Stepping Out

Mort Künstler’s masterful artistry

Scenes from the ’Godfather’ of pulp fiction

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Today when consumers of popular American culture go looking for an adrenaline rush, they can just go see a blockbuster superhero movie. But once upon a time audiences had to turn to adventure magazines for their thrills.

And when it came to illustrating those long-gone adventure stories, it was Long Island’s own Mort Künstler who was the industry’s go-to artist. Years before Künstler became famous for his meticulously crafted historical paintings, he established his prominence in the pulp fiction genre, with work that adorned the covers of fishing hunting and men’s adventure magazines, western paperbacks, and movie posters.

Now everyone can revisit those days. More than 80 of Künstler’s works are on view, through Nov. 17, at the Heckscher Museum of Art’s exhibition “Mort Künstler: ‘The Godfather’ of Pulp Fiction’ Illustrators.”

“I’ve had many exhibitions of these illustrations over the years, as early as 1977 at the Daytona Beach Museum of Art,” says Künstler, from his home in Oyster Bay. “But this show currently at the Heckscher is a lot of fun.”

The Brooklyn-born Künstler — a longtime Long Islander who has called the Oyster Bay area home for some 65 years — is of course best known for artwork representing U.S. historical subjects. Lesser known is his work in the men’s adventure magazine genre in the 1950s through the ‘70s, and how it helped define an era in publishing.

According to curators at the Heckscher, the artist’s captivating and sometimes provocative images became emblematic of that pop culture genre. “Nobody captured hard-boiled action better than Mort Künstler,” says Michael W. Schantz, the Heckscher’s executive director. “His full-throttle, action-packed, in-your-face images represent the very essence of the pulp era.”

We’re talking an astonishing range of subjects. Stampeding elephants. Men being pushed through skylights. A group hopping a boxcar. Smugglers pushing a dead man’s body off a pier. Sailors in a rubber life raft fending off sharks. Patti Hearst in a beret, fist raised.

Künstler’s attraction to the genre came early in life. He was encouraged to be an artist by his family — in particular an illustrator. A Pratt graduate, he managed to secure work during a time when the commercial field was shrinking by focusing on men’s action subjects.

They were images for which editors could not turn to photographs for illustration, and which required the imagination and accuracy he was able to offer.

“It just seemed I had a knack for taking a photo and working with it,” he recalls.

What followed was opportunity after opportunity in the industry, during which Kunstler mastered his style. “Of course the more you work the more you learn how to solve problems,” he says. “Those years were invaluable.”

Originally featured in magazines such as “Stag, Male,” “True Adventures,” “True Action,”and “For Men Only,” the illustrations brought to life headlines that screamed adventure. And his images of men in combat, women in distress, and nature threatening man immediately caught on with readers.

“You try to pick a moment that will entice the reader and catch their attention and make them want to read the whole text,” explains Künstler. “The whole goal is, as they’re thumbing through a magazine, you want to have them stop and go, ‘what’s going on here?’”

Some of the illustrations on exhibit are based on real events: for instance, the sinking of the USS Indianapolis during World War II. Künstler drew real and imagined scenes from World War II, and illustrated stories about daring escapes and bold bank heists, creating a large portfolio. 

And of additional interest is Künstler’s work with Mario Puzo, author of “The Godfather,” who wrote in the same magazines under the pen name Mario Cleri.  Künstler illustrated “The Godfather” long before the movie franchise.

Unlike some artists, Künstler has never shied away from advertising art. “I loved painting, I didn’t care what it was,” he laughs. “It kept me off the streets. I didn’t have the psychology … that somehow you were betraying your art by doing advertising. It could be a woman holding a cake of soap, which I actually did. I had as much fun doing that as anything else.”

In fact Künstler maintains that illustration stands shoulder to shoulder with other visual arts genres.

“What’s the difference, wasn’t Michelangelo an illustrator?” he asks. “His pitch size was different, he had funny places where the folds were. He had an art director who was the Pope. And he had a publisher … which was the church. How different?” 

Visitors to the Heckscher Museum will have an opportunity to answer those questions themselves. 

Mort Künstler:‘The Godfather’ of Pulp Fiction’ Illustrators

When: Through Nov. 17. Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m.; Wednesday- Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Where: Heckscher Museum of Art, 2 Prime Ave., Huntington. (631) 351-3250 or www.heckscher.org.