We’re kicking off Giving Tuesday early this year! Your donation today will be matched up to $10K, doubling your impact! If you donate $50 today, the Reader will receive $100.
The Reader is now a community-funded nonprofit newsroom. Can we count on your support to help keep us publishing?
“I like the feeling of nighttime,” says painter Robert Guinan. “The light is different. It’s more exciting. Everything looks different and sounds different.” The burning of a north-side chemical factory opened up a dramatic night vista of horizontals and verticals that became Elevated Tracks Across Lincoln Avenue–a 1979 urban still life in which the structures and shadows are as clear as the city’s mystery is unfathomable.
To do the preliminary sketch for the painting, recalls Guinan, “I set up a drawing table at Wrightwood and Lincoln at two or three in the morning. I thought nobody would bug me, but I was amazed at the number of people around. One guy pulled up. ‘What are you doing? Are you from the city? Are they going to tear this down? Is somebody going to put a McDonald’s in here? Which department are you with?’ The idea that I was just painting didn’t seem to sink in.”
In Paris, on the Rue des Beaux Arts, Guinan’s paintings of Chicago people and places sell for tens of thousands of dollars. French president Francois Mitterrand owns one. Guinan has had more than a dozen one-man shows in Paris since 1973. People there ask him for his autograph on the street. His realistic images have even appeared on the covers of recent French paperbacks–translations of William Styron’s Lie Down in Darkness (a twilight view of the corner of Barry and Racine) and Richard Wright’s Black Boy (riders on the Ravenswood el).
In his realism and his refusal to bend his style or subject matter to fashion, “Guinan doesn’t have any equivalent in all of contemporary painting,” wrote Agnes de Maistre in the book-length monograph Guinan, published in 1991 in France. “The day America finally accepts him will be when it recognizes its spiritual diversity.”
Evidently that day hasn’t come. Even in Chicago, where Guinan has lived and worked since 1959, his work is little known and almost impossible to find. Guinan’s longtime friend Scott Elliott, who owns the Kelmscott Gallery, says colleagues tell him Guinan’s work is too depressing to sell. “He is fascinated by the throwaway people, how they live, what they do. But people don’t want to look at this.”
Maybe. Guinan’s prostitutes, bikers, barflies, poets, cafeterias, and midnight street scenes are not the tourist commission’s Chicago. He paints the Checkerboard Lounge, not the Sears Tower. His people emerge from triple-locked apartments, ride the el, shuck corn, pass the time in smoky taverns without names. The lake appears only once in his oeuvre–not as a serene vista, but in the tense, dark close-up Night Swimming in Lake Michigan. You won’t find the Magnificent Mile in his work, but you will encounter memorable habitues of a bar on West Division. Guinan did a painting of one of the recent Polish immigrants tending bar there. “She saw the painting,” he says, chuckling, “and she said, ‘You made me look sad. I not sad. I am happy here every day. You are an artist? I don’t think so.'”
Guinan was born in 1934 and grew up in Watertown, New York, a small city in the rural north that also provided the world with F.W. Woolworth, John Foster Dulles, and Daniel Burnham. “I started out using poster paints in jars,” he recalls, “copying the covers of my father’s adventure magazines.” The parochial school he attended offered no art classes. His mother searched the public high schools for a teacher and found “an old spinster lady who taught evening classes and who was proud of being in Who’s Who in American Art for painting red barns.”
At the time young Bob’s favorite subjects were American historical scenes (“like the Battle of New Orleans”) that Herbert Morton Stoops did for the cover of Blue Book magazine. “I took this stuff I had copied to her, and she started talking about composition–how this force here was balanced by this rifle across there, so it wouldn’t run off the edge of the page. I sat there thinking, ‘She doesn’t know about redcoats or battles or anything.’ And then all of a sudden the door opened, and I realized it wasn’t about battles at all.”
