Illustrator Robert Richards Has Witnessed the Slow Digital Demise of Gay Erotica and It Isn't Pretty
At the age of 74, illustrator Robert W. Richards has been drawing for almost sixty years. He got his start making fashion drawings, back when catwalk looks were still drawn by hand. When that became tiresome, his racy figures of men began to grace the pages of all the major fag rags in the U.S. These days, he’s enjoying rockstar-status commissions, like developing characters for Grand Theft Auto, and running around town organizing gallery shows of his own and other artist’s works from the golden age of gay magazines. I meet up with him in New York City where he works from his cozy home studio.
Danny: Oh dear, we’re surrounded by stacks of drawings!
Robert: And music, and artwork…
Yeah, I see your shelf of CDs.
They’re only the beginning.
Are you a very dedicated listener?
Yeah, I have been all my life. I actually think I was more inspired by music than visuals. It was the first artistic thing that interested me. When I really discovered what I thought was art — and I still do — it was music.
You’ve been drawing since you were a kid, no?
Oh yeah… I have never made one dime doing anything else. I have never done any of the things that people do, that normal people do. I’ve never been a waiter or a clerk or any of those things. I started drawing professionally when I was about sixteen, and I’m still doing it.
And did you grow up here in New York?
Oh no, I lived in Maine. Oh god! Don’t send my back there… It was not happy circumstances. I lived in an all immigrant factory town. I didn’t really speak English until I was about seven. Many French Canadians and French people migrated to New England during the late twenties and thirties to work in the textile mills.
So your parents were French?
Yes, French father and French Canadian mother… These little towns were ghettos. We went to school in French, we went to church in French — I didn’t last very long in church. My goal from the beginning was to get the fuck out of there! And I did. I graduated high school very young, and despite my family having no money, I managed to weasel myself into art school at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. But I was not interested in drawing classically, at all. The curriculum was very rigid, very disciplined. We’d arrive at nine in the morning and there’d be a big plaster cast foot, and you’d draw it until noon.
Yes, but with plaster. Some days you’d have real models.
So how did you make a living back then?
I began scouting around Newbury Street in Boston, which is kind of comparable to Madison Avenue, but much smaller. That’s where all the good shops were. I just started doing little fashion drawings and taking them to these shops, and I started getting work. Like all headstrong children, I immediately quit school, and one thing led to another to another.
So you drew looks in an era before style.com.
I drew looks from the runway until the late seventies, but then I decided I had enough of it — a grown man should only draw so many dresses. Plus, fashion people are a real tribe. Most of the fashion editors that you work with are very plain kind of women who would never, ever, ever wear any of the clothes that they write about. It just all seemed ridiculous to me after a while. Plus, I also got tired of the traveling. Toward the end of it, I was covering couture and ready-to-wear in Paris, Milan and New York two times a year. I was never here, here being New York. New York is my love.
When did you move to New York?
In the sixties…
Was it quite happening back then?
Even more so in the seventies. You mean sexually and all that?
Well, like when gay rights were coming into the picture with the rise of counterculture…
Yeah, and I was already part of all that. I have never been a gay with gay problems.
What do you mean by that?
Well, I never any of that coming out business. I never had those problems with my family. I felt like if they couldn’t figure it out, they didn’t deserve to know. I was just straightforward, out-and-out gay — no different than I am now. I was never any swishier than I am now. I was never involved in drag or all of that stuff. I just was a gay guy. The sixties were very easy for me.
So you weren’t down at Stonewall smashing shit up?
I wasn’t there that night, but I certainly was involved in all the gay groups. In the eighties, we all had to be involved because a lot of people needed help. I raised money for the GMHC and that sort of stuff.
Are you single?
Yes, and at this stage in my life, I intend to stay single. Well, that’s a ridiculous thing to say… You never know. I am becoming more and more reclusive. I go out, but I’m cutting it way back. I won’t go to parties with loud music, I won’t go to noisy restaurants — if I open a restaurant door and there’s a bar in front, it’s over. I do my museums and art galleries. I’m a solitary person, even when I was involved — and I have had two or three serious relationships. One lasted twenty years. I was twenty-two, he was forty. He was extremely helpful when I first came to New York. He was very nice, very handsome. It was the age of monogamy, and the age when you were an inferior fag if you didn’t have a man…
Oh really? Well, those days are still around for some.
I’m not saying I disapprove of that. He was the perfect man, but over the years, it all changed and I became the strong one. I had the great, great love of my life in my fifties.
Who was that?
He was a boy named Bill. He was a staggering beauty, and he was as nice as he was good looking. We had a fun time together, it was wonderful. Then suddenly he started to say, you know, ‘I don’t feel right’, and he died about four years into our relationship. I remember one Sunday evening I sat right here and took sixty people out of my Rolodex. There was a moment when you’d open the Times, and every day there’d be two or three people that you knew.
Do you ever consider retiring?
Why would I? I’ll never retire until something happens which forces me to retire. As far as I’m concerned, they can throw some pencils in the casket and I’ll keep right on rolling.
