Inside an NYC Apartment with a Most Unusual Art Collection

Charles Leslie lives in a loft filled with so much phallic and homoerotic art, he and his late partner started the world's first LGBTQ museum. But it's their love story that caught our attention.

By: Leah Faye Cooper
Photography: Alec Kugler

When Charles Leslie met Fritz Lohman in 1962, it was a classic boy-meets-boy love story, with one small twist. The two were instantly attracted to each other, bonding over a shared love of great food, far-flung travels, and throwing parties. It was a much less predictable penchant, however, that ultimately solidified their relationship.

“One of our great bonds, apart from many others, was that we both had discreet collections of homoerotic art,” Leslie says. “So once that knowledge rang the bell, we spent a lot of our life looking for more.”

The two embraced a genre that was shunned from the art world at the time, transforming their Soho loft into a gallery where those who enjoyed and appreciated homoerotic art could view it sans ridicule or judgment. In 1969, when they first invited people over to see their collection, they expected around 50 guests; they ended up with 200. Thus the idea was sparked for the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art—the first LGBTQ art museum in the world, which Leslie and Lohman opened in 1987 on Wooster Street, not far from their home.

Lohman passed away in 2010, and today, 84-year-old Leslie resides in the apartment brimming with phallic art that he and his late partner collected over their 48 years together. “It’s amazing, the places we found it,” Leslie says of the collection, which includes a Warhol, a Haring, and a piece dating back to 300 BC. “You could find it anywhere if you looked—if you kept your eyes open.”

The most jaw-dropping aspect of Leslie’s 1,800-square-foot loft isn’t the fact that he and Lohman paid just $3,500 for it in 1966, or that the open space occupies an entire floor. Rather, it’s the incredible works inside, and the beautiful love story behind acquiring them. We were fortunate enough to get a tour, and we’ve thought about nothing else ever since.

Click through to see phallic door handles, a nineteenth-century dildo, and Leslie’s favorite piece of all time.

“I don’t hunt [for art] anymore because it comes to me. People go abroad and bring something back. Like this pair of Dutch delft penises. That’s something I never would have acquired on my own, but someone thought, ‘Oh, that would be a nice gift for Charles.’ They’re salt-and-pepper shakers.”

“I’m very fond of this [bronze sculpture]. This is by a wonderful sculptor—her name is Cassandra Smithies. It’s called Our Right to Love. It’s wonderfully rendered.”

“I love this man’s work. This is a Greek painter named Michail Tsakountis. He paints nothing but his boyfriends. He has a lot of paintings [laughs]. This one’s called Dimi.”

“This is the most ancient piece of all. This is 300 BC—it’s a Ptolemaic phallus. This was a household amulet—something you just kept around for good luck. Phalli were often in ancient times kept for luck or for protection.”

“That painting [above the couch] is of course my favorite piece because it’s Fritz and myself in 1972, when the great artist Marion Pinto painted it. We gave Marion one of her more important shows...called Man as a Sex Object. She was a lesbian feminist, and she did all of these beautiful pictures of naked men…the kind of objectivity to which women had always been subjected in art. It created a stir. She painted this in the same period.”

“That is a wonderful sculptor named Douglas Holtquist. [He] does major commissions for religious organizations. If they need a life-size saint sitting in their garden, he’s the go-to guy. But he also does this.”

“One of our early propositions was that if it can’t be seen in mainstream venues, then we’re interested in it.”

“This is from Australia. It’s a handle for a massive door. Isn’t that funny? [laughs].”

“I have everything from the sublime to the ridiculous.”

“The museum [which has 24,000 pieces] is always coming and stealing things for various shows, so [works are] constantly cycled in and out.”

“[The hats] were all Frtiz’s. I should give them away to people who might enjoy them, but I like to keep Fritz around.”

“[The photo on the top] is a Keith Haring.”

“[The sculpture on the right] is by a Japanese artist named Ryo Toyonaga, who does very strange things. It’s ceramic; a bit disturbing, I find [laughs]. [The piece on the left] is a hindu lingam. In Hinduism [some believe] the lingam is the penis of the lord Shiva. These are in public places, and people pay reverence to them when they pass them. They’re emblems of gods and goddesses.”

“This is a Tokugawa dildo. This is from Japan in the middle of the Nineteenth Century. [It’s] made of elephant ivory, brass and antelope horn, and it [is inscribed with a Japanese phrase], which means, [according to a researcher at the Metropolitan Museum of Art], 36 Views of Mount Fugiama. [They told me] it was a phrase used by [people] when they saw anything surpassing perfection. So whoever made this thought it was worthy of that term.”

“[This] clearly isn’t something that’s typically Moroccan. A Moroccan friend had it made in Morocco and brought it to me.”