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Robert Guinan, painter of gritty and lovely Chicago, dead at 82

Artist Robert Guinan. | Sun-Times file photo

If Stuart Dybek and Nelson Algren were painters instead of writers, their art might resemble the canvasses of Bob Guinan.

Mr. Guinan painted the tired residents of flophouses and the happy drunks in taverns that exist only on old matchbook covers. He portrayed postal workers, prostitutes, day laborers, singers and street musicians. His works were gritty yet luminous, intimate but respectful.

“He had that love of the subject — love of the human being behind the hat, behind the torn stockings,” said Paul Berlanga of Berlanga Fine Art & Photographs.

Though Mr. Guinan never became a Chicago celebrity, his oils and acrylics were sought-after in France, where those who bought them included former President Francois Mitterrand and Johnny Depp, who wanted Mr. Guinan to give him private art lessons.

Working from a North Side studio, he turned out pictures of L trains, Maxwell Street, blues clubs, factories and the avant-garde jazz maestros of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. His more down-and-out subjects looked like they could use a cup of coffee, a fresh haircut and a loan.

Chicago nightlife by Bob Guinan | wwwbigredhair.com

Chicago nightlife by Bob Guinan. | wwwbigredhair.com

“When that smell of stale beer drifts out of a tavern,” he once told the Chicago Sun-Times, “for me, it’s perfume, you know?”

“His work is just extraordinary. When I first saw it, I gasped. I thought, ‘How could I possibly not know of him?’ ” said Alex Kotlowitz, who featured the painter in his book “Never a City so Real.”

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A work by artist Bob Guinan. | Sun-Times file photo

Mr. Guinan, 82, died Sunday in Evanston after a struggle with lymphoma. Though he lost the sight in one eye, he achieved his goal of completing a seven-picture series on Clark Street, done from memories of the 1960s, when it was less upscale.

“He was drawing and painting up until a few days before he died,” said his son, Sean.

“I think Robert Guinan knew where to find the real Chicago where it still exists — the neighborhood places, the neighborhood people,” said Chicago cultural historian Tim Samuelson, who displays his own Guinan painting, of a long-gone Greek social club, at his City Hall office.

Its Rust Belt realism couldn’t be more authentic. After crumbling some rust into dust, “He put real rust on the painting,” Samuelson said.

“He’s one of the great figurative modern painters,” said author Rich Cahan.

Mr. Guinan grew up in Watertown, New York, and joined the Air Force, serving as a radio operator in Turkey. Like a favorite artist, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, he felt the pull of the demimonde.

“He began that habit of drawing people in bars and people [who were] destitute, musicians, prostitutes,” Sean Guinan said.

In 1959, he entered the Art Institute. He lived on Skid Row.

“The fact that the city was kind of rundown was very exciting,” said his son.

Painting by Bob Guinan | Sun-Times files

Painting by Bob Guinan. | Sun-Times file photo

Later, he became an instructor at the Art Institute. Sean Guinan wrote on Facebook, “He brought dead goats to school for his students to draw and horrified his co-workers by storing the animals in the staff refrigerator. He loved [to] go to Maxwell Street every Sunday morning to hear blues and buy 78 rpm records.”

A work by Bob Guinan | www.bigredhair.com

A work by Bob Guinan. | http://www.bigredhair.com

For 35 years, his paintings were sold in Paris by dealer Albert Loeb, who paid him a monthly salary. The arrangement worked out well because Mr. Guinan was not the most prolific artist, his son said. Depp dropped by the gallery, Sean Guinan said, and “just flipped, absolutely loved the stuff,” buying a “picture of an amputee prostitute.”

In a 2003 interview with GQ, Depp talked about what attracted him.

“He paints this hard, dark south side of Chicago stuff — like a Tom Waits song,” the actor said. “He’s someone who deserves some love, some press.”

Mr. Guinan might have had some “small amount of sorrow” that he didn’t achieve the fame of peers such as Ed Paschke, his son said, but “the idea that, like Josephine Baker, that he was famous in Europe, that he was famous in France, I think that was sort of romantic to him.”

When Depp came to Chicago to film “Public Enemies,” Bob Guinan entertained him at his home.

“They drank together, and they played these old Turkish records, and Depp totally loved it,” Sean Guinan said.

He said Depp even asked for art lessons, but they couldn’t make their schedules mesh.

Mr. Guinan is also survived by two more sons, David and Paul; a daughter, Edith; a sister, Patricia Gravelle, his partner, Rita O’Hara, and a granddaughter, Anna. Mr. Guinan’s wife, Birthe, died in 2008. A memorial is planned at 7 p.m. Friday at The Cliff Dwellers club at 200 S. Michigan.

Artist Bob Guinan | supplied photo

Artist Bob Guinan. | Provided photo