The Art of Playboy from Weegee to Miss March

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By Nicole Torres

If you used to hide issues of Playboy under your bed (or sneak peeks at your dad’s stash), the secret’s out—and it’s on display. Tomorrow, those centerfolds of your teenage years (and perhaps beyond) will be featured in a new exhibition, called “The Playboy Commission,” at the New York gallery/shop Partners & Spade. On view through the end of the month—and timed to celebrate with the launch of iPlayboy, an iPad app that collects the magazine’s complete archives—the show presents highlights from the magazine’s 57-year history in sumptuous, large-scale prints.

Playboy's June 1957 Cover.

Playboy's June 1957 Cover. Selected by Waris Ahluwalia- “Just a simple reminder that it’s a gentleman’s magazine.”

The selections, which range from avant-garde illustrations to fleshy pinups, were made by the so-called Playboy Commission, a panel of artists and tastemakers that includes Ryan McGinness, Waris Ahluwalia, Aaron Rose, Vena Cava’s Lisa Mayock and Sophie Buhai, and Simon Doonan. (Besides Mayock and Buhai, there is one other female commissioner. So far, the magazine “simply had more feedback from the men,” says Krista Freibaum, a press representative for Playboy.) Partners & Spade’s owners, Andy Spade and Anthony Sperduti, are charter members. Sperduti says Playboy was a natural fit for the store, which sells funky ephemera like Argentinian stamp sets, vintage skis, and rolling salt and pepper shakers. It’s a true American institution,” he says, “both culturally, art directionally, and journalistically. We love the fact that Playboy is truly part of our country’s collective nostalgia, and it’s rare to have something that EVERY American guy has some emotional connection with.”

Unlike the other commissioners, Partners & Spade chose only centerfolds. “We felt that the idea of the ‘centerfold’ visually represents Playboy, and the level of the photography of each centerfold was really surprising,” Sperduti says. “But YES, it was strictly about naked women!”

Playboy's Miss March 1981

Playboy's Miss March 1981 (pgs 128-130). Selected by Partners & Spade. "That one is stellar. In one frame with a few props and the perfect playboy mate, a whole decade is celebrated… through the cycle of being cool, uncool, and back to being pretty amazing," said Anthony Sperduti.

The commissioners serve two functions for Playboy: They help readers find their way through the nearly 700 issues of the magazine that have been published since its launch in 1953, and, of course, they lend it their cultural capital. “The commission exists as a way to help readers navigate a massive amount of content in a way that is more curated in nature and allows them to discover Playboy through the eyes of people that they admire or who inspire them,” says Jimmy Jellineck, the editorial director of Playboy, who conceived of the project.

"Nudes by Weegee" from May 1954 Playboy.

"Nudes by Weegee" from May 1954 Playboy. Selected by Aaron Rose- "One of the first things I selected was a single page photo editorial by famed crime scene photographer Weegee… The photographs are amazing, but what's even more interesting to me is that fact that he shot the images in Hollywood. Weegee's photographs have always been synonymous with the gritty and grimy streets of New York. I find it really amazing that when he traveled to the glamour capitol of the world he chose to make comment on the obsession with superficiality that is inherent in the Hollywood system. In some ways these mages do reference crime photos. However rather than the blatant reality that his New York photos show, in these photographs, he instead shows the disgusting side of an industry's obsession with beauty. The fact that the models are nude only drives this point home. I feel that these images really speak to the breadth of Weegee's talent."

Rose, for one, didn’t need much convincing. “Doing something for Playboy is like every dude’s dream!” he says. “How could I refuse?” Reversing his adolescent relationship with the magazine (“To be completely honest, I wasn’t so much into “reading” the magazine at that point.”), he mainly selected articles rather than centerfolds.

“Those images are sexy, emotional even at times, but still I felt it would be more interesting to both myself and the public to choose things that one would never expect to see in Playboy,” he says. “From the very start, there was some very off-kilter editorial going on, and I thought it would be nice to celebrate that. Magazines today have become so cliché; there was a wildness and freedom going on at Playboy that went far beyond sex.”

But that’s not to say that Rose has sworn off the more salacious bits. “I have a whole folder on my desktop that’s just filled with sexy women from those issues! But those are for my personal use!!”

"The Playmate as Fine Art" from January 1967 Playboy

"The Playmate as Fine Art" from January 1967 Playboy (pgs 141-149). Selected by Ryan McGinness- "Playboy devoted nine pages to contemporary art by Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, Larry Rivers, Ellen Lanyon, Roy Schnackenberg, Ben Johnson, George Segal, Tom Wesselman, James Rosenquist, Alfred Leslie, and Frank Gallo. I like this, because it creates some ambiguity about which party benefitted more: the artists or Playboy. On the one hand, it allowed artists likely unknown to the majority of Playboy’s readers to use the magazine as a gateway to a broader audience. On the other hand, the project is an intriguing attempt by Playboy to legitimize the presentation of photos of nude women by recontextualizing them using the work of fine artists. Regardless, this is something I would have wanted to be involved in."

"The Lass Maenagerie" from December 1965 (pgs 115-119). Selected by Vena Cava- "There are some real weird
nude spreads in this era- and this is one of my favorites- specifically the image on page 119 of the naked 'giraffe.' Its like a pornographic children's book."

All images courtesy of Playboy.