Groundbreaking fetish artist Rex dies

  • by Cynthia Laird, News Editor
  • Wednesday April 10, 2024
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In a rare instance, Rex was photographed in 1984. Photo: Jack Fritscher
In a rare instance, Rex was photographed in 1984. Photo: Jack Fritscher

Groundbreaking artist Rex, whose illustrations portrayed the pre-AIDS SM and fetish communities of San Francisco and New York City in the 1970s and 1980s, has died.

Rex, who only used one name, died in late March in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, according to a statement from the San Francisco-based Bob Mizer Foundation.

Using old emails from Rex, gay Bay Area resident Jack Fritscher, editor in chief of 1970s Drummer magazine, worked with Rex for many years, deduced that Rex was 81. It's believed Rex was born February 5, 1943, based on calculations Fritscher made this week and shared with the Bay Area Reporter.

Fritscher noted that on September 9, 2021, Rex wrote in an email to The Magazine store co-owner Bob Mainardi, who himself would pass away that December: "I had a Covid test and it was negative; basically just old age kicking in at 78."

Further emails between Rex and Trent Dunphy, who was Mainardi's husband, provided information about the month and day of Rex's birthday, Fritscher stated.

Asked if Rex was a gay man, Fritscher stated that Rex identified as a leatherman "but he was a contrarian always and defied escalating labels."

"Rex is to drawing in San Francisco and beyond what [Robert] Mapplethorpe was to photography in New York and beyond. Iconic, equal, and for the ages," Fritscher wrote in an email to the B.A.R., referring to the late bi photographer who died of AIDS-related complications in 1989.

Dunphy, the historian at the Mizer foundation, who, with his late husband Mainardi owned and operated The Magazine for more than 50 years, stated that he and Mainardi met Rex when the artist came into their periodical and ephemera store in 1980, at the height of his career. Rex, Dunphy recalled, sought merchants who would be willing to sell his works.

"He was a great talker," Dunphy stated. "One of my customers and I were talking and he liked Rex's illustrations. He was 100% straight and said to me, 'You know, I have his drawings and he's really disturbing. Why does he do that?' I loved that and I told it to Rex, who responded, 'That's the point!'"

Rex was mum on his private life and did not like to have his photograph taken, Dunphy added.

A drawing by Rex. Image: Courtesy Bob Mizer Foundation  

"Benedikt Taschen (founder of publishing house Taschen) was visiting us one day and he held up his camera to take a picture of Rex, and Rex immediately put his hands up, and ruined Benedikt's snapshot," Dunphy explained. "He was a little pissed and he was adamant about that. He was very opinionated, and he was not shy about expressing it."

Fritscher was able to take a photo of Rex in 1984. But he also agreed that the artist disliked being the subject of photographs.

"When I began writing about Rex in magazines like Drummer in 1978, editors always wanted a photo of the artist, who was famously camera-shy. I told them Rex said, 'My drawings define who I am.' So, in 1984, when Rex mentioned over lunch that he was having trouble drawing a tiny detail, he asked to shoot a Polaroid reference photo of my left wrist coming out the sleeve of my leather jacket. I said, 'Sure, if you let me shoot you.' He agreed. I aimed my camera. He was a trickster. He dodged, covering his face with his Polaroid camera, but I kept clicking and got the pictures editors wanted to document him historically."

For many years, Rex lived and kept a studio in The Magazine building, which now houses the Bob Mizer Foundation, which was established to preserve the works of its namesake, the late gay physique photographer. Dunphy recalled that Rex's workspace was decorated entirely in black.

Fritscher recalled a tragic incident when Rex was one of the artists famously burned out when the Barracks, a former bathhouse and BDSM space on Folsom Street, was torched in July 1981. (It had closed in 1976 and was being redeveloped into a hotel, according to an article in SF Weekly.) Rex lost all the original artwork in his home/studio on Hallam Street, a dead-end alleyway that fed into Folsom Street. Fritscher noted that Rex was not at home at that time, as he was meeting with B.A.R. leather columnist the late Mister Marcus at the Bootcamp to show Marcus his new ad/drawing for that club.

Fritscher recalled he and Rex collaborated during the early years.

Rex drew the cover image for Drummer magazine's 100th issue. Image: Courtesy Jack Fritscher  

"I first wrote about him in Drummer in 1978 when we met, and we often collaborated," Fritscher stated. "He drew an amazing original cover for my 1984 novel, 'Leather Blues.' Magazines would hire us as a package deal: he'd do a drawing and I'd write a matching story, or vice versa. In the 1990s, we collaborated on a feature-length video, which he advised while I directed and filmed, 'The Rex Video Gallery: Corrupt Beyond Innocence.'

"He was a genius to work with and he was often misunderstood and hard to understand," Fritscher recalled. "'The Village Voice' in 1975 called him a Nazi for drawing images of our vibrant leather culture."

During his later years, Rex became disillusioned with what he saw as American society's increasingly puritanical stance on artistic freedom, Dunphy noted.

"He thought American culture was crumbling and dysfunctional," Dunphy stated, "so he moved to Europe."

For those familiar with Rex's career, it was no surprise that the artist wanted to live and work in a place where he could be truly free and live on his own terms, Dunphy stated.

"Bob and I both loved him," Dunphy added. "You know, Rex once said that in order for something to be pornography, it has to be forbidden by society. That's the key component. And that's how he came up with his drawings."

Updated, 4/10/24: This article has been corrected to state that Jack Fritsher was the editor in chief of Drummer magazine.

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