That revelation didn’t reconcile him to small-town life. “I couldn’t wait to get out of there. I was scared to death I never would.” Even in the rearview mirror Watertown held no charm. When Guinan served overseas in the Air Force in the mid-1950s, an uncle insisted on sending him the local newspaper, which arrived in thick bundles every two weeks. “I’d tell the guys to throw it out. They said it was U.S. mail–they couldn’t do that.”
Guinan had started getting out of town long before he was old enough to leave. “Everyone in Watertown was either English Protestant, Irish Catholic, or French Canadian. Then there were the latecomers, the Italian peasants who lived in the Sand Flats on the other side of town. They were the ‘niggers’ in town. They were not considered quite American.”
But to young Guinan they were almost the only interesting people around. “The Catholic Church taught us that it was one throughout the world, with the same Latin mass everywhere. The church I went to, with its old Irish monsignor, was very serious, very conservative. But the Italian church in the same diocese had all these festivals, and fireworks, and Saint Rocco, with his sores being licked by a dog.” In odd hours the local radio station played “Italian melodies,” recordings of which were for sale in the back room of a downtown jewelry store. “I went and asked to buy one. They said, ‘What for? You don’t even know the language.’ I still have some of those 78s. I listened to them so much I memorized the words.
“In the service I got to know some black guys for the first time. I heard them playing rhythm and blues–music I’d never heard in Watertown. I said, ‘What’s that? I never heard that.’ They said, ‘Man, you’re late.’ The truth is I’m in love with every culture except my own.”
Guinan’s military service took him to the Middle East, where he found “peasants sort of like van Gogh’s peasants, wearing suits out in the field and living in huts of mud and straw. The poor neighborhoods looked like poor neighborhoods in turn-of-the-century Paris–no signs of modernity.”
He unwittingly embarrassed a friend in the Turkish navy by arriving early for a meeting and tracking him down at a traditional hangout in the old quarter of Istanbul. “He couldn’t wait to get me out of that neighborhood. He took me to the Hilton, and we played miniature golf! When I left, he said, ‘My village [neighborhood] is very easy.’ It wasn’t until months later that I figured out he had been apologizing. He meant ‘very simple.’ I couldn’t tell him how great I thought it was.”
With such un-Watertown subjects at hand, Guinan did his best van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec impressions, painting realistic pictures of peasants and prostitutes on canvases his mother sent from home. Not knowing any better, he glued the canvas to cardboard backing with mucilage. One rendering of a Turkish market scene hangs in his stairwell today. But the brown smudges on the cream-colored walls in the background aren’t impressionistic daubs; they’re 35-year-old mucilage stains coming through. “It’s like Whistler’s anthracite paintings turning black,” says Guinan with a rueful shrug. “Nothing to be done for it.”
Back in the States, Guinan didn’t care to take up his father’s garage-door business. He decided to put his GI Bill benefits to use. “I knew nothing about art schools. I went to the only place in town that had art magazines and wrote away to all the schools that advertised in the back. The Art Institute of Chicago was the only school that sent me back a personal, friendly, chatty reply. ‘If you’re in town, come on by and we’ll talk.’ It was as if I’d known these people all my life. I chose it immediately. That was the only reason I came to Chicago.”
It was the fall of 1959. Scott Elliott, who began school the same year, describes how he and the 25-year-old Guinan came with the same expectations. “I can’t tell you how excited I was. I thought somebody was going to teach me how to stretch a canvas, what brushes to use. But art school was nothing like that. It was doing your own thing, with no discipline and certainly nothing representational. I was terribly disillusioned.” Guinan says, in a tone half deadpan, half puzzled, “They’d have a model come in and pose for a week at a time–and we [students] were supposed to be ‘inventive.’ You could learn a lot of philosophizing and theories–and graduate without knowing how to draw.”
