Robert Grant died suddenly in the early morning hours of Memorial Day this year. His death shocked everyone.
Robert always told me he acted as a kid, and that he was one of the original kids on The Electric Company (a show that I watched a lot in the 1970s), but I had no idea just how successful an actor he was.
Here he is on The Electric Company in the early 1970s. I think the man giving the introduction is the young Morgan Freeman.
And here he is again a little later doing a guest appearance on Good Times as Eddie the Bully. I remember seeing this episode and one or two others with Eddie the Bully when they originally aired over 40 years ago. I had no idea that it was Robert until after he died last week. Eddie apparently had a fan following that's lasted down through the years. I found some "where are they now?" fan sites featuring Robert.
Robert acted, sang, and danced, and even strutted the stage on Broadway in Maggie Flynn. He also did some film roles.
Robert was a modest mensch who never mentioned any of this to me. I knew he acted as a kid, and I knew he was on The Electric Company, but I had no idea he had such a big career.
I knew Robert as an artist. I shared a studio with him at the Clemente Soto Velez Center with him for almost 20 years. About 1999, I needed a studio mate, and Robert at the time was reduced to working in a small garage in Williamsburg in Brooklyn. So he moved in and began a long period of great productivity.
So much of Robert's work in those early years was channeling the spirit of his beloved mother Claudia Grant. Robert was a straight boy who lived a lot of gay boys' dreams of having an Auntie Mame to introduce him to life and to show him how to live it to the fullest. Claudia was the one who inspired Robert to take up music and theater. She played the role of muse and mentor for Robert even long after she died.
So much of the work that he did in those years incorporated the stuff of stage spectacle and larger than life personas; glitter, feathers, bright colors, party dresses, and fans.
Here is a small sample of some of that work:
I think this is a particularly well done painting/collage that has some of the formal beauty and discipline of the collages of Kurt Schwitters, but so very different in spirit. Robert's has very mixed emotions of joy and tragedy.
I wish I had some pictures of them, but Robert made a whole series of paintings in the shape of a party dress like those his mother Claudia used to wear. Those painted dresses carried a remarkable range of color effects and emotion from joyous exuberance to dark tragedy. These later paintings and collages reproduced here hint at some of those qualities.
In the last few years of his life, Robert began doing smaller paintings and collages in black and white. These were inspired by his late father in law who was also an artist. While the size of these pictures was small, they expanded the scope of Robert's work both thematically and formally. These paintings dealt with Robert's emerging religious faith, his identity as an African American artist, and his long relationship with music. I think these were some of his best works.
Robert's homage to Jean Michel Basquiat, an artist who meant a lot to him, and to my students.
Robert's collage painting is quite a bit more structured than most of Basquiat's work. It's organized around a diagonal grid, very similar to early cubist painting. Robert's brushwork is much more broad and rougher, similar to Abstract Expressionist painters like DeKooning. Robert's brushwork could sometimes be rough, but it was never slap-dash or crude. Robert uses a limited palette of colors (these paintings are not quite monochrome) to give the painting a sense of loss and tragedy fitting to Basquiat's sad and premature end.
Robert takes on religious issues in this painting. It's very hard to photograph, but Robert used a little gold glitter here and there in the black and white brushwork. Perhaps he meant this to be a very distant nod to more traditional religious art. It also recalls his own earlier work that used glitter a lot. He uses glitter to different ends here, suggesting something more transcendent along with a little show biz dazzle.
A blue sectional scan of a head intrudes upon this black and white painting giving it a seriousness and ambition beyond a simple formal arrangement of limited colors.
These are some of Robert's best and most ambitious works. Watching Robert work on this series, and watching its progress unfold was very exciting. I regret that we will not have more of these paintings.
One of the last photographs of Robert standing before a wall full of these black and white paintings.
Many years ago, I arranged a solo show of Robert's work at the college gallery at Bronx Community College. I remember how striking his work was on the gallery walls apart from the clutter of his studio. I always liked his work, but then in the neutral gallery environment it really shined. A lot of students and faculty loved his work.
