolating period of sexual expression and experimentation in New York City most could not even imagine.
EXCERPT FROM TIMES SQUARE SMUT (forthcoming) by Jim Linderman
Currently available BOOKS AND EBOOKS by the author are HERE