"The most exciting part of the process is the hunt. 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. Getting it down before they move away, before they notice you. There is no creative struggle here, only the anxiety of the chase, and the necessity of haste results in freshness … the first step away from reality.''
--Robert Guinan
HUNTING GUINAN An artist renowned in France
finds fame elusive in his native land.

by John Golden, Times Staff Writer
Sunday, March 14, 2004

CHICAGO - For now, Robert Guinan has turned away from his pursuit, the keen-eyed hunter armed with pencils and a sketchbook on dreary concrete streets, in seedy bars that smell of stale beer and cigarette smoke, on rackety trains in the great, gritty city he knows well and has loved faithfully for almost 45 years.

At 70 - born in Watertown, New York in 1934, today he celebrates his birthday - the artist has returned to subjects from his past. What inspired him with the shock and awe of revelation as a talented teenager in Watertown has been rediscovered and made new by Mr. Guinan, an artist celebrated in France yet long ignored and largely anonymous in his own country.

On a cold, sunny day in December, with Chicago's neighborhoods gaily bedecked in strands of yule lights, red-ribboned evergreen trees and wreaths and plastic Santas, Robert Guinan greeted this visitor at his front door in Chicago's Lake View district. One block to the west rose the dark skeleton of an elevated track, sending the rumbling, shrieking, roaring music of the working city through the quiet neighborhood with every passing train.

Since 1976, Mr Guinan and his wife, Birthe "Bee'' Svensson-Guinan, have lived in this three-story brick building on the city's North Side. They raised three sons in their first-floor apartment.

Perhaps he also paid homage there to his own Scottish heritage. His maternal grandfather, the late James Stewart, an immigrant from Scotland, was an amateur vaudeville entertainer known in Watertown for his impersonations of his native land's singing comedian, Sir Harry Lauder.

Dressed in Highland costumes, Mr. Stewart and his five children, including Mr. Guinan's mother, Dorothy, entertained throughout New York as Scottish musicians and dancers. Mr. Guinan himself once portrayed Harry Lauder in full Scottish regalia in a high school revue at Watertown's former Olympic Theater.
Mr. Guinan led the way up a narrow staircase to his third-floor studio. He works in a small front parlor furnished simply with an artist's paint-spattered materials. The blinds were drawn on its bay windows. The studio was harshly lit by a fluorescent ceiling lamp.

The artist's past was there in his work in progress, a painting in oil on a 7-foot-long, 41-inch-high canvas propped on easels. It was a scene from the Battle of New Orleans in 1815.
The painting was "allegorical,'' the artist pointed out. A Holstein calf in the lower right corner represented "booty and beauty,'' he said, the riches in treasure and women that made New Orleans a coveted prize for invaders.

The earthen rampart from which a cannoneer fired his gun was modeled from a mound of dirt that the artist scooped from his back yard.

The British soldiers and martial drummers in the foreground wore the red and tartan green uniforms of the Scottish Highland Regiment. The artist's oldest son, Paul, had found vintage toy soldiers that served as models. The bayonet-wielding soldiers were given pants for the sake of historical accuracy, after a New Orleans historian told Mr. Guinan that Highlanders in the War of 1812 replaced kilts with trousers because of the muddy ground there.

"But the musicians have to have kilts,'' said Mr. Guinan, invoking artistic license.

With a boyishly animated enthusiasm that makes him seem much younger than his years, Mr. Guinan pulled from a drawer copies of Blue Book, a popular adventure magazine from his boyhood. The work of its cover illustrator, Herbert Morton Stoops, was much admired by him.

"I used to copy these every month on white cardboard with poster paints out of jars,'' he said.

With his characteristic rapid, urgent speaking manner, he pointed out the illustrator's "post-impressionist'' brush strokes on an American Indian's pinto horse in a western frontier scene from the magazine's "These United States'' series.

Browsing in a secondhand book store in Chicago, Mr. Guinan was thrilled to find a copy too of an old Blue Book cover from that series that depicted the Battle of New Orleans. In his early teens, he had been greatly impressed by that Stoops illustration.

"The copy of that, I took to Miss Morley,'' he said.

His mother, the late Dorothy M. Guinan, had encouraged the boy's passionate interest and natural talent in art. He was 13 or 14 when she signed him up for night classes with Mary Morley, an art teacher at Watertown High School. At Immaculate Heart Academy, where Robert "Bob'' Guinan was known for his musical and acting talents, formal art instruction was not offered.

