Larry Stanton Painting and Drawing, Twelvetrees Press, 1986
Larry Stanton was born in Rockville Center, Long Island on July 21, 1947, when his mother and father were already in their early forties. His father, a graduate of Columbia University and the Juilliard School of Music, dreamed of becoming a recognized composer while working in Manhattan as a music arranger and proofreader. Believing that if he were even going to realize his dream he would have to do so before getting much older, he moved the family to a 200-acre dairy farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains about a year after Larry was born. Here, he expected to work on his composing while he employed a professional manager to run the farm. He hoped to supplement his income with freelance arranging. The plan was further fortified by a belief that raising a family in a country environment would be beneficial.
His high expectations, however, foundered on the reality of operating a small farm which produced so little income that he had to do the backbreaking work himself to earn any living at all. The freelance music business never materialized, and any hope of concentrating on his composing quickly vanished. Under these pressures, he became subject to an increasing number of sudden outbursts of temper which overwhelmed the loving side of his nature and frightened his family, especially his young son. At least twice he spoke of shooting them all, a threat made credible by his extensive gun collection. Larry had a difficult time dealing with his temperamental father and staying out of his way when his mood was explosive. Mrs. Stanton, a sensitive and attractive woman, at least once considered leaving with the children. However, after eight years of struggle, Mr. Stanton gave up farming to return to his former work in Manhattan. The dairy portion of the farm was sold, easing the financial pressure. That, plus his absence during the weeks, relieved a lot of the previous tension.
Even though his hopes of supporting the family by writing music on the farm failed, Larry’s father worked at composing all his life. The children believed their father always regretted not becoming a successful composer. Nevertheless, in spite of producing numerous scores, he could never summon the self-confidence to show his music to a publisher or musician who might have played it.
By the time I met Larry’s father in 1967, he was a pleasant, charming man with an appealing eccentric quality. I never saw his darker side. After he retired, Larry and I once visited and found him walking everywhere on his toes, to Mrs. Stanton’s amusement. He was convinced that horses had developed their strong legs from such an effort. Although skeptical, I was attracted to the experiment and tried it, but noticing no results, I gave it up. Another time we found him taking two tablespoons of safflower oil, claiming that regular dosages kept his joints limber.
With age came a calmness and the disappearance of much of his earlier tension. He became a loving, supportive parent, and he remained so even when he became aware of Larry’s sexual orientation. The contrast between the fathers of these two periods made it difficult for Larry to resolve his hostility toward the earlier one with the love felt for his father in later years.
Larry saw himself as being like his father in many ways. Both showed a low tolerance for minor frustrations, both were more comfortable with artistic pursuits than practical affairs, and both were reluctant to show their work to others. Larry overcame this fear as his painting matured and his confidence increased. When Larry was growing up, his father encouraged his interest in art. Yet even this support was touched by Mr. Stanton’s eccentricity. Larry remembered with amusement how his father would cut out nude figures from drawing books for Larry to copy; but in cutting them out, his father would also snip out the genital areas so that these portions of the anatomy were suggested only by gaping holes. Presumably this practice protected Larry from salacious thoughts. Later on, Larry said he wished his father had removed the hands and feet instead; then at least he wouldn’t have had an excuse for his difficulty in drawing them.
After high school, Larry entered Cooper Union on an art scholarship. He stayed only a semester before dropping out and taking a job in the mailroom of an advertising agency as a prelude to a career in this field. He hated the job and soon moved to working in an ice cream parlor which was, at that time, a popular haunt for homosexuals. During this period he came out. His looks were so extraordinary that word of him spread throughout much of the gay community in Manhattan. I had heard about him six months before I actually met him in the summer of 1967. He seemed to be a good-humored, strong-willed young man who was unsure of what he wanted to do in life. That fall I was to move to Los Angeles, and I persuaded him to come with me. The following February he enrolled in the Art Center College of Design, which he attended for two semesters and where he received his first formal instruction in art. He applied himself intensively to the demanding curriculum, doing well even in the academic subjects which had given him trouble in high school. His experience at art school convinced him that it was possible for him to make a career in art. School also provided another benefit, for it was there he met Alice Sulit, a commercial art student from the Philippines, who became one of the most important people in his life. In spite of his schedule, he still found time to get to know many of the people who would become lifelong friends, including another artist with many similar interests, David Hockney.
