"Have you ever looked up at the sky on a clear, star-filled night and wondered at the awesome magnitude of the universe… and asked yourself: who and what am I; where do I come from and where am I going? And have you ever considered the possibility that life – life in any form – may exist out there among the stars? If that thought stimulates your mind as well as your imagination – you may be interested in seeing a very unusual publication called OMNI, the newest and most original magazine in America today."
– Bob Guccione, 1983
The warehouse that contains the biggest OMNI magazine collection in the world is in New Jersey. It's the most nondescript building you could imagine. Actually, it's somehow more than nondescript; its appearance and contents are so diametrically opposed that the building veers into a negative space of visual mundacity. When I visited, it was raining. The beige buildings peeling along the I-95 were streaked with mold and dust. I pulled my rental car into a nearly empty parking lot and ran through the rain toward the building, which supposedly held the sacred relics of the greatest science magazine that ever was.
A few months ago, I wrote an article about OMNI. The magazine’s been out of print for 15 years, and you're lucky if you can even find a solitary old copy in a thrift store. But if you hit upon a trove of issues, like I did as a teenager rifling through an estate sale, and if you're the right kind of person, OMNI will blow your mind. You'll find that its voice is as radically relevant now as it was in its heyday of the 1980s. A gonzo blend of science and science fiction, it was sexy, irreverent, scarily prescient – I never imagined when I was investigating its history that I'd find myself elbow-deep in the biggest OMNI collection in the world. But that's the internet for you.
When I was given, offhandedly, in an email, a shot at poking through this collection, I'd imagined long tables stacked with documents and boxes brimming with unpublished science-fiction gems. I was told it was an archive, and, to me, the word "archive" implied something academic, a facility staffed by white-gloved attendants. Instead, the OMNI archive is a nebulous assortment of filing cabinets, piles of paintings, folders haphazardly stuffed with printing acetates and doodles – all strewn about a medical-supply sales office in Englewood, New Jersey. There are attendants, but they aren't librarians; they're employees of Jeremy Frommer, a financier and fast-talking entrepreneur who came upon the collection accidentally, when a storage locker he bought on a whim last November happened to contain a sizable chunk of the estate of Bob Guccione, lord and master of the Penthouse empire and, less famously, publisher of OMNI magazine.
Guccione, if he is remembered at all, is usually mythologized as a kitsch tycoon dripping with gold chains, shirt open practically to his waist. His 27,000-square-foot home in Manhattan was the largest private residence in the city. He collected Van Gogh and Picasso paintings and filled his homes with busts of Caesar, Napoleonic sphinxes, and hand-molded brick shipped from Italy. He was a recluse, by some accounts. He shot the early Penthouse pictorials himself. And he loved science fiction. Jane Homlish, Bob's personal assistant for 37 years, who I met in Englewood, explained it to me this way: "He always said that people with genius minds – and his mind was established as genius – were always as fascinated with sex as they were science."
Bob Guccione died in 2010, by which point OMNI magazine was long gone – but in Englewood, they both live on. Sheet after sheet of slides are being dusted off, examined, and photographed. Original cover artwork from the magazine is being hunted down. Paintings are being uncrated. People like me are being brought in, simply to marvel at the goods. In one afternoon, I found cover drafts with greasy pencil notations, thousands of 35-mm slides, large-format chromes, magazines bundled with stapled paperwork, production materials, and untold amounts of photos and artwork. It's chaos. Everything is still being fussed through and tossed around; after his storage unit mother lode, Jeremy got the bug, and the OMNI collection keeps growing. He has but one goal: to own the most complete collection in the world of ephemera relating to this largely forgotten magazine. "I don't think there is anything like this collection," Jeremy told me. "I don't even think it exists for a specific magazine, let alone the coolest geek sci-fi magazine of the 80s and 90s."
Archival art from OMNI.
Like Penthouse, which was forced to scrap its trademark soft-focus nudie spreads for hardcore sex acts in the 1990s, OMNI's glory days faded with the rise of the internet. It went out of print in 1995, after a short stint as an online magazine. According to Dark Empire, a hefty biography of Bob Guccione authored by his son, which I discovered (along with an equally sizable stack of rejection letters from publishers) in Jeremy's archive, the magazine launched in 1978 and was shuttered 18 years later, after racking up cumulative losses of over $80 million. Of course, an 18-year print run is nothing to sneer at, but OMNI was bankrolled by a fountain of cash generated by Penthouse. And by bankrolled, I mean bankrolled: the most shocking thing I found in Jeremy's filing cabinets wasn't the Penthouse negatives but stacks of magazines annotated with invoices detailing how much each contributor was paid. For the issue dated November 1989, Guccione's company, General Media Incorporated, spent $16,843.65 on illustrations – solar sails, airbrushed mazes, a silhouette of Neptune pressed up against an inky sky. It goes without saying, but I'll say it anyway, that this sum eclipses the entire monthly operating budgets of many modern magazines.
This is because Bob loved art. His mansions in Manhattan and on the Hudson river were both filled with old masters and paintings by the hundreds of artists he tapped to illustrate OMNI and Penthouse. "Design was everything for Bob," Jane said. No matter if they were selecting pictorials for Penthouse or laying out the sleek, futuristic pages of OMNI, it was the same. "I knew in the end, we would thinking about that vertical, that horizontal, we'd be thinking about that perfect placement, we'd be thinking about design, color, light." When Guccione's empire crumbled – General Media went bankrupt in 2003 – his personal assets were liquidated to pay off debts. The Van Goghs, Modiglianis, Picassos, and Renoirs went to the auction house; the rest of the artworks – sexy pictures and science fiction landscapes alike – were scattered to the wind.
That is, until Jeremy's storage locker windfall. Although OMNI magazine published award-winning science journalism and canonical sci-fi (William Gibson, Orson Scott Card, Ursula K. Le Guin, and George R. R. Martin were regular contributors), it's the artwork that's taking center stage in the archives now. It's everywhere: propped up against walls, on the light-table, falling off the shelves. Very soon, all of this stuff will be leaving Englewood. Like a Hydra whose snarling heads grow back twofold with every swipe of the sword, OMNI is returning with a vengeance. An exhibition of its art is in the works, some of which I saw: original lithographs and paintings from the magazine, artworks that Jeremy et al. have been tracking down at huge cost. The warehouse now stashes 53 surrealistic oils and fantasy landscapes and contains works by Rafal Olbinski, Robert Kittila, Jon Berkey, Tsuneo Sanda, and Bruce Jensen. Coming up: a book of this collected artwork, released by Powerhouse Books; a panel at the Toronto Fan Expo; and eventually booths at conventions around the country.
Jeremy told me, as I left the warehouse, that fate had brought me there. That I was among only a few dozen people in the world to see this stuff. That I should go to Toronto with them. That this new OMNI could use someone like me; that I could tell their story, if I wanted. So here it is, and here I am, without warning, mixed up in it. OMNI really was the greatest science magazine of all time, not in spite of, but perhaps because it was published by a complex, misunderstood, visionary lothario, a man who, cocooned in his country estate, isolated from the world, surrounded by wealth and sex, had the luxury to speculate wildly about the future. Guccione didn't get to choose what would happen to his vision after he died – nobody does, not even millionaires – but it remains, in bits and pieces, in the hands of its coincidental inheritor. Maybe it can rise again. First in New Jersey. Then to the stars.
Claire Evans plays in a band called YACHT and writes about science, mostly.
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