But soon Chicago “became another one of [Guinan’s] exotic cities,” says his longtime dealer, Albert Loeb. Guinan and Elliott began going for beers on Clark north of the Loop, then a seedy area. That was also where he first encountered the inimitable African American bar pianist Emile Breda–“at the King’s Palace one night in 1962, when the imposing noise level of the place was suddenly overwhelmed by a sonorous bass-baritone reading of the Marullus speech from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar: ‘You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things!’–which was Emile’s way of bellying up to the bar.” Breda became a frequent companion, friend, and model. Guinan and Elliott also visited the Maxwell Street market, which entranced Guinan.
Guinan’s reading continued to affect his painting. Among the works that inspired lithographs and collages during the 1960s and early 1970s were The Golden Bough, Sartre’s Saint Genet, Wilfred Owen’s World War I poems, and the black-history book Puttin’ On Ole Massa. Guinan’s works based on them can stand on their own, but they gain dimension if you know the texts.
The antirealistic stance of the School of the Art Institute continued to influence him. “I know he was nearly suffocated by the pressure there,” says Elliott. “His heroes were van Gogh and Gauguin and Toulouse-Lautrec,” not the reigning abstract expressionists. Elliott soon left Chicago to become an art dealer in New York, but Guinan stayed in Chicago. “For 10 or 15 years he continued to paint without any recognition whatsoever–and no thought of it,” says Elliott. “He taught, he took obituary notices at the Sun-Times, whatever. I don’t think it ever occurred to him, for one day since I’ve known him, that he should do anything but paint.”
At first Guinan’s subjects, even those from Maxwell Street, came out as semiabstract forms. A classic Guinan from 1968, Sister Carrie Dancing, shows four bending, twisting forms on a red background–a study in form and motion, but not necessarily something a Maxwell Street habitue would recognize.
Guinan has never espoused the naive view that a painting must tell a story, or be immediately obvious, or appeal to its subjects. But the tug of realism eventually proved stronger than either fashion or schooling. “Maybe I’m just like the river Meander that they kept trying to shift and it wound up back in its original course.” In 1972 he painted a very different picture of “Sister” Carrie Robbins, now a recognizable individual–an aging, slim woman, seated with her tambourine, seeming very small in a large, threadbare room.
“In 1970 he abandoned the ‘adventure of modernity,'” writes de Maistre in her monograph. “With the major realistic portrait of Emile Breda he put aside the analytical approach of art to return to his first principle, rendering justice to people and things.”
Guinan’s works aren’t like photographs (nor does he work from photographs), but he exhibits a sometimes astonishingly scrupulous interest in what is really there. Imagination lies in his choice of subject, viewpoint, attitude, and moment in time. He doesn’t guess or make things up. He describes returning to a Division Street bar to get the bottles right in the background of one portrait: “It wasn’t just the bottles. It was how they fit into the atmosphere on the shelves. I needed a sketch, not an overdone study of a bottle.”
In returning to realism Guinan was confronted with some new dilemmas. The 1972 painting of Carrie Robbins worried him. “I don’t know what Carrie thought my motives were,” he wrote years later to Loeb, “or what she made of the small fee I was able to pay her. She was not interested in viewing the sketches I made, and three years went by before I got around to making the painting. When Albert Loeb reproduced it as an exhibition poster in 1973 I wanted to give one to Carrie, but changed my mind. There she was on display in her poverty. The poster was slick, and in a foreign language, and it looked like money. She would have felt betrayed.”
In his art-dealing travels to Europe in the early 1970s, Elliott found a Vienna dealer with an idea about how to promote American painters there. He told Elliott he wanted people who were unknown, but whose work wasn’t junk, so that he could buy their stuff cheap and present it so that customers would assume the artists were famous. Elliott suggested Guinan as “the best artist I know.”
