Famously Not Famous
Chicago artist Robert Guinan has been drawing the city for more than half a century. After much success in a Parisian gallery for 35 years, only now are his gritty urban paintings being exhibited here. Evangeline Politis welcomes him home.
Photographs by Anna Knot
"You see, I’m famous for not being famous,” explains Chicago artist Robert Guinan. Ironically, that’s his claim to fame—and a familiar story of many great artists of the past. Though he has presented 120 works at the French Academy in Rome and shown in Paris for more than 35 years—even the late French president François Mitterrand was a collector of his art—it’s only recently that his work has gained recognition here in Chicago. His paintings, which document the gritty reality of the city, capture barflies, musicians, and the true spirit of Chicago nightlife, are now viewable for the first time at the Ann Nathan Gallery in the city, and more recently, at Metropolitan Capital Bank.
Robert’s own Chicago story began at the end of the 1950s, when he arrived in the city to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) after serving in the U.S. Air Force in Turkey and Libya. He lived near what was then “skid row,” around North Clark Street, where the streets were lined with taverns playing live music, and he became fascinated by the area’s bar culture. It was in these dark and musty haunts that he found the inspiration for his work. “Chicago is just a goldmine of things to paint,” he says. “I got into these bars because of all the music, and I kept going further and further afield and became a part of this bar culture. I got to know a lot of druggies and hookers and did a lot of paintings of these people.” And so he stayed, never to return to his hometown in upstate New York.
Upon meeting Robert, you can understand how he got to know all of his subjects so easily. Equipped with a strong personality, he is a real character—cracking jokes, making faces at the camera, and keeping the whole room entertained. But, despite his overwhelming charm, there is a dark side to Robert as well, which is notable both in his sometimes-sardonic humor and in the grey palette of his sketches and paintings.
“I don’t like a lot of colors,” he says. “Chicago was a grey kind of city, but now the mayor has planted flowers everywhere. It’s changed a lot. But I’m not going to change.”
After graduating, he taught art at New Trier High School, SAIC, and the Evanston Art Center. Meanwhile, he became frustrated that his art wasn’t selling. “I had a special room [for my work], but after a while it becomes an embarrassment—all these canvases. It’s like you have a lot of children, but they won’t grow up and get a job.” When he was down to just eight paintings, after destroying the rest, one of Robert’s friends sent slides to a New York gallery, where a Viennese dealer came across them…and that was the beginning of his career as a recognized artist in Europe.
From having no prospects, he suddenly had a show in Europe in 1972, where Parisian art dealer Albert Loeb saw his work at Art Basel in Switzerland. Albert offered him representation, and he showed in Paris in March of 1973. “It was all an accident, really. It was just happenstance,” he says, shaking his hands in the air. “People ask for advice [for getting out there], but I don’t really have any.”
He credits his success in Paris with the French’s interest in American culture. “There’s something about their fascination with American artifacts. It’s not just our music and films, but also the jeans and the Coca-Cola and the Big Macs and Starbucks—not because it’s good coffee, but because it’s American.”
But all good things must end, and after three-and-a-half decades of showing in Europe, Albert let Robert go in 2008 because of the recession. With this change also came a change in his paintings. Robert no longer paints at bars and has started to paint a few Biblical scenes, which incorporate the backdrop of Chicago. For example, one of his pieces on exhibit at the Ann Nathan Gallery is of Daniel in the Lion’s Den. (The Lincoln Park Zoo provided both the lions and the den.) Another is of Jonah and the Whale, where the sea is Lake Michigan. He also draws upon his memories for inspiration: In the Jonah and the Whale painting, the figure comes from photos he took while he was stationed in Libya. And a recent painting of blues player Johnny Young was based on a memory Robert had from 40 years ago on Maxwell Street. With this kind of backlog of significant memories, he is bound to never run out of material. At 74 years old, Robert is finally getting attention in the city that has been his home and muse for more than half a century—something he certainly deserves.
To view Robert Guinan’s artwork, visit the Ann Nathan Gallery at 212 W. Superior Street in Chicago. For more information, call 312-664-6622, or visit http://annnathangallery.com.