The classes met in the back room of an art supply shop in the wing of another teacher's house in Watertown. Mr. Guinan recalled once buying $5 worth of supplies at the shop.

"My old man was furious,'' he said. "How much did you pay for that stuff?!''

His father, the late Harold J. Guinan, owned the Overhead Door Co. in Watertown. He would have preferred that his only son become an engineer or a naval officer.

"For him, this was a threat,'' the artist said. "We never talked about it. It was as if it didn't exist. Gradually, he came around.''

His first instructor, Miss Morley, "was mentioned in Who's Who of American Art. She was known for painting red barns,'' said Mr. Guinan, whose anecdotes often come with incisive wit and a wryly deadpan delivery.

Miss Morley discouraged the student from his habit of copying from photographs and illustrations and steered him into painting still lifes from nature. But she did point out to him the Blue Book illustrator's deliberate techniques of composition when drawing the vivid New Orleans battle scene.

"All of a sudden, it was like [saint] Paul being knocked off his horse on the road to Damascus,'' Mr. Guinan said, shaking the revelatory magazine cover in his hands. "It was a design!''

Miss Morley's prize pupil was not yet 15 when his oil paintings were first exhibited at Flower Memorial Library. "Slightly on the impressionistic side, his paintings display a fine sense of color rendering, theming and composition, although still lacking a little in delineation,'' an anonymous critic wrote in the Watertown Daily Times, calling the small show "a most creditable exhibit for an artist of his age and training.''

That show led to annual exhibits of his works at the Watertown library through his high school years.

"They are of such character in composition, coloration and brush technique as to definitely forecast a promising future for him in the field of art,'' Times writer David F. Lane wrote in 1950. He praised the 16-year-old artist's "rare genius for capturing action in tense moments, and in rendering facial expressions which accurately represent the mood and thought of the character.''

Graduating from IHA in 1951, the artist took a more reliable path in earning a living. He moved to Rochester to take a job in a dental lab "making false teeth,'' he said. He lived in a YMCA hotel.

In Rochester, "I saw the movie Moulin Rouge,'' said Mr. Guinan, "and I thought I was Toulouse-Lautrec,'' the 19th-century French painter whose subjects often were drawn from Parisian night life.

After work in the dental lab, "I would go out in the joints and draw,'' Mr. Guinan said. "One joint was called the Green Mill,'' a name the young artist found especially appealing for its correspondence with the painter he idolized. "Toulouse-Lautrec hung out at the Moulin Rouge, the Red Mill,'' he noted.

"Going out and drawing these people at night, that was the big thing'' during his time in Rochester.

The young maker of prosthetic teeth was no newcomer to the bar scene. "I grew up in bars,'' he said. "Everybody who comes from Watertown, or almost everybody, a lot of people, know a lot about bar culture. There was an awful lot of going to bars by everybody.''

As an initiate in Watertown's bar culture, Mr. Guinan was drawn to the kinds of places where, in his Chicago years, he would find and sketch the human subjects that brought him a steady income and degree of celebrity in France. "I used to go to the places where no one wanted to go, the grungy places,'' he said. Among those former establishments were the O.K. Hotel on Arsenal Street and the Commercial Hotel on Court Street.

In 1953, anticipating he'd be drafted into the Army during the Korean War, Mr. Guinan enlisted in the Air Force. Serving as a radio operator in North Africa and Turkey, he continued to draw and paint while exploring exotic cultures. Again in the spirit and style of Toulouse-Lautrec, he sketched prostitutes and their clients in a Turkish brothel.

Returning to Watertown after his Air Force service, "I worked for my old man putting in garage doors,'' Mr. Guinan said. The work, and the subzero temperatures in which his crew on some days labored, were not to his liking.

In his spare time and during a spell of unemployment, he continued to paint. Borrowing from a neighbor's garage cache, he incorporated white house paint into his works on Masonite board, materials with which he continued to work in Chicago.

In 1959, Mr. Guinan enrolled at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago to pursue a degree in art education. He worked nights taking ads and death notices at the city's tabloid newspaper, the Sun-Times.

Carl Sandburg's "city of big shoulders'' became his beloved home, its bustling streets and sprawling flea markets, low-life taverns and music clubs his fertile sources of inspiration and artistic subjects.

"It's like loving a woman with a broken nose,'' Mr. Guinan said, quoting the late Chicago writer Nelson Algren's poignant description of the city. "There may be lovelier lovelies, but never a lovely so real.''