The Vienna dealer promoted Guinan’s work at fairs in central Europe, but his financial intrigues soon required him to leave Austria one step ahead of the police. Meanwhile, at a June 1972 fair in Basel, Switzerland, three oversized Guinan canvases–Maxwell Street Dying, Portrait of Sister Carrie, and Portrait of Emile–caught and held the eye of Albert Loeb, a Paris gallery owner whose father had championed Picasso and surrealism in the 1920s. “Convinced that I was in the presence of an uncommon artist, I snatched up his contract,” writes Loeb in the foreword to Guinan. He has never let go.
Loeb visited Guinan in Chicago later that year, an encounter that changed both their lives. Says Guinan, “For years I had known I would never become anything as an artist. I started burning and throwing away most of my stuff. What’s left [from the 1960s] are things I gave away because I didn’t like them very much.” The prospect of Loeb’s coming only increased his interest in housecleaning. “I set a painting of Maxwell Street and some others out in the garbage can. The trash was collected twice a week. They sat there one day, two days, three days. When Loeb arrived he pulled them out of the garbage and wrote me a check for $1,000.”
Says Elliott, “At that time Loeb wasn’t really identified with a particular group or type of art. He seemed to be searching. Since then he’s done at least one Guinan show every year. He knows historically one way that art dealers gain respect–by sticking with an artist who eventually pans out. He’s taken a slow, thoughtful approach.” Yet Elliott questions whether Loeb’s management is always in Guinan’s best interest, worrying that Guinan hasn’t been paid enough, hasn’t accumulated anything to see him through old age. “I met Man Ray late in life,” says Elliott. “He was living in a dilapidated studio with a stove in the middle. This was when his paintings brought three-quarters of a million. But he didn’t have any of his own best work left, and he hadn’t gotten wealthy from it.”)
One of Loeb’s first sales of a Guinan was to Francois Mitterrand. “Before he became president Mitterrand had his home near Loeb’s gallery,” says Guinan. “He was passing by and saw this painting of Emile. He went inside. At the time he didn’t own any art–this was the first piece he’d ever bought. After that he started collecting.”
With a certain irony, Loeb says that it’s the exotic nature of Chicago that helps sell Guinan’s paintings in Paris. He estimates that in 20 years he’s sold 50 and has about the same number on hand. This makes Guinan a fairly low-production painter, and difficult to make money from, according to Loeb. “He is a long-term investment. I can afford to work this way because I have less overhead than in America.”
Loeb readily acknowledges, “If Guinan was living in Paris and painting poor Arabs, perhaps I wouldn’t have sold that many paintings.” Guinan says, tongue at least halfway in cheek, “These are native American products, like birch-bark canoes. Some of the people who buy my work are very right wing. They go on TV and complain about communism–then they buy a picture of a black prostitute in a hotel room. What’s going on here? I don’t know.”
At one time Loeb described Guinan’s work as “a vast protest,” a characterization that makes the painter wince. “No, no, that’s not right,” he insists. “You do get that in France. One lady said, ‘Oh, these poor people.’ But I’m not a sociologist.” His biographer, de Maistre, thinks he was once. “In the early 1970s,” she writes, “he thought he could speak in their [black people’s] name, denounce social injustice. His portraits of Sister Carrie Robbins, Emile Breda and his mother Nelly, and of Mary Turner reveal this political consciousness. He endeavored at least as much to paint the wretched surroundings as the person. In doing this, he betrays his models more than he does them justice, because they are much more than just poor people. What remains of Emile’s flamboyance in this old, messy man, prostrate, in a dilapidated room? . . . When a few years later Guinan began a series of paintings of crummy bars where black prostitutes work, all social comment had disappeared. . . . Guinan paints places, people, and objects without any rhetorical or demonstrative intention. . . . From now on there are no more poor and rich, black and white. There are only individuals sharing one condition, one human nature.”
“I don’t want to be a crusader,” Guinan insists now. “Leave that for the feminists–severed penises in jars, women being raped. [Such works are] very similar to the general in the park on his horse.” Not art, but some kind of commemorative symbol. “I don’t know who looks at those things.”
