Monday, June 4, 2018

Remembering Robert Grant

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 aunt Alice 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.  Alice, a former dancer for Pearl Bailey, was the one who inspired Robert to take up music and theater.  She played the role of muse and mentor for Robert.
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 aunt Alice 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.

Robert's studio shortly after his death.


I previously had written that it was Robert's mother Claudia who inspired his work.  I was wrong.  It was his Aunt Alice Grant who was his inspiring muse.

6 comments: said...

Robert was a dear friend to all. Thank you Doug, for the kind words.

Unknown said...

Robert’s brother , Tony, pointed out to me that the “spirit” the dress pieces were channeling was not Alice. Alice is still alive. The spirit is Claudia, his mother who passed away giving birth to Robert.

Unknown said...

RIP Robert Douglas Grant I met him in a school that went from k to 12th grade. I was in the 4th grade when i met him. Born into the industry i saw 'Amaranth Pinwheel as he called himself his music alter ego i was his first music manager. Being several years his junior he used to jokingly tease me bout my fav words at that time "I was thinking"... He was a genius level musician he inspired me to pick up the guitar. I even emulated him at times he had a blonde telecaster i got a blonde strat. tho we lost touch we found eachother again on fb. Will miss him dearly and his comme t to my posts. Godspeed my bro of another mother... Thanks for the inspiration!

Counterlight said...

I've edited the post to correct the error.

JCF said...

Doug, I think my [OT] comment disappeared. I'm trying to find out if anyone in the Episcopal blogworld has heard anything about/from Leonardo Ricardo (worried about him, because of Guatemala volcano he lived "a the foot" of!)

Counterlight said...

Leonardo is alive and well in Guatemala if a bit shaken.
Nice to hear from you again. It's been awhile.