"I would draw at night while riding - Even though I carried a sketch pad small enough to be hidden by the seat back in front of me, people, especially women, would often sense that they were being observed, get up and move to another seat. Persons seated across the aisle, to my left and facing me, would be reflected against the night in the seat windows 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 the window. The riders no longer felt threatened by direct observation."

--Robert Guinan
At a station a short walk from the Guinans' home, we boarded an El train for downtown Chicago. As we rode, the city's postcard-perfect skyline, dominated by Sears Tower, appeared in the distance against a brilliant blue sky.

Mr. Guinan is a frequent rider on the city's connecting network of trains and buses. Since leaving Watertown, he went 40 years without a driver's license. At 65, he got one in Chicago, but he would rather ride and watch than get behind the wheel.

Robert's portrait of a lunch setting at the Cliff Dwellers hangs in the exclusive club's lobby.

In the lobby of a building on downtown Michigan Avenue, a security guard greeted Mr. Guinan and waved us through. We rode an elevator to the top-floor sanctum of the Cliff Dwellers, a club founded in 1907 by writer Hamlin Garland for artists, writers, musicians, and laymen with a serious interest in the arts.

These days, the wealthy, arts-supporting laymen far outnumber the artists at Cliff Dwellers. Mr. Guinan, for whom the club dues had become prohibitive, was made an honorary member.

Our lunch waiter, Billy Matthews, an African-American in his 80s who was part of the mid-20th-century exodus of Southern blacks to Chicago, was the subject of a Guinan painting in recent years. So too were some of his fellow Cliff Dwellers. Mr. Guinan, an urban sociologist without credentials and a conversationalist who listens and remembers well, has learned their stories.

Through the floor-to-ceiling windows in the club dining room, we looked out over Michigan Avenue and the city's renowned Art Institute to a yacht harbor and esplanade on Lake Michigan. Jutting into the frigid, steel-blue lake was Navy Pier, a sprawling red-brick Chicago landmark that has become an overcrowded, overpriced tourist destination much like other waterfront revitalization projects in other postindustrial American cities.

For Robert Guinan, Navy Pier represents the new Chicago, beautified and gentrified and commercialized and gutted behind its architectural facades. It's a city whose Mayor Richard Daley -- "Richie,'' to the irreverent Mr. Guinan, who has met the mayor and his wife, "Maggie'' -- has full-time summer crews tending the flowers planted along the boulevards, the artist sardonically noted. Newly landscaped median islands have made for narrower, more hazardous traffic lanes on Ashland Avenue, one of the city's busy thoroughfares.

The city's big shoulders "got narrower,'' said Mr. Guinan. Sandburg, the workingman's bard of that vanished city of stockyards and slaughterhouses and railroad yards, "is turning over in his grave.''

The artist has hunted in that other, endangered Chicago on the fringes of downtown that isn't reproduced on postcards or much visited by tour buses. He has found his subjects, some of whom he paid $20 to pose for an hour, in places like the Cut Rite Lounge, a Division Street bar that shares space with a liquor store on the ground floor of a two-story yellow house.
The female bartenders there are Polish immigrants; the drinkers at the long, well-stocked bar are a tolerant mix of blacks, whites, Hispanics, American Indians, and young Poles who converse and banter around the pool table in their native tongue.

The joint's Greek owners, attuned to the ongoing gentrification in their neighborhood, recently changed their business's name to Rite Cocktail Lounge and Liquors. The change on the storefront sign amused Mr. Guinan, who said he had "worn out my welcome there'' as an artist at work with pencils and sketchbook.

"My old corner hangout is either dead and gone or closed for remodeling. Real estate interests and the police have done it in, at least for the present."
-- Robert Guinan, in a 1990 letter to Albert Loeb

In 1971, an American art dealer with a gallery in Vienna, Austria, traveled to Chicago to see Mr. Guinan's paintings and lithographs. After several years of teaching in a suburban Chicago high school and in a community art center, Mr. Guinan was not prepared for what would follow.

"Bogosia" 1992

"At that time, I was 37 or 38,'' he said over lunch. "I had destroyed all my work. I wasn't getting anywhere with it.''

"I did that in Watertown,'' he said. "I was burning stuff.''

"I lost most of the work I did in the '60s because I was fed up about it and depressed and said, what's the point? I really regret that. I threw away years of my life there.''

