Public Love

by Talmage Cooly and Andy Spade

Published by Chronicle Books

96 pages, 1999


Sex: Portraits of Passion

by John Williams

Published by Raincoast Books

400 pages, 1999





Compromising Positions

Reviewed by David Middleton


I picked up Public Love fully expecting to read sordid tales of lust and depravity taking place in garbage littered back alleys, in the soiled back seats of foul smelling cabs or in the shadows of unused, ill-lit doorways. For the most part I was right. And seeing as I like that sort of thing, I also expected to like Public Love. However, as I initially glanced through it I was disappointed with the lack of raunchy and revealing photos of shall we say "the main event." So what is it you do see? Grainy, arty, tastefully composed photographs of places?! How could this be? How could they rip me off this way? I wanted to see skin. I wanted to see sweaty bodies flung together in an orgy of wickedness in some sleazy, fetid bathroom stall of a greasy spoon diner, in blurry, over saturated, lurid color. I wanted to be able to smell the pheromones wafting off the page. After all, we are not talking about the private art of lovemaking and seduction. We are not even talking about a discreet sexual encounter where things can be neat and tidy and sweet smelling. We are talking about -- as the title so aptly puts it -- public love. Sex where everyone can see. Not behind closed doors, but out there among the billboards and the buses, the asphalt and the trash cans, the street lights and the nippy air.

After I got over my initial letdown and realized that I was not going to see glistening, entwined bodies in the great outdoors, I was more than pleasantly surprised. In fact, I had to admit to myself that I enjoyed it much more than I had wanted after I noticed that I had read all the way through this surprisingly tasteful and lovely little book in one sitting.

What drives people to do such brash things? What makes people put aside prudence and good judgment and throw caution to the wind? Public Love doesn't provide any philosophical answers but it does give an insight into the minds of the people telling these little tales. They are not to be seen as perverts, just people who, when the opportunity presented itself, said that there is no time like the present and "Hey buddy, look the other way will ya, we're busy here. We won't be long."

I dated this woman who always wanted to put me in a position where I was vulnerable. I guess you could say she had a power issue. She also had a particular talent for giving oral sex. It was her mouth, it was her hands, it was the noises she would make. She had an aptitude. She would attack me in cabs, restaurant bathrooms, elevators. But her most brazen act was at about 1:30 in the morning when we were walking across 55th Street to my apartment. The street was fairly clear because it was late, and there weren't many people walking around. She stopped me in the middle of the street, pulled my zipper down, and started to apply herself. I was standing there not knowing what to think, but also being quite amazed that I was in the middle of this act in the middle of 55th Street in the middle of New York City. There was a certain intoxication to it. I could see down 55th Street, I could see the cars beginning to line up on the other side of Broadway at the red light. I knew we didn't have much time and I said to her, "The cars are coming." She didn't stop. In fact, her grip on me actually tightened. I was completely overwhelmed by what she was doing, but I was also aware of what was about to happen. Down the street I could see the "Don't Walk" sign change to "Walk," and I knew that the light on the other side had turned to green. When the light goes green in New York it's like a drag race starting. I could see the cars lunging towards us. She was watching them, too. I said, "I think it's time to go," but she still wouldn't stop. The cars were rushing towards us and one of them was blinking its high beams at us. When they were probably no more than thirty feet away she finally stood up next to me, kissed me hard on the lips, and pulled me to the side of the street just as the cars flew by with their horns blasting. HENRY

Public Love is full of 44 such stories -- one to a page with an accompanying interesting and tasteful photo -- told in single person narrative by a person with only a first name (no doubt to protect the guilty), about their public sexual encounters. Sometimes erotic, often ribald and funny, these little vignettes into people's public forums struck me as rather touching. Instead of getting a no holds barred view of a civic grappling match, we are treated to a frank insight into something a lot of us have thought about, few of us have had the guts or opportunity to enact and one or two or us have been present for, either participating or surreptitiously watching out of the corner of an eye. The subject is not treated as one might expect -- with a nudge and a wink at the reader, or a "looky here at this" -- nor is it treated reverently as if "doing it" in public were some sacred rite of passage. It is straightforward without being rude or exploitive and just may touch on a memory or a regret in more than a few of us.