Robert was a musician. I knew him as a guitarist and a great one, but he also played drums and sang. He performed a lot with his very close friend Debi Ray Chaudhuri seen above to the left. Robert liked everything from Django Rheinhardt to 1970s punk and early metal; especially King Crimson.
Robert taught art in grade schools in the New York City public school system for many years. Robert was a serious educator, and enjoyed teaching very much despite the difficulty of working for New York City public schools.
Here is Robert with his wife Eileen who is also an artist.
Unlike so many artists and musicians that I know who are estranged from their families, Robert remained close to his. The years only strengthened the bonds with his own family from Ohio, and with his in-laws, especially with his father in law, another accomplished artist. Through his wife Eileen, Robert became a regular at Saint Joseph of the Holy Family Church in Harlem on 125th street just within sight of the famous Apollo Theater. I attended his funeral there.
Knowing Robert was a privilege and a blessing. He was the most gentle of souls, kind and modest. He was an anchor of decency in an environment full of artists who sometimes suffered from too much artist temperament. He led a remarkable and accomplished life, so much of which I'm finding out only now. He so rarely talked about himself. He was a modest man who left us too soon, but touched us all.
Two very old and dear friends of mine flew over the western horizon this past month, Paul Lane and Robert Grant.
We will all die. Our bodies will quickly disintegrate. The people who know us and know of us will all die, so every memory of us will die with them. The earth, the planets, and the stars will eventually die. At the very end, the structure of matter itself will come unstrung in cold dark entropy. “Dust thou art and unto dust shalt thou return.” Even the dust itself and the space it occupies will end and there will be absolutely nothing left.
Nothing is forever.
And knowing all that, I wish Paul and Robert could have stayed awhile longer. They left us too soon.
In the face of certain extinction, I believe (perhaps foolishly) that we will all somehow and in some fashion live again, and that we will meet again glorious and unafraid. Until that time, Paul and Robert my friends, I will miss you. Until that time, adieu.
Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men by the Sea at Moonrise, 1817
Paul Lane died suddenly and unexpectedly last Sunday barely three weeks after a cancer diagnosis. The week before, shortly after he entered the hospital for his first chemo treatment, his condition suddenly fell through the floor. When I first visited him in the hospital, he was sedated and on a respirator. He died just forty five minutes before I arrived last Sunday for a second visit. Fortunately there were people to intercept me as I arrived and broke the news to me. I visited him one last time before they removed him from the room. He was only 57.
His passing is a great shock to me and to legions of other people. His death is a shock not simply for its suddenness, but for the huge gap he leaves behind in the lives of so many, in the lives of the communities he served well for so long. A lot of people depended on Paul, and he made himself indispensable.
Paul led an extraordinary life. Originally from Trenton, New Jersey, he followed the path of so many young gay men in the late '70s and early '80s into New York and its burgeoning gay scene. He was young and good looking and worked as a cocktail waiter at the long past and now legendary Uncle Charlie's. He remembered wearing hot pants to work, and how sore his tuchus was from being pinched all night. He worked as an occasional "escort," mostly as arm candy for wealthy gentlemen at public events. He once escorted Roy Cohn to the opera. Paul remembered him as a very bitter and paranoid man; it was not a fun date and he was glad to be paid for it.
Paul lived in Paris for five years as a young man. He had a lover there, and they remained friends. Paul regularly visited his ex and his family among with other old friends whenever he travelled to Paris. Paul had a talent for languages and he spoke French like a native (so I'm told). He also spoke Spanish, Italian, and Catalan, along with a little German. In his years in Paris, he worked odd jobs, mostly clerical, and he got his first taste of politics; not so much in the halls of power, but in the streets. Paul's politics were definitely to the left, and he frequently joined street protests over labor issues, gay issues, and other issues pitting the marginalized and despised against the powerful. He remembered Paris as the place where he was tear-gassed twice as well as for his first tastes of really fine food.
Paul was a deeply religious man born and raised in the Roman Catholic Church. He never really quite left that Catholic faith so much as the Catholic Church discarded him for being a gay man. While in Paris, he became a regular at an Eastern Orthodox congregation in the medieval church of Saint Julien le Pauvre. After he returned to New York, he followed the path of so many religious gay men into the Episcopal Church where he remained very active for the rest of his life.