"When I finally committed with that Viennese guy, I had eight pictures,'' Mr. Guinan said.

In spring of 1972, the dealer from Vienna brought three of Mr. Guinan's paintings -- including portraits in acrylic paint and tissue collage of a Chicago bar musician whom he'd befriended and a dancing street-corner evangelist well known in the city's Maxwell Street flea-market district -- to the prestigious international art fair in Basel, Switzerland.

Hilton Kramer, the influential and often acerbic art critic from the New York Times, noted Mr. Guinan's success there with his "large realistic paintings of blacks.'' He had been offered shows by dealers in Paris and New York, but the Viennese gallery already had "bought up the entire contents of the artist's studio.''

"Whether Mr. Guinan's painting proves equal to such energetic attention is another question,'' Mr. Kramer wrote. "He strikes this observer as an artist of distinctly limited gifts who makes his impression primarily on the basis of his timely and dramatic subject matter.''

Mr. Guinan's portraits much impressed Albert Loeb, a French art dealer and gallery owner in Paris and the son of Pierre Loeb, who mounted the first show of Surrealist art in the 1920s.

"Albert Loeb got turned on by the big picture of Emile at the piano,'' said Mr. Guinan. In 1970, the artist painted his Shakespeare-quoting musician friend, Emile Breda, seated at his living-room piano in minimalist thong underwear and slippers. "He's handled my work ever since,'' [Mr. Guinan] said of his friend and patron from Paris.

In his enthusiasm for Mr. Guinan's work, the Paris dealer paid $1,000 for two paintings that the artist had "left out with the garbage.''

"It was like being carried off by angels,'' said Mr. Guinan.

In an unusual arrangement between dealer and artist, Mr. Loeb, who makes yearly visits to Chicago, buys all of Mr. Guinan's works and sends the artist a monthly check. The dealer pays shipping costs, publishing expenses for the artist's gallery shows in Paris, and Mr. Guinan's travel expenses there.

Normally, an artist is paid only when a work is sold and receives 50 percent of the sale price. Increasingly, dealers are claiming 60 percent for themselves, Mr. Guinan said.

"I've never seen a situation like this. I've been spoiled,'' he said. "I know a lot of artists, really good artists, who have to have a day job. They have to do something else.''

In Paris, Mr. Guinan's urban portraits and streetscapes for a time were far more admired by the gallery owner than by his clients.

"During the first few years, nobody bought anything because I was a newcomer,'' Mr. Guinan said. "But I was drawing a monthly paycheck.''

By the late 1970s, his work had risen in popularity, price, and critical esteem across the Atlantic.

"Robert Guinan's work in its silent force meets all the great creations of art history,'' one French journalist gushed after viewing a 1976 exhibit.
A Guinan painting now hangs in actor Johnny Depp's home in southern France. Mr. Guinan, who shows no interest in money and business matters, said that painting "probably went for $50,000."

Francois Mitterrand, late president of France, bought from the Galerie Albert Loeb a portrait of Emile Breda, an African-American, seated beside a heater in his den, with laundry hung to dry in a dark room behind him. Mr. Mitterrand had the Chicago portrait hung on a staircase wall in the Paris office of his Socialist Party.

"Is that one of your ancestors too?" a visiting Japanese Socialist leader is said to have asked his host, Mr. Mitterrand. Mr. Guinan is much amused by the anecdote.

A French government agency has bought some of his pictures. "They're in embassies around the world," Mr. Guinan said. One of his paintings from one of Chicago's former dives, the Bohemian Club Bar, "is now in the French embassy in Nairobi,'' he said.

"This whole thing has been very strange for me, like living in some kind of fantasy,'' he said.

The artist is not inclined to believe his press clippings from France. He is a painter, not a savior of the Chicagoans he met and sketched while on the hunt. "It's all about this guy in Chicago who at night goes out and befriends hookers and junkies and helps them," said Mr. Guinan, whom a French film crew followed on his urban forays for a 1995 public television documentary titled Division Street U.S.A. "What this means is that by now, after 30 years of this, there's a real market."
"It was fantastic," said Mr. Guinan's sister, Patricia M. Gravelle, a Pillar Point resident. "We were amazed at the public opening. There were so many people there, dignitaries, and to see all his work up there, being so admired.'' Among the admirers was France's prime minister at the time, Lionel Jospin.

