Don’t Touch Anything: Diesel’s Creative Director Glenn Martens Paid a Visit to a Buzzy Queer Art Show in New York, and We Tagged Along
The Belgian denim visionary got his Pride on and took in the sizzling Tom of Finland Foundation exhibition.
Don’t Touch Anything is a column where William Van Meter takes a fabulous person to a noteworthy exhibition.
Last month, New York was awash in Pride activations. ATMs were festooned with rainbows and energy drink companies jockeyed for most chillaxing rooftop DJ soiree. The emphasis was more on being brand safe and catering to allies’ comfort level rather than speaking to the queer community. Meanwhile, Diesel sponsored a five-day erotic art extravaganza with more phalli than Pompeii.
The Italian designer denim brand teamed up with the Paris-based art nonprofit The Community and the Tom of Finland Foundation to present AllTogether Clubhouse. The temporary space hosted an exhibition culled from the foundation’s extensive LGBTQ+ art archives that shaped a very New York narrative in art and ephemera, as well as talks, performances, and parties galore. Basically they made an avant hangout, harking back to when Greenwich Village was a major queer neighborhood.
“It’s important to be together,” said Diesel’s creative director Glenn Martens, who flew in from Paris for the raucous vernissage. “It’s about community.” He then closed out the afterparty, a throwdown at the Queens club Nowadays, with a killer DJ lineup.
“My brain is a bit soft,” he said, but was all smiles despite the lack of sleep. “I was like, airport, cocktail, drinking, drinking, drinking, and then I came here.” Diesel’s Pride collection is derived from the exhibition artworks, as well.
Martens was standing near a vitrine of vintage periodicals like Straight to Hell, Leather!, Butch, and a portfolio for a long-gone West Village queer gallery called Stompers. Martens was wearing baggy, silky pants printed to look like jeans and an oversized plaid shirt of his own design. His Diesel aesthetic, which can fabulously veer from post-apocalyptic dystopian to 2001 north Florida raver, is taking over nightclubs across the globe. But it’s not just an underground resurgence.
Martens is responsible for Diesel’s return to the higher echelons of fashion, but he doesn’t shy away from hyper-sexual messaging like that in the exhibition we’re touring. The Fall 2023 show used a backdrop of 200,000 condom boxes, while guests to his Spring 2023 show received glass butt plugs as invitations.
“Diesel has always been a sexy brand—you know, ‘For Successful Living,’” Martens said, referring to the brand’s tag line. “What’s more successful than being sex positive? I just really pushed a bit of fuel in there to explore a bit more. But I mean, the most important thing that it’s really about is having fun. Don’t give a shit. Enjoy your life. Uh, nail everybody. Of course, being sex positive is connected to that also.”
Sex is a component of Martens’s oeuvre, but the branding bombast (and his charming nonchalance) can’t overshadow the design expertise that is at the heart of his accomplishments. Instead of viewing Diesel’s foundation of denim as a constraint, he sees it as a universe, delivering collection after collection of deftly clever (and often outrageous) items that defy the limitations of what jeans could and should be.
We walked up to a stitched depiction of a suburban orgy by artist Sal Salandra. It’s a cozy scene in front of the living room fireplace as comic book crimefighters get hot and heavy with their more conventional costumed counterparts (leather men, cowboys). “Don’t call it needlepoint!” Martens cautioned. “He likes to call it thread-painting. I met him yesterday, he’s a really fun big 77-year-old bear. He’s going to give a one-hour seminar here tomorrow.”
Martens was speaking in front of Jonathan Weinberg’s 1987 oil painting of a sex club dalliance at the height of the AIDS epidemic—a sign reading “Anal Oral Prohib” looms in the foreground.
We went upstairs and there was a vintage poster for St. Marks Baths (ca. 1980) by noted science-fiction painter Boris Vallejo. It depicts a muscled barbarian astride a horned dinosaur. Fantasy elements aside, the dystopia would prove prophetic; by 1985, all gay bath houses in Manhattan were shuttered. Bath houses remain commonplace in Europe, however Martens, who splits his time between Paris and Milan, doesn’t indulge in them.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been to a sauna,” Martens said. “Everybody knows me, so I’m not really trying to say, ‘Hi, how are you?’ and be in my full frontal around people I work with or something. But, I think it’s super fun! What I like about it is being free. Try as many things as you can and everyone respecting each other. It’s fun to do all these things. I like the free spirit of a sauna of only naked people. It’s very interesting.”
On the wall of AllTogether Clubhouse were various Tom of Finland drawings depicting a racy barroom, bathroom, and outdoor tableaux. “He was the very first super famous sex-positive artist, really the original legend,” Martens said. “And he draws hot and sexy guys. You want to meet every single person he’s drawn.” As we were talking, Durk Dehner, co-founder of Tom of Finland Foundation, came up and greeted Martens. Dehner was a close collaborator and romantic partner with the artist (who died in 1991) for over a decade and helped organized the exhibition. There is also a 1976 Bruce Weber photograph of Dehner on the ground floor of the space.
One could argue the gay male aesthetic is moving further and further from the macho paradigm espoused by Tom of Finland, but the artist’s stature only seems to grow. “They go beyond the exterior,” Dehner said of the new generation of fans. “They see what the art represents. And that was his intention. What his work represents is freedom and love.”
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