In the fall of 1968, Larry and I traveled to Europe, staying for a while with David, who was back living in London. It was the time when the movie about David, A Bigger Splash, was being made and Larry was filmed sitting on the couch next to David, chain-smoking. No words were exchanged, nor was there any indication of who he was, but a still photograph of the scene was circulated as publicity. More significant for Larry’s future, however, was our meeting with Henry Geldzahler, who was also staying with David. Henry was, at that time, the well-publicized Curator of Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum. But more than that, he was at the very center of the contemporary art world.
On returning to New York, Larry was offered his father's $40-a-month rent-controlled tenement apartment, since his father was retiring to Florida. It was an opportunity which couldn't be passed up, so he stayed in New York while I returned to California. He obtained a scholarship from the New School for a class in printmaking, and he began to apply himself to that and to drawing. In January 1970, he had his first show of drawings at the Gotham Gallery. In the spring, he received a $4,000 grant for printmaking from the Tiffany Foundation. He also began to see more of Henry. It was Henry who opened up the world of art to him, and he was an avid pupil. In addition, he was captivated by Henry's charm and warmth and developed for him an intensity of feeling which later waned but never disappeared. Together they traveled to Italy and Tunisia but, after returning, they gradually drifted apart. Still, their association remained a major influence on Larry's life.
Winter of 1971 saw Larry off on a trip with another friend, this time on safari to sub-Saharan Africa. When he returned, he claimed to have seen enough giraffes to last a lifetime, and he looked forward to working again. Soon he found a tiny basement space in the Italian section of the Village where, for the first time, he had a place in which he could paint. To get to it, he had to climb down two oversize steps and pass through a well-like basement entrance where the light was always broken. The light was over a drain which had been adopted as a public urinal in a city without any, and the people who used it continued to break the light bulb to hamper observation. To keep his studio habitable, he was always having to shoo them away. He joked that if he could sell trips to the toilet instead of paintings, we'd be rich. Nevertheless, he was pleased with the studio. On weekends, Alice, now living in New York, tried to maintain a semblance of order, but her efforts met with only moderate success.
By early 1972, when I had also moved to New York, I noticed that Larry was drinking again, which he had not done in California. He never took drugs, even during the height of the '60s drug period. Since the beer to which he limited himself appeared to have little effect except for engendering a mellowness, it didn't seem that significant. In addition to his drinking, he developed a fear of flying, so when we went away, he took the train whenever possible. After one trip to Florida, he reported with great amusement that almost everyone on the train, while not admitting it, was afraid to fly, and they were secret alcoholics who spent the whole trip clustered around the bar in the club car. One lady said to him that she wasn't afraid to fly, but didn't he think the train was going "a little fast."
Gradually, however, I observed Larry was compulsive about starting to drink every day by mid-afternoon. I also noticed that, while he was painting daily, his pace seemed too relaxed to be fully committed. I attributed this apparent lack of commitment to a growing interest in photography which we had begun to pursue. In addition, Larry started making films and proved to be gifted, so I thought his interest might be shifting from painting to filmmaking. Among those, he made were a few on David Hockney, one of David's doing works based on "The Man with the Blue Guitar" by Wallace Stevens, and another showing David making Paper Pools at Ken Tyler's print workshop in Bedford Village, N.Y. During this period, Larry was also bringing back to his place young men he met in his forays around the city. Once when his apartment was robbed, I suggested it was someone he knew. "No," he smiled, "I think it was someone I brought home." However, by late 1977 he wasn't going around as much, perhaps from a general lassitude and a noticeable puffiness in his appearance resulting from his drinking. He complained of lingering feelings of anxiety, which I failed to realize were being kept at bay by the constant flow of alcohol.