Guinan is equally impatient with works of art that are tied to story telling–even though he loves to tell stories and many of his admirers value his paintings in part for the stories associated with them. “Beethoven doesn’t tell a story. His music isn’t about anything. But some people enjoy a piece of music much more if it has actual sounds in it. It’s like movies: some people go crazy over movies, like Dr. Zhivago, with lots of detail. Pauline Kael said that people who like that kind of movie are the kind of people who admire a play because it has an actual waterfall onstage.
“So I’m really on the edge here. That’s the risk I’m running. An Art Institute instructor once told me that the closer you can get to the edge of something really corny, the closer you get to a great work of art. Mozart seems simple–just a scale that’s modified a bit. A few more steps and it would be sweet background music.”
Guinan’s preference for making quick sketches of people in bars and on trains has gotten him some strange looks but no serious trouble. “The most exciting part of the process is the hunt,” he says. Catching the prey on the run. Choosing a figure on a moving train or in a poorly lit bar. Getting down the attitude, the turn of the head, the fall of light on the hair, the fold of the sleeve, color noted. Coming home with these drawings is like returning from a safari with an array of exotic trophies. Working the early stages of subsequent paintings and drawings can be an anticlimax, a process whereby the trophies are stuffed and mounted.”
On the el passengers “often sense that they [are] being observed, get up and move to another seat.” Guinan soon found a solution, as he explained in one of a series of letters to Loeb reprinted in Guinan. “Persons seated across the aisle to my left and facing me would be reflected against the night in the seat window to my right. I decided to draw these images instead of the living ‘models,’ and this subterfuge made it appear that I was merely looking out of the window. The riders no longer felt threatened by direct observation.”
Most of the time his attention makes people curious rather than hostile. “Pencil and paper turns the toughest, most hardened criminals and prostitutes and their pimps into little children,” he says. He wrote to Loeb: “If there is occasional resistance, it is rooted in the suspicion of being conned. ‘I am not going to buy that, so you may as well stop now’ says the knowing prostitute settled heavily on the bar stool. Or: ‘Why would anyone want a picture of someone he doesn’t even know!!'”
Given his usual hangouts, there’s always the possibility of trouble with the cops. “One night I absentmindedly left my razor-blade knife on the bar, and a cop picked it up. ‘Oops.’ I snipped it out of his hand. ‘That’s mine. I use it to sharpen pencils. You don’t believe me?’ I emptied my pockets out before he could: 10, 12, 15 pencils, red, yellow, blue, green–all colors–all over the top of the bar.”
Middle-class white people tend to see society’s marginal people as either much smaller or much larger than life. Both Republicans and liberal sentimentalists have trouble greeting them as just ordinary friends, people deserving of the same criticism and concern as anyone else. Guinan follows the artist’s tradition of hanging out with the lumpen, but he’s no romantic and no snob either. On his way to the el one November evening he ran into a man he knew from the Division Street bar, now propped on crutches and panhandling at the subway entrance. The conversation was cordial, a little money changed hands. But later on the train Guinan said he was worried about the man. “His voice didn’t used to be slurred like that.”
Or consider this unsentimental account Guinan gave Loeb of how he painted the 1979 Anita at the Victor Hotel, in a room that could be rented for only half an hour: “Now I want you to behave as if I were a date,” Guinan told Anita. “Do whatever you do, and I will stop you at some point and ask you to pose. Do you take off your clothes?”
“Take off your clothes!” Anita replied. “On a ‘date’?? I usually wear pants, you know, slacks. And just take out one leg. . . You don’t want to do me with no clothes on anyway, I got terrible stretch marks.”
“I had thought she was about 20 or so. Turns out that she is 32 with three children, two of them in their teens and bigger than she is. She was wearing red underwear. Elephant skin stomach the color of cigarette ashes, body a wreck from drugs, booze, all the rest. . . It didn’t seem to belong to her. She lay down, put her hands behind her head. I told her it looked great and started working to get as much as I could in the next 20 minutes or so.