"Everything went, just about, that was on the walls," said the artist's brother-in-law and high school classmate, retired Watertown fire chief Joseph H. Gravelle. "Some sold in excess of 100,000 bucks."

Mr. Guinan's relatives in the north country saw evidence of that marketable commodity at a 2001 exhibit of his more recent works at the Loeb gallery in Paris.

Mr. Gravelle said Mr. Guinan's success far from home stems from "a fascination with African-American culture in France."

For the artist, "It's also kind of a curse too," said his brother-in-law.
"That show I did in 2001, of black musicians" in Chicago blues and jazz bars, said Mr. Guinan. "They sold out … but not the whites'' who were the subjects of some paintings in that Paris show.

"It has nothing to do with the painting," Mr. Guinan said of his reputation in France. "It has to do with this world, this exotic world'' of black urban America. "They love this stuff.''

"A lot of these pictures of down-and-outers, blacks, were purchased by right-wing government people in France," he said.

"I've always thought, what the hell do people see when they see the Bohemian Club or the El or these drug addicts?"

Billy Matthews, whose portrait in his white waiter's jacket at the Cliff Dwellers sold at the 2001 show in Paris, brought over our lunch tab. Mr. Guinan signed it.

"The French glommed on to Jerry Lewis," he said. "I don't see why he's great. Maybe they see something we don't see."

"This is Robert Guinan,'' said gallery owner Richard Cohan, welcoming a visitor to CityFiles, a shop devoted to Chicago art and books in Evanston, the city's dignified neighbor to the north. "He is a spectacular Chicago painter."

And rather spectacularly unknown in his beloved city. But Mr. Guinan shrugs off that long neglect.

"I love to be able to walk down the street and nobody knows who I am,'' he said. "It's a wonderful feeling."

"There's enough people interested in my work. People have been interested for years.''

"People from Chicago bought my work in Paris, not here,'' he told a gallery visitor.

In the Christmas shopping season, Mr. Cohan mounted a rare show of several of Mr. Guinan's colored drawings and oil paintings on lithographs. The exhibit, and the Chicago artist who has long worked outside the orbit and regard of the city's art community, were the subjects of a feature story in the Chicago Sun-Times that drew curious visitors there.

Mr. Guinan showed up alone on a Saturday afternoon. It's a tradition in Paris, he said, for the artist to appear at his gallery exhibit from 3 to 7 p.m. on Saturdays.

"Mary Turner,'' Mr. Guinan said, pointing to a portrait he did as a lithograph in the late '70s and recently reworked in oil paint. "She was a cook at Evanston Hospital." The hunting artist met her on a city bus.

"Ruby," he said, pointing to a reworked portrait of a black woman in matching red hat and dress.

Ruby had an abusive husband. "She finally killed him," Mr. Guinan said. "She stabbed him. She did seven years in Joliet," a maximum-security state prison outside Chicago.

The works on the gallery walls ranged in price from $1,400 for a colored pencil drawing of a black jazz musician to $20,000 for a large oil painting of St. John Cantius Church, a Roman Catholic church rising above the kind of bleak, tourist-uninviting cityscape that catches Mr. Guinan's painterly eye. Other paintings, whose subjects were sketched at the Checker Board Lounge, Chicago's famous South Side blues bar, were priced at $5,000 and $6,000.

"I don't involve myself with this stuff," Mr. Guinan said on the subject of prices and a possibly forthcoming American edition of Agnes de Maistre's "Guinan,'' an art book published in France in 1991. "I'm not a businessman. I should be looking out for myself, but I don't. I just back away when they start talking to me."

"I love your work. It's wonderful," one woman told him.

She and her husband had bought a Guinan portrait of a blues trumpet player as a gift for her parents. The artist himself with the gallery owner would deliver it on Christmas Eve to their home in Hyde Park on the city's South Side.

"There's a real Toulouse-Lautrec feel to it," another woman told him, turnng away from a portrait of a dapperly dressed black man titled "Steve At The Bar."

"Yes, he's my hero," Mr. Guinan said, "even when I was a teenager."

Another woman, an amateur artist, commented on "imagination" as she studied Mr. Guinan's works in his patient company.

"Mine has atrophied lately," he said in his deadpan manner, "because I'm not exercising it enough. That's why I'm just copying things now."

Will he continue painting? The woman wanted to know.

"I have to,'' he said. "It's an affliction. It's a disease. I was born with it. I tried to kill it for years."

C'est la vie, as they say in France.