As your generation is heading into older age…
— And death! Well, seriously, you know.
Is there something like a gay retirement home in New York?
I hope so! I’m sure that there are some that tend to attract more gays than others, so they become automatically kind of gay.
It’s going to be a big thing, gay retirement homes.
It makes perfect sense. I don’t believe in total assimilation. I mean, gay is gay. Don’t ask me to define that, but you know what I mean.
When did you start to draw for the fag rags?
After I finished my last fashion job, I went with a notebook and a pen to a newsstand that had all the gay magazines, and I wrote down the names of all the publishing houses.
Which ones did you work with over the years?
Oh Blueboy, Mandate, Honcho, Playguy… And strangely, I was very well received, and I kept working with them until they died.
When was that?
The late eighties… As soon as VHS, the videotape, came around.
You mean like porn videos?
Yeah, it’s the same with fashion illustration. Fashion illustration died with the advent of the digital camera because suddenly anybody could stand at the end of a runway and take decent pictures. But I had already left by that time. I knew that when the big supermodels came in — you know, Cindy Crawford, Naomi, Linda Evangelista — the people were really interested in them. They didn’t want what we did anymore, they wanted these girls.
That was later. I wish the supermodels would regain their power, ’cause I can’t stand these so-called celebrities.
I always liked that drawings could be more explicit than photos, more hardcore or even transgressive because they’re not real. How far could you go back then?
The magazines had very strict rules.
Uh, no penetration — oral or anal — no touching of genitalia… I called it ‘the moment before’ era of drawing. It was the moment before you fucked, or the minute before he blew you. For many, many, many men, if you didn’t live in the big metropolitan areas, these magazines were your Saturday night date, you know. You went to a movie or something, and on your way home, you picked up a magazine.
Do you draw every day?
There are days when I have to do all those other things you have to do before you start working. My happy days are the days I’m here, and the phone isn’t ringing.
Here being your desk.
And the front door. Sometimes I draw standing up, so I’ll tape the drawing to the front door.
Are there a certain set of tools you use?
Yeah, I like Prismacolor pencils, which are basically a wax. And then I like the usual 2H, 2B, 6B, 5B… Charcoal, I don’t like. It’s too messy for me. I really sound like a school teacher from Cincinnati when I say that, but I’m fetishistic about clean drawings.
Do you tend to draw from a source photo or from your own imagination?
Well, I prefer to draw live. But if I have to draw Clint Eastwood, he’s not coming over. I think my style of illustration implies that I’m drawing something that exists.
Do you ever draw from pornography?
I did a lot with Joe Gage. I used to draw on porn sets, in my quiet corner.
Well, that’s not how it goes in a Joe Gage film. In a Joe Gage film, even the camera man is getting blown.
Oh, you mean ‘Closed Set’… When I was doing it, the films were quite heavily storied. I used to draw and keep a journal. Joe was a master. Now he kind of grinds them out.
The use of film and the atypical types of men he cast back then gave those films a very masculine quality.
They were stars. There can never be porn stars again because with digital video, they make thirty-two films in six months, and nobody cares about them. Whereas the Al Parkers and the Casey Donovans — the great stars of the genre — made one or two films a year. Films like ‘Boys in the Sand’ would open to great fanfare.
Some of your drawings seem to emerge from a leather subculture. Are you into leather as a fetish?
No, not at all. As a matter of fact, I’m known around town for being dressed up.
More of a dandy than a leather queen…
No, I’m definitely not a leather queen, and I’m not really a bar person.
What about the car and driver motifs that pop up in your drawings? Do you find cars sexy?
Depending on the driver… Several of the drawings I did for Grand Theft Auto were guys with cars.
What’s your take on the massive beard trend?
I had always done the five o’clock shadow, the stubble. Why this surge of beards? There are very few things left that men can do that women cannot do. One is fill a jockstrap, and two is grow facial hair.
Some women would disagree.
You mean transexuals? Well, if that’s what you want… It’s no different than having a boob job or a nose job. Do it! No, I’m talking about the man in the street. It belongs to them, it’s manly. I bet the razor blade companies are just going nuts. Here in this neighborhood, which is NYU, it’s staggering. You seldom see a clean shaven boy.
At what point did condoms start to find their way into your work?
I always liked the idea of condoms, even before they were about safe sex. When I was a kid, if I saw a condom on the street, I would get so horny. I like the idea that somebody’s penis had been in it. I once found condoms in my father’s closet. Now they’re packaged in foil and have become very sanitary, but at that time they came in a little box. They were rolled and they had a little band, like a cigar. I remember unrolling one, and then trying to get it back into the exact same shape that it was in. In Boston, on Sunday mornings, I used to get the papers. I had to go across the Fenway, which is a park there, and it would be littered with condoms. It made my imagination run wild.
The condom is a very male thing, isn’t it?
It’s on your cock. What could be more male?
‘Stroke: From Under the Mattress to the Museum Walls’, an exhibition of drawings from the heyday of gay magazines curated by Robert W. Richards, opens at the Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art next Friday, 28 March, and runs through 25 May 2014. For more info check out the museum’s website.