Skirts Ahoy!

How the master of cheesecake art lifted a dress and uncovered an American madonna

As Van Gilder pointed out the painting's intricacies in rhapsodic detail, his wife Holly came into the room and took a seat in a low-slung chair. "We'll be out at a restaurant," she said, "and Ron'll see a girl and say, 'She has an Elvgren face.'"

"Not every girl has it," Van Gilder explained. "I mean, Liz Taylor is a beautiful woman, but she doesn't have it. That's why we have pinups. They're an epitome, an ideal, a woman up on a pedestal."

"Maybe when she was younger?" his wife offered. "Think of her in National Velvet."

©1999 Benedikt Taschen Verlag, Gil Elvgren: All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups
©1999 Benedikt Taschen Verlag, Gil Elvgren: All His Glamorous American Pin-Ups

"No, she doesn't have the right kind of face." Van Gilder caught up with his previous thought. "It's an epitome. It goes back thousands of years to the Greeks, this celebration of beauty throughout history. With photography, these pinups may be the last things done by the hand of man. People don't always see that."

"Think of where people with money in New York City buy their art," Van Gilder's wife continued. "Artists with those funny names. And someone has to explain to [the customers] what it's a picture of."

"It all has to do with prejudice. There's all kinds of prejudice."

"What's more snobby than art people?"

"That's it!" Van Gilder exclaimed. "I'm getting there. People think it isn't good art because it was on a poster originally--"

"And you could buy it for 60 cents," his wife added.

"They want to think they know so much about art. But painting a good pinup takes no less work than Degas sitting in some Tahitian hut and painting for the love of it. Do the--what?--justify the means?"

"Ends."

"Right," he said. "Do the ends justify the means?"

"But Elvgren hasn't been around as long as Degas or Rockwell," Van Gilder's wife countered.

Van Gilder was on a roll, though. "That's why the elitists who've put this stuff in the museums worry me. I'm not going to say, 'Let's put all this calendar art at the Met.' But if they did, if they used this common-man art, they'd be scared by how many people would show up. People don't want to be put down when they go to a museum. They don't want someone telling them they're not smart."

"You're starting to sound like Jesse Ventura," his wife said.

"I mean, I like all kinds of art."

"He doesn't like Flemish art."

Van Gilder shrugged. "I don't like depressing stuff."

"You don't like Byzantine art, either."

Sidestepping the provocation to begin a debate on the merits of Byzantine art relative to those of American pinups, Van Gilder continued: "I used to see Elvgren calendars in a local gas station. Now, they're photographic and hidden behind the counter so they don't offend women customers. Maybe now women can finally accept that other women can be beautiful."

"Don't go there," his wife muttered. Van Gilder fell silent.

"You probably picked his favorite subject in the whole world," she explained. "It's our big dream that someday we're going to walk into a garage sale or antique sale somewhere and find that missing Elvgren."

From across the room the "Well-Picked" girl smiled on, deathless and pert inside her frame.

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