“It would be a lot easier just to fuck, wouldn’t it?”
“I gotta do this work.”
“Takes all kinds.”
Guinan says he’s getting tired of bars. Now 60, he’d like to find some other place to paint. “I go down to Gatling’s at 103rd and Halsted. It’s a funeral home and recording company–a huge place with everyone there dressed in white with white gloves. The rooms where bodies are laid out are flooded with rose and purple lights. I go to listen to the music. I’m usually the only white person there. They have concerts there–Mr. and Mrs. Gatling are both wonderful gospel singers. But I’ve never done any drawing there. There’s not much that visually interesting, except when people ‘fall out.’ And I’m not sure I can draw that. It crosses a certain line.” He remembers being arrested back in the 1950s when a Turkish gendarme caught him sketching peasants. “You are making bad propaganda for my country,” the gendarme said. “I wasn’t ridiculing those people,” says Guinan. “But I could be accused of the same thing here. Racism.
“I had members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians up here [in his studio], gave them a copy of [Guinan], which has lots of not especially flattering portraits. Later on I ran into their president, who said, ‘The more I look at it, it’s very warm and sympathetic.’ I said, ‘That means a hell of a lot coming from you.’
“It’s a delicate kind of thing. I don’t think I can push it by going and drawing people in church.”
Guinan’s interest in people and places on the edge often puts him just ahead of the wrecking ball or the “improving” proprietor. He favors bars that cater to people of all ethnicities in what he calls middle-ground transitional areas, “where people don’t mess with you”–like the 751 Club on North Clark, aka the Bohemian Club, where, he says, “one could always expect to find a good conversation going on with a cynical journalist, an introverted history buff, a movie-trivia expert, or with someone who had discovered James Joyce while in prison. At various times the passing parade would include groups of elderly, affluent, gay men cruising for young, unemployed merchant seamen, a pair of runaway Indiana farm girls making their first stop beyond the Greyhound bus station, a sudden, impromptu dance performance by someone who had spent a long lifetime on the fringes of show business.” Guinan painted At the Bohemian Club Bar in 1977; the place shut down in 1981.
In 1981, “when I was well into the painting [At the National Cafeteria], the entire staff, managers and employees, all disappeared without warning over one weekend, to be replaced on the following Monday by a multitude of Pakistanis!” Even the vacant lot on Lincoln Avenue that was left when the chemical factory burned, offering Guinan his dramatic view of the el, has been filled with condos. “It got to the point that all I had to do was draw something and it would disappear. I could almost hire out as a hit man!
“My parents are 90 and 87 years old. They never did anything particularly healthy, but there’s nothing wrong with them even now. Do you know what that means? It’s in the genes. I’m going to have to live another 30 or 40 years. And I don’t want to. Everything I love is disappearing!”
Why is Guinan obscure in Chicago and famous in Paris? Why did local attorney, art collector, and Art Institute board member Allison Davis only discover his work by chance on a visit to Paris this summer? It’s a mystery Guinan says he doesn’t care about anymore. “Maybe it’s better this way. I kind of enjoy being anonymous.”
“I tell you frankly,” says Loeb, “I am so anxious to find him a good gallery in the United States. But nothing can be forced.” Loeb had a booth at the 1989 Art Expo on Navy Pier, where Guinan’s paintings, with their veiled colors and nonphotogenic subjects, were ignored. “I still believe he will find his success in the U.S.”
But not yet. “First of all,” says Guinan, “realism is considered old hat.” In some quarters the very word conveys a kind of naivete that’s very far from Guinan’s work or viewpoint. His realism is not the somewhat respectable photorealism of someone like Richard Estes. Elliott says, “Some people look at one of his paintings and say, ‘Well, this isn’t quite photorealism.’ They don’t know what they’re looking at. I think his paintings are more akin to some of the later English Victorians’ work, like the night street scenes of London by Atkinson Grimshaw.”