Paul worked for many years as a travel agent for a large prestigious law firm in New York. He arranged their travel and lodgings everywhere from London to Beijing to Lufkin, Texas. He had great gifts for organization, administration, and diplomacy, and he used those gifts in the service of both the gay community and the Episcopal Church.
For many years, Paul ran the LGBTQ affairs office for the Episcopal Diocese of New York. He was a long time and active member of Integrity. He was a regular parade marshal for the Gay Pride Day march, and he organized our parish contingent and the whole Episcopal contingent in that parade. Paul was a long time member of Saint Luke in the Fields parish which is where I knew him. He was less interested in parish politics than in making himself available for whatever spontaneous event needed organizing and planning. On his own initiative, he would organize small acts of charity and rescue. He once organized a small donation drive to help out the residents of the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, people who've long been at the butt end of government and corporate power. A mutual friend of ours, Margaret Watson who is an Episcopal mission priest there, alerted us to the hardship caused by yet another piece of spiteful federal legislation. So Paul organized a "whip 'round" to raise some money to meet the immediate crisis on the reservation. He made similar efforts on behalf of people in distress here in New York, and for gay people in central Africa.
Paul was one of those rare people who could light up a room whenever he walked into it. And he could do so without dominating it. He was a real bon vivant who thoroughly enjoyed life from good company to good food. Doing good work and being generous was less a solemn act of self-sacrifice for him than it was a way of keeping the party going and the guests happy; a very exceptional quality for a saintly person. He never had much money himself, and lived with a barely adequate level of comfort in a small New Jersey apartment. He did all of his work with good cheer and humor, and his pleasure in it was infectious. His sudden departure leaves a great big hole in the middle of so many lives. As I said to a fellow parishioner, we now live in a post Paul world, and we are about to find out just how much we depended on him.
I will especially remember him for his generosity to me on many occasions. There were many times when I relied on his organizational abilities. Frequently, he volunteered his services before I asked. On my one and only trip to Paris, he met Bill Paulsen and I in the city, helped us with hotel bookings, and especially helped with getting the disabled Bill around the city. He was also a great guide and touring companion. I visited some sublime places with Paul. I saw Saint Denis, The Sainte Chapelle, Notre Dame, the Invalides, and Chartres with Paul. He was the one who got us up early to avoid the lines and to see the morning sunlight pouring through the windows of the east end of the Sainte Chapelle, a sight that I shall never forget.
Thanks for everything Paul. Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory.
Paul Lane in the ambulatory of Saint Denis in July, 2014
Yours Truly with Paul Lane on the right and Julia Alberino on the left at the
Women's March in New York, January, 2017.
Photo by Weiben Wang
The church of Saint Julien le Pauvre in Paris where Paul was a regular;
my photo from 2014; I was there with Paul.
Paul Lane in Paris in 1985. He was 24. Photo by Michael Sibalis.
Before I depart for a summer in the heart of the old Confederacy (I will still be reachable and in touch though), here is a confessional statement.
Pardon all the Christianity, but I hope there is enough here to gladden the hearts of non-Christians at least a little.
I should also point out that consistency has never been one of my strengths.
Things I DON’T believe in:
--nationalism (Samuel Johnson was right about patriotism)
--absolute certainty (the world promises none).
--Ideology will save us
--Dogma will save us.
--The Democratic Party will save us.
--The Republican Party will save anyone who’s not a qualified paid-up member.
--politics will save us (though political action might help us)
--religion will save us (fanaticism will destroy us; religiously inspired resistance might help us)
--History (no cycles, no over-arching reason, no inevitabilities, no zeitgeist, it don’t mean a thing ‘cause it ain’t got that swing)
--Strong Leaders will save us (They only help themselves)
--Prosperity Gospel will save anyone (except the celebrity preachers who get rich off it).
--The Bible is inerrant and a science textbook, or that it’s God’s oracle. (It is what it says it is, testimony).
--Anarchy will save us
--Conformity and assimilation will save us.
--The Hidden Hand of the Free Market will save us
--That God or Nature picks winners and losers.
--That anyone earns salvation.
--That people make their own destiny (shit happens).