On the other hand, perhaps a nice evening indoors with a close friend and a good book. And how about one with a nice straightforward title. Like Sex. Sorta gets everyone's attention, doesn't it? Pretty self-explanatory. Not too much guesswork as to what this book is about.

Sex as a subject for art has fascinated the human animal almost as long as sex itself. Poets, sculptors, painters and musicians have been going on about it since before recorded history. It's a subject that we feel close to and one that has probably caused more controversy than both religion and politics combined. Yet despite the controversy, despite the often questionable agitation over sonnets, paintings, songs and statues, art created in the name of sex has been and will continue to be pumped out. For a subject that concerns absolutely every inhabitant of planet earth -- where would you be, after all, if your parents had decided instead to get a puppy? -- some of us sure get uptight about the mere mention of it. I mean it's only sex, right? What's all the fuss about?

The wealth of art created in the name of love, passion and lust is immense. Art about sex has been around as long as -- though I'd hazard a guess and say a wee bit longer than -- religious art and before any sort of non-secular world existed to put the kibosh on our wholesome fun -- making us paint gods that look like Charlton Heston or writing about the glory of losing a limb during wartime -- there was, without a doubt, sex and those to whom it was a sacred and worthwhile subject. And it follows that if you are going to depict a subject that makes you happy, sad, outraged, frustrated, confused or just outright horny, then you might as well draw on what you know. And sex is an obvious place to start.

Sex: Portraits of Passion is a veritable art history lesson with the act of love in all its variable forms up front and center stage. From the masters to artists you may have never heard of, from photography to sculpture, 14th century illuminated manuscripts to modern paintings, poems and quotes, a wealth of styles, materials and individuality of expression are well represented here.

The book is logically laid out in chapters that mirror the act of love itself. Starting with "At first Sight" and ending with "The Afterglow" Sex takes us through eight acts in our intimate play, each section illustrating the various stages of a sexual encounter and each illustration accompanied by a short description of the artwork its history or an anecdote about the piece. Author John Williams sums it up best:

Sex is to be found in the art of all societies. It is ubiquitous and eternal.

Nothing gives us a better insight into a society than the way in which the urges of sex and progress of love are treated as art.

In more liberal times, sex is fun -- not always frivolous, but not "serious" either: it is nothing to get pious about. Sex is light hearted, sometimes comical, a break from cares; a delight. Nothing could seem less mechanistic than this tender, bawdy, reckless period of time between the sheets. The private laughter of lovers stems from the undeniable fun of it all.

Looking through Sex reminded me of the art history classes I used to attend in art school. All the important pieces were there: the Picassos, the Rembrandts, the cave paintings and of course the various impressive ancient works -- their beauty still shining through the wear and patina time has impressed. But in those classes something really significant was missing and I think it has been found in this book. Like that art history class, the important ones are here and more besides. For example, we were never taught that in the uncovered ruins of Pompeii there existed erotic murals painted around the 1st century and our teacher certainly didn't show us any of the ancient Japanese woodblock prints featuring couples engaged in extremely explicit sexual acts. I think Sex would make an excellent addendum to those classes. For the benefit of any art history teachers that might be lurking out there, I'd also like to add that if some of the images in Sex were shown in those classes, I might not have dozed off so much.

Sex is beautifully produced and though it is diminutive in size -- about half that of a standard hardcover -- I would definitely put it in the category of coffee table book or even better: night table book. Sex helps us to understand that sex in all its wondrous forms should be celebrated. After all, none of us would be here without it. | February 2000


David Middleton is the art director of January Magazine.