Because Guinan paints urban scenes in dark, sometimes depressing hues, he’s often mentioned in the same breath as Edward Hopper in France. “I hate that,” says Guinan flatly. “I like a few of his things, but his paintings are very flat and the people are like mannequins.” As Loeb puts it in his foreword to Guinan, “Hopper depicts anonymous beings, archetypes of American society; Robert Guinan, intrigued by the life of his models and sometimes establishing with them bonds of friendship and even affection, paints portraits.” Does this help or not? As another collector pointed out, it may be difficult to explain to the help or to the delivery person why you have a portrait of a black prostitute on your walls, let alone why you paid $50,000 for it.
“His paintings do not ask you to like them,” says Elliott. “People who belong to the Chicago Historical Society, for instance, are interested in old skyscrapers or maybe in Maxwell Street in its heyday. But they aren’t interested in that.” He pokes his finger at Sudden View of Ashland Avenue, a nighttime street scene. “It’s totally nondescript, but it could not be anything else but Chicago. It’s like I’ve missed my train on a cold night and wandered around down in the dumps. But this is not what people who think they love Chicago are interested in.”
“Robert Guinan does wonderful work and always has,” says local dealer Alice Adam. “He has the dilemma of all Chicago artists. Because of the second-city inferiority complex, they only get accepted here by being accepted somewhere else. It’s the insecurity of the establishment. But he’s also his own worst enemy. He’s not a good PR person, he’s not going to sell himself. Some artists here have made it because they are good schmoozers. He’s not.”
Guinan isn’t unsociable. Collector Richard Weisenseel got to know him back in the 1960s at parties. “At a certain point in the evening he’d get up and deliver a very nice accented performance of “Lord Randal, My Son,” a cappella or with Breda on piano–all the verses.” But he won’t network. Elliott says Guinan and his wife were once invited to a North Shore affair where they were dinner partners with retired general William Westmoreland and Clare Booth Luce, and got invited to golf with the general in Florida. “It just wouldn’t occur to him to go to Florida because it might lead to some useful connections.”
Nor does Guinan mince words. “He’ll speak his mind even if it insults you,” says Elliott. “That’s why they like him at the Cliff Dwellers”–where he’s seen as a kind of enfant terrible. (Guinan calls himself a “token artist” there.) John Parker, who’s known Guinan since the 60s, still recalls the stinging accuracy of Guinan’s calling him “bourgeois” a decade or more ago. These flashes of frankness come unpredictably and are as likely to be directed at himself as at others. “It’s a sort of journalistic thing, really,” he says, describing his paintings. “I don’t mind being a journalist.”
“At the Checkerboard one night, a middle-aged man asked if I could do a picture of him and his wife,” says Guinan. “I did a sketch, which came out pretty well, and sent him a copy. But I never heard from them. They probably thought it looked like all scribbles.”
Elliott says, “We used to get the best fresh fish sticks–ten cents apiece!–from this old German American guy. He eventually commissioned Bob to do a portrait of him. It was this old German man, ruthlessly true to life. But he had evidently envisioned a picture of Our Founder. When Bob showed him the painting, he just said, ‘No. I couldn’t use dot.’ That was the end of it. This has happened to him I don’t know how many times. Frankly, he doesn’t care what anyone thinks about his work. He never looks at a painting and asks, is anybody going to like it? It’s strictly whether it satisfies him or not.
“I commissioned him to do a portrait of me once. I hated it! I had a double chin, I looked fat. Down at the Cliff Dwellers he’s done portraits of some of the older members. ‘I dunno, Bob. He looks like a cadaver.’ ‘I know. He does!'”
Richard Grupp, another longtime friend, has a 1963 charcoal portrait Guinan did of him. “I didn’t like it at first,” he acknowledges. “It took me years to realize it was good.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Charles Eshelman.