--Firearms will save us
--Violence will save anybody
--Ends justify means
-- Peace as Mutual Assured Destruction
--absolute self-sovereignty (in the end, everything we have including our bodies is ultimately on loan and will be paid back)
--Karma (few if any really get what they deserve or deserve what they get)
--spirit versus flesh dualisms
--One True Religion (all religion is ultimately a guess and a gamble)
--“Defeating” atheists, apostates, heretics, etc. (I’d rather just live with them)
--That God needs to be defended (God can take care of God’s self)
--A moral universe (“I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created parasitic wasps with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of Caterpillars.” – Charles Darwin)
--the Afterlife (no ghosts, no séances, no zombies, no harps and golden slippers; just “dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return”)
--hell (a loving God does not make eternal torture chambers; God annihilates evil)
--A God whose existence can be proved (such a god is no God at all).
--That God is an old man
--The God is a mean old grand-daddy home from a three day drunk.
--That God is a clockmaker who winds everything up and then just watches.
--That God micromanages the cosmos and makes everything happen that does happen.
--That God is a tyrant and a monster
Things I DO believe in
--Universal education and opportunity
--The right of labor to organize
--The rule of law
--That everyone is our neighbor (we should always try to be good ones).
--Sin (we trip over ourselves repeatedly on the way to the Celestial City or to whatever Utopia we are looking for, and we can’t help but do so)
--That human beings are fundamentally selfish and frightened creatures like all other life on earth.
--That our selfishness not only prevents us from being perfectly good, but saves us from being perfectly evil.
--That means justify ends.
--Looking and thinking for yourself and making up your own mind.
--Looking at life without illusions and without cynicism (easier said than done).
--Science (it may not save us, but it helps out a lot; the only human enterprise that begins with the assumption that it could be wrong)
--Art (wonder working that reveals meaning and bears witness; “…they weep here for how the world goes, and our life that passes/ Touches their hearts. This fame/ Insures some kind of refuge.” – Virgil)
--Music (the most abstract of all the arts; the only one that speaks so directly to feeling, and for that is the envy of all the other arts)
--That a Palestinian Jew sits at the right hand of God on behalf of all of us.
--No matter who or what we are, Christ is always one of our own kind.
--Peace (and not passivity)
--Variety (the more the better, the overflowing abundance of life; even the superfluous, even contradictions -- what do God or nature care about consistency).
--Love (a monkey wrench thrown into the orderly workings of the world that drives gods and mortals to madness; a madness that made the world, preserves the world, and will save the world)
--Sex (the same animal urge to find pleasure in each other’s flesh can make people jealous, mad and lead to crime; and it can create mutual joy, make babies, inspire art, and build civilizations)
--Forgiveness (you can only learn this by being forgiven; when someone values your friendship over their anger)
--Reality (it’s really there independent of whatever we think or wish about it)
--That the Truth proclaimed by the Christian Faith is a Person, not a book, still less a law book.
--That the point of being a Christian is to do the Gospel, not to be a member of some country club of the Elect.
--religious pluralism (there’s no warfare more cruel and destructive than religious warfare; One True Religions must learn to live with each other)
--Faith is not certainty (and not just in religion)
--The power of metaphor and symbol
--Mercy and Compassion (two things that save the world daily).
--That the universe is meaningless (but not worthless)
--That we create meaning
--God is always bigger than our doctrines or our speculations.
--hell (a place we build for ourselves with industry and ingenuity in this life and the next; where all our fondest wishes come true; a place we go to eagerly and that locks from the inside)
--Resurrection (we will all live again; and live in the fullest sense of that word, growing, changing, and learning forever)
--That our bodies, the animal that is host to our souls, will see salvation with us.
Paul Lane, a good friend to me and to so many people for many years, died today. He was 57.
I am devastated. The death of a good friend makes the world feel lonely and empty.
Goodbye Paul, and thanks for everything.
Rest in Peace and Rise in Glory.
Paul's funeral will be on June 23 at 2PM in St. Luke in the Fields Episcopal Church in New York; the day before the Pride March, for which he organized the Episcopal delegation for many years.
Alas, I will not be able to attend. I will be in South Carolina.