In 1976 Larry's mother was diagnosed as having cancer. Until May of 1978 it progressed slowly, causing the family only moderate alarm, but from then until she died in June, its pace quickened and she suffered a great deal. The bond between Larry and his mother was particularly close. When his sisters went away to college and with his father mostly in Manhattan, they were left alone on the farm. The tensions that had marred his earlier years had lifted, and their time together was extremely happy. The inadequacies he felt at school and in front of his father became less important with the strength of her love and support. His mother had high ambitions for him and a great pride in him which he intensely wished to justify. Larry had always thought of his mother as beautiful with a sort of film-star quality, an idea reinforced by the movie success of Hillary Brooke, her first cousin. Larry saw much of the same glamour in his mother and was sure she could have pursued a similar career if she had wished.
Faced with her final illness, he tried to deny in his own mind that she was really dying. Her suffering caused him great anguish. When she finally died it was some time before the pain of her loss fully registered; then he was overwhelmed by grief and a sense of failure. He had not achieved the success he felt she expected of him and would never be able to prove his worth to her. His misery was intensified by the depressive effects of his alcoholism and resulted in a psychological collapse for which he needed hospitalization. Yet even in the midst of his psychotic episode, he showed a determination to recover, but to do this he realized he needed to break his alcohol dependence. Just before he left for the hospital, he taped a note to his drink on which he printed, "Larry's last beer, Nov 1978." He never drank again.
Despite his hard struggle to recover from his breakdown, his mischievous quality never left him. Once, when the hospital allowed him to join me for a "supervised" walk, he wore my T-shirt with the letters "S K P" on it. They meant nothing to me - I liked their enigmatic quality - but he laughingly saw in them a warning that a mental patient was on the loose, wandering around the Village: es-ca-pee.
Larry emerged from his experience with a new and intense commitment to realize his potential as an artist. All his energy was now turned toward this goal, and he plunged into his work with a single-minded dedication not in evidence during his drinking days. Adding to his victory over alcohol, he conquered his addiction to smoking. He worked on every aspect of his painting. Although he was already knowledgeable in art history, he pored over books in the library, reading about artists, copying old masters, and researching the technical aspects of painting. He practiced his drawing constantly, redoing over and over the areas he felt he needed to improve, such as hands and feet. He experimented with everything related to his work, often using the technical information gleaned from his reading. He was obsessed with achieving a beautiful painting surface and experimented with many different undercoatings, emulsions, and tints, making various combinations and filing samples of each so he could compare them. He developed a substantial knowledge of the technical aspects of paints and textures traditionally used by artists. He tried his work in different media: charcoal, oil crayon, pencil, and pen, as well as paint. Most of all, he drew. He carried his notebook everywhere and sketched the people he saw in his wanderings around the city. Sometimes, his subjects were suspicious of his drawing them and more than one reacted as if he were collecting their likenesses for the police. He also drew his friends, his relations, and the young men he discovered. It seemed as if he would draw anyone who would sit still long enough to be drawn, and when there was no one else around, he drew himself.
Soon he was able to move to a studio nearer to his apartment. While larger than the previous one, it was still small. He longed for more space so he could work on bigger canvases. He considered going outside the city, but decided against it, for it was in the city where he found the subjects for his work. While he painted in his studio, he drew in his apartment. Both spaces were cluttered with everything he used for his work: blank canvases, stretchers, paintings, drawings, art supplies, photographs and photographic equipment, as well as art books, and the little stuffed animals savaged by his slightly deranged cat, Sydney. On first seeing his studio, a visitor might wonder where there was room to fit anyone, even the artist.
Yet, by 1983 his studio was attracting a constant stream of young writers and artists who admired his work and sought his company. His attempts at representation contrasted with the interests of most of the other painters who frequented his studio, many of whom painted abstractly. In addition, most of them were commercially much more successful than he was. Nevertheless, they were drawn to his work, to the technical knowledge he had acquired, and to him personally. The writers who came were mostly poets, many of whom were gay and whose writings reflected this experience. They found a common interest in his paintings since his life touched their own. As his reputation grew among these young, creative people, he began to attract a wider public and gain a few commissions. In 1983 Holly Solomon, a prominent art dealer, commissioned two portraits, one of herself and one of her son. Despite these successes, Larry still found it impossible to earn a living from his painting. He hated trying to sell his own work and worrying about the problems which often resulted. He was eager to find a dealer to handle his work, something he believed would mitigate his financial problems and help him achieve the wider recognition he sought.
