BOLD TIRES

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The legendary Pirelli calendar is trying to keep from slipping into irrelevance; the nekkid ladies now have male company.

Funny thing about calendars. You use them to keep track of time, but some seem to deny that time passes. Apart from the changing digits, is it possible to tell the 1971 Cute Kittens calendar from last year's? Or the 1984 New England Barns calendar from the 1998 version? Equally timeless is the practice of using women's bodies to sell unrelated products, from stereo gear to hubcaps. So it's easy to see why promotional pinup calendars, while not exactly as ubiquitous and casually sexist as they were a few decades ago, have endured to this day.

Probably the most stylish case in point: the legendary Pirelli calendar, whose 25th edition has just found its way onto the walls of the most discerning, uh, tire enthusiasts on the planet. Want one? Forget it: it's not for sale. Since its inception, this baby (or should that be babe?) has been "an exclusive Corporate gift which is distributed only in limited quantities worldwide (40,000 copies) to selected customers, VIPs and relevant personalities," explains the Pirelli Web site, www.pirelli.com/calender/index.htm.

By "staying tuned to the changing currents of contemporary art, underground film and printed media," Pirelli's giveaway "brought avant-garde to the masses," the Italian journalist Guido Vergani argues in his preface to The Pirelli Calendar 1964-1997 (Rizzoli 1997, 407 pages). It is debatable how much the masses were exposed to this sample of haute culture, given the calendar's limited distribution. But certainly you have to hand Pirelli this: its choice of photographers, which includes luminaries such as Richard Avedon, Arthur Elgort and Bruce Weber, finally helped inject a touch of upmarket aesthetics into what had previously been a medium defined by mercantile sleaze.

And the times they are a-changing after all -- somewhat. Bruce Weber's photographs for 1998 have little of the slightly leering quality that pervades many of the earlier years' pictures. Weber even includes guys in his 12-shot portfolio. It might well be the only way to keep the Pirelli calendar, this proud if slowly crumbling institution, from becoming a victim of a past inhabited by Hugh Hefner, red 'Vettes and cocktail lounges.

Pirelli calendar photography credits, clockwise from top: Richard Avedon; Bruce Weber (3 photos); Richard Avedon (2 photos); Harri Peccinotti; Arthur Elgort;

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