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The Drawer Vince Aletti
Courtesy Vince Aletti

Inside this curator’s sprawling collection of erotic print

Vince Aletti’s new book, The Drawer, is a visual diary that studies the variety and complexity of desire, memory, and collective histories

Art critic and curator Vince Aletti may just be one of the most prolific collectors of print ephemera to have ever lived. What began in boyhood as a seemingly innocent habit of tearing pages from physique magazines to keep under his mattress has matured into an insatiable appetite for provocative print. 

“Completely unaware of what it said about me, I subscribed to House & Garden when I was in middle school,” says Aletti. “I was both pretentious and clueless and like so many queer kids, I spent most of my free time in my bedroom reading. Paperbacks were the first printed matter I collected. Later, it was anything related to Andy Warhol: film flyers, gallery posters, ads torn from art magazines.”

Now in his seventies, Aletti’s abiding compulsion to collect has him cohabiting with hundreds of thousands of pieces of original visual culture that climb the walls of his East Village apartment in New York. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. “A magazine has presence,” says Aletti. “If it’s well designed, its contents have a flow and logic. Most if not all of this is lost online, even if a magazine is reproduced page by page on screen. Vintage magazines, like old books, have a scent I’d like to bottle.”

Offering a rare glimpse into this personal archive, Aletti’s latest book The Drawer focuses solely on the contents of a single drawer in an antique flat file, stacked with over 40 years worth of clippings, covers, plate sections and other pages torn from books and magazines.

Some of his vast inventory is categorised into magazine or theme. Stacks devoted to American Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar organised by year obscure one wall of the room, while patchworks of shorn prints, fashion editorials and ad pages are afforded their own drawers in the cabinet. However, the one in question was rather more varied. “The drawer we photographed is more random and unpredictable, a catchall,” Aletti tells Dazed.

Polymathic in style, the 75 multi-layered compositions comprising The Drawer handsomely convene in a scrapbook-cum-autobiography that exists at the intersection of photography, commerce, and design. Erotic male bodybuilders sidle up against Peter Hujar portraits; Roy Lichtenstein comics with photobooth strips; Antonioni film stills with the bulging muscles of sports personalities. 

For Vince, all forms of photography share an ability to attune to our collective histories. “It’s hard for me to separate these things,” he says. “Maybe because in the end, it’s all personal and evocative... I ‘follow’ and admire a number of photographers and artists; not all of them ended up in The Drawer but those that did tend to crop up more than once: Avedon, Warhol, Hujar, Godard, Sontag, Tillmans, Basquiat, Tom of Finland. Each one embodies a cultural moment and suggests several more.”

In a deck of otherwise unlikely images, there is a very specific, and as Aletti declares himself, “glaringly obvious” fascination which welds everything together. “MEN,” affirms the collector. “I’m never not looking at and thinking about men and the varieties of masculinity, from Rock Hudson to Drake.” The Drawer reads like an astounding catalogue of male beauty. One in which presentations of masculinity are experienced through a homosocial gaze.

“MEN... I’m never not looking at and thinking about men and the varieties of masculinity, from Rock Hudson to Drake” – Vince Aletti

Shorn from context, basketball players and baby-faced models are afforded an anonymity that surfaces as voyeuristic playfulness. Though Aletti reminds us that everything is open to interpretation. “From the beginning, I wanted to keep The Drawer simple: a picture book without text, captions, or explanations of any sort,” shares Aletti. “All the relationships were spontaneous and ephemeral; none were preserved. I never thought of narrative and if any surfaced, it was quickly covered up by new material.” 

Aletti’s sleek interventions may throw up some familiar imagery, but he wants us to leave our predilections behind. He concludes, “I like walking through exhibitions without a checklist and just looking at the work. I want The Drawer to be a similar experience. Not a guessing game, but a kind of letting go: an immersion.”

For a closer look at some of the compositions from The Drawer take a look through the gallery above. 

The Drawer is available to purchase here.

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