A show finally materialized when Holly Solomon decided to include two of his oversized portraits in an exhibition of three painters at her gallery, then in Soho. When the show opened, his paintings had been edged out of the gallery into the large windows facing West Broadway, but in fact, they were much noticed from the street and looked arresting. David Hockney, already an admirer of Larry's work, told Holly, somewhat to her dismay, that Larry's work was the best thing in her gallery. Following this exhibition, the Aaron Berman Gallery asked Larry to be in a show. Then in April 1984, Larry was included in a major group exhibition at PS1 in Queens, a city-owned exhibition space, where prominent guest curators install works of young artists they consider promising. After Larry died, several people wrote to say that his paintings in this show, their first contact with his work, had affected them strongly. Early that summer he was included in a group exhibition of "small" paintings at the Magic Gallery in the East Village and then he was elated when Charles Cowles promised him a show in his gallery. Thus, in the year or so before he died, his work was gaining increased attention as he developed a consistent quality and the beginnings of a mature personal style.
The AIDS epidemic began to impinge on Larry's and my life in the summer of 1982, with the first death of a personal friend. After that, friends were stricken with harrowing frequency. In 1983 Larry and I traveled to Boston to comfort one particularly close friend, Patrick Porter, who was terminally ill at the age of only 22. In February 1984, Larry developed shingles, but after numerous tests, his doctor assured us there were no signs of immune problems. After the shingles cleared up, Larry was periodically afflicted with unpleasant skin rashes, until August, when he came down with a persistent cold and sore throat. Just as a precaution, he went for a complete physical on September 5th. It took a few days for all the test results to come back, but on the 9th, current medical knowledge gave him a clean bill of health. A test for HIV was still in the future. Yet by then his cold was worse, and he was having trouble breathing. On the 12th, he went back to the clinic and was sent to New York Hospital, where a bronchoscopy revealed pneumocystis carinii pneumonia. The doctors expressed optimism about successfully controlling the pneumonia but were frank that his outlook beyond that treatment was grim. I was told that the death rate from this infection was 100% within 18 months. One of the first thing Larry said to me, referring to the difference in age between himself and Patrick, was, "At least I've had some years of life."
In the hospital, Larry turned to his experience with Alcoholics Anonymous, where winning the struggle against alcoholism is achieved "one day at a time," partly through reliance on a higher power and the support of other successful convalescents. He had overcome many of his personal problems in the past through willpower, but willpower was not effective in fighting a disease which did not respond to determination and strength of character. For the first 10 days, he drew, with great effort, beautiful but simplified drawings which were all that his strength allowed. One of the first proclaimed his hope in giant, bright capital letters set against the sky: "I'm going to make it." However, in spite of the doctors' optimism, he failed to rally, as the drugs used had no effect, something which happened in about 30% of pneumocystis cases at that time. As he got worse, he drew two faces weeping, with the inscription “anger, fear, pain, hope.” He said one face was me and the other himself, crying even though he couldn’t, because of the release he wanted it to bring. His condition deteriorated still more, and with his hope waning, he drew a figure in the midst of a great sea, standing in a boat whose seaworthiness looked uncertain, with the message, "I'm here, God." He was anxious to have friends near him all day, and Alice at night; but he was so brave that the hospital staff wondered if he were fully aware of his condition. Every day, breathing became more and more difficult until it took all his energy and drawing proved beyond his strength. Four weeks after entering the hospital, he died. He was 37.
Even though he died unrecognized as the artist he longed to be, I used to point out to him, when he was discouraged, how few people are privileged to leave behind any legacy that will enrich other lives and give some people pleasure. Part of his measure as a person was that he was able to overcome many of his personal demons to reach the goal he set for himself. Somewhere he found the strength to surmount his adversities and begin to create the work he had struggled so hard to achieve. One can't help wondering where his efforts might have taken him if he had had the time to realize his potential.
For me, his death was a personal blow beyond the loss of an artist whose work I admired. For eighteen years he was the person I loved and my closest companion. One day in the hospital he tried to think of something which would cause me to remember him when he was gone and my memory of him had dimmed. After reflecting for a moment, he said, "I know, think of me when it thunders." It sounded like a good idea but it hasn't worked out as we expected. It doesn't thunder every day.