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New York native Robert Lesser donates $9 million Pulp Art Collection to New Britain Museum of American Art
Alexander Leydenfrost (1888–1961), U.S. Blimp Sinks Nazi Sub, Esquire, November 1943, Oil on canvas, New Britain Museum of American Art.

NEW BRITAIN, CT.- On Tuesday, April 30, 2013, New York native and Pulp Art expert Robert Lesser signed the deed of the gift that officially transferred ownership of the largest and finest collection of Pulp Art paintings in this country to the New Britain Museum of American Art. Numbering nearly 200 works and valued at $9 million, Lesser’s donation is accompanied by a fund of $1.3 million for maintenance, conservation, and future publications. A lifelong and passionate collector, Lesser recognized the cultural and artistic value of this all-American art form at a time when many deemed it as salacious trash fit to be destroyed rather than a legitimate genre.

About the Robert Lesser Pulp Art Collection: Born in the 1930s, the height of pulp novels’ and magazines’ popularity, Robert Lesser was no stranger to the genre from a very young age. Lesser’s own father was an avid reader of one of the first pulp magazines, Argosy. The Depression era sparked immense interest in pulp fiction, as it provided an inexpensive form of entertainment and escape for an economically deprived generation. Western, romance, adventure, war, crime, and science-fiction stories were brought to life by daring, sometimes politically-incorrect and often racy illustrations. Through dramatic perspective, compressed composition, and vibrant, contrasting color, artists skillfully made the action “pop,” distracting buyers from the poor paper quality. Consumed by the masses, (they sold by the millions for 10 to 25 cents a piece), pulps launched the careers of authors such as Agatha Christie, Isaac Asimov, Mark Twain, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ray Bradbury, and classically trained artists-turned-illustrators Margaret Brundage, Norman Saunders, and N.C. Wyeth.

In spite of the pulp’s commercial success in the first half of the 20th century, the market for the original, painted illustrations was non-existent. These artworks were intended for one-time use and were then invariably thrown away to avoid the cost of storing. Artists had little interest in reclaiming them, as their raunchy depictions of sex and violence were seen as hopelessly removed from the tastes and demands of the art world. Robert Lesser estimates that of the 50,000 original pulp illustrations works ever created, only 1,000 or so have survived to today.

In the 1970s, Robert Lesser became among the first to collect what few remaining examples he could discover at auction, in art galleries and private hands. Thus, the Robert Lesser Collection of Pulp Art is a culmination of years of study and acquisitions, resulting in the finest collection of pulp art in existence in this country today. He has seen to their restoration, framing, and complete documentation, uniting the original texts with the illustrations produced for them.

The four major genres represented in the Robert Lesser Pulp Art Collection are science fiction, WWI and WWII stories, action and adventure (such as “Doc Savage”), and mystery (such as “The Shadow”). Several examples of Tarzan, a phenomenon that celebrated its centennial last year, are also included. The source of the visual language of today’s popular cinema, comic books, and multi-million copy video games, pulp illustrations have only recently enjoyed a rebirth of interest demonstrated by the surge in new publications, nostalgia events, collectors and reproductions of original pulps by a growing number of new publishers. Over the last ten years, exhibitions at the Brooklyn Museum (2003) and the NBMAA (2007) have continued to increase the visibility of pulp art. The NBMAA is currently working with Steve Brezzo, former director of the San Diego Museum of Art and founder of Opar Inc., to organize a traveling exhibition of highlights from the Robert Lesser Pulp Art Collection. Concurrently, Director Douglas Hyland “would love to expand the museum to have a gallery where Bob's collection could be rotated 25 paintings at a time, and then switch them out and switch them out again.”

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