FRENCH KISSES Collectors in France found Guinan’s paintings of Chicago’s downtrodden romantic.Photo assistant: Ian Issitt Robert Guinan, Nicole Mitchell at the Velvet Lounge, 2010Above, feature on Robert Guinan in France’s Beaux Arts magazine in February 1985. Left, promotional catalogue from Galerie Albert Loeb for Guinan’s appearance at the Chicago International Art Exposition in 1989.
Robert Guinan says he doesn’t know why his paintings of black Chicagoans are so popular in France, joking that he doesn’t understand why the French like Jerry Lewis, either. Prodded, he adds, “It’s the exotic. It’s a condescending kind of thing”—linked, he suspects, to their conflicted relationship with their former African colonies as well as their affection for American jazz.
Guinan, 76, moved to Chicago from his hometown Watertown, New York, in 1959, after a stint in the U.S. Air Force. He came here to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC) and experience the city’s jazz scene. “I moved into a rooming house at 720 North Dearborn,” the artist recalls when we speak in his studio, on the third floor of his home in Lincoln Park. “One block away was Skid Row. A lot of these dives, in the late ’50s, early ’60s, had live music.”
While his SAIC classmates attacked “six-foot canvases with cake-batter spatulas and house-paint brushes,” Guinan made intimate drawings and paintings of the Puerto Rican children and elderly black jazz pianists he met in his neighborhood, as realistically as his abstraction-mad professors would allow. After graduation, he taught art at New Trier High School, SAIC and the Evanston Art Center. In 1968, Ed Paschke included him in the seminal Imagist exhibition “Nonplussed Some” at the Hyde Park Art Center. But Guinan soon felt so “fed up” with his work that he “destroyed almost everything.”
The surviving pieces included some unusual collages addressing World War I that were inspired by old German magazines the artist found at Maxwell Street Market. (A favorite haunt of Guinan’s before its relocation, the old flea market appears in several of his paintings.) In 1972, a friend referred him to a Vienna art dealer, who brought his mixed-media works to the Art Basel fair in Switzerland. Paris-based gallerist Albert Loeb spotted them, offered to represent Guinan and remained his dealer for the next 36 years. Their arrangement seems incredible to anyone accustomed to galleries’ normal 50 percent commission: Loeb sent Guinan money every month, whether or not his work had sold. Guinan believes this sweet deal ultimately hindered his career. “It was kind of a control,” he says. “He wanted to keep me boxed in for himself.”
Guinan expresses deep gratitude toward Loeb, however, emphasizing that the dealer “committed himself to the work and put a lot of years in promoting it.” Loeb supported him when he resumed depicting South Side musicians and Division Street barflies. The Parisian found them “romantic,” Guinan says. “When he’d come here, we’d go to the South Side and visit black churches.” The artist still enjoys going to jazz venues such as the Velvet Lounge, where he recently made portraits of flutist Nicole Mitchell.
During the ’70s and ’80s, Chicago gallerists greeted Guinan’s work with derision. One local dealer told him, “These are the people who are gonna mug you on the subway. Who wants to look at some junkies?” In France, however, his collectors included the late president François Mitterrand and American expat Johnny Depp. In 2005, the French Academy in Rome gave the artist a massive retrospective.
Despite Guinan’s French fan base, Loeb let him go in late 2008 because of the recession. But in January, the artist had a successful show at River North’s Ann Nathan Gallery, which presented more of his work at Art Chicago earlier this month. “I became famous for not being famous,” Guinan quips—then acknowledges that, as the city’s unique jazz clubs, scrappy open markets and dive bars disappear, Chicagoans hungry for nostalgia might finally embrace his works.
Check out Guinan’s paintings at Ann Nathan Gallery, 212 W Superior St (312-664-6622) and bigredhair.com/robertguinan.
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