The Portrait Work of Larry Stanton
Born in June of 1947 in Rockville Center on the south shore of Long Island, Larry Stanton was a portrait painter who was lived and worked in Manhattan, New York. His father, a graduate of Columbia University and the Juilliard School of Music, moved his family in 1948 to a dairy farm in New York’s Catskill Mountains to provide a country environment for the family and a source of income for his work as a freelance music arranger. Due to the foundering of both the farm and his musical aspirations, Stanton’s father often experienced periods of frustration and temper which affected the family. However, despite the familial tensions, both he and Stanton’s mother encouraged and supported Stanton’s early artwork.
After graduating high school, Larry Stanton studied on an art scholarship at New York City’s Cooper Union for one semester. He worked in the following months at various odd jobs including mailrooms and an ice cream parlor. During this period, Stanton embraced his gay identity and gained some notoriety in New York City’s gay community. He became acquainted with banker Arthur Lambert in the summer of 1967 and the two were immediately drawn to each other. Upon returning from a trip with Lambert to London, Stanton followed him in the fall of that year to Los Angeles, where Stanton took a new financial position.
In February of 1968, Stanton enrolled in Los Angeles’s Art Center College of Design where he received his first formal training in drawing and painting. After applying himself intensely to his studies, he became convinced it was possible to make a career in art. During his time at the college, Stanton met many people who would become lifelong friends, including Alice Sulit, an art student from the Philippines, and English painter David Hockney. In the fall of 1968, Stanton traveled with Lambert to Hockney’s residence in London where he met another major influence on his life, Henry Geldzahler, the Curator of Contemporary Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Upon the return to New York, Larry Stanton moved into a Manhattan rent-controlled apartment owned by his father, who was relocating to retire in Florida; Lambert returned to his financial work in California. With a scholarship from the New School, Stanton began to study printmaking and drawing; his studies were further supported by a grant for printmaking from the Tiffany Foundation. In January of 1970, Stanton had his first exhibition of drawings at New York City’s Gotham Gallery. This show was followed by a period of travel, accompanied sometimes by Henry Geldzabler, to Italy, Tunisia and sub-Saharan Africa. Upon his return, Stanton found a basement studio space in the Italian section of Greenwich Village where he could continue his painting.
In early 1972, Arthur Lambert moved back to New York and noticed a change in Stanton. Stanton had begun drinking alcohol more frequently and had become less committed to painting. He began to pursue filmmaking and produced a few films on David Hockney. Stanton also began bringing back to his place young men he met on his travels around the city. By late 1977, he was not socializing as much and complained of lingering feelings of anxiety. Stanton’s mother, with whom he had a close bond, succumbed from cancer in 1979 after a three year struggle. The loss of this bond, intensified by the depressive effects of his developed alcoholism, resulted in Stanton having a psychological collapse for which he needed hospitalization.
From this trauma, Larry Stanton emerged a sober, non-smoking artist with an intense commitment to his art. Stanton moved his studio to a larger location nearer his apartment which enabled him to work on larger canvases. By 1983, his studio was attracting young writers and artists who admired his work and sought his company. In his apartment and studio, Stanton created a series of portraits in charcoal, oil crayon, pencil, and pen, as well as paint, drawing friends, familial relations, and people he met while wandering the streets of New York. Many of the people who posed for him would later die from the AIDS epidemic.
Holly Solomon, a prominent art dealer, commissioned two portraits, one of herself and one of her son. She later placed two of Stanton’s oversized portraits in a group show at her Soho gallery. Following this show, Stanton’s work was given an exhibition at the Aaron Berman Gallery in Brooklyn. In 1984, his work was included in a major group exhibition at the Queens, New York, city-owned exhibition space, PS1, which focused on emerging new artists. Stanton’s work was also presented in a group exhibition at the East Village’s Magic Gallery. With these shows, his work was gaining increased attention as he developed a consistent quality and a mature personal style.
Beginning in February of 1984, Larry Stanton began to have health problems, initially shingles and later periodic unpleasant skin rashes. After numerous tests, the doctors assured there were no signs of immunity problems; there were no specific AIDS testing at this time. In August, Stanton developed a persistent and sore throat and was diagnosed with pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, a fatal fungal infection of the lungs and major cause of death for people with HIV/AIDS. Larry Stanton died, at the age of thirty-seven, of AIDS-related illness on October 18th of 1984.
After Larry Stanton’s death, a collection of his work was shown at New York City’s Charles Cowles Gallery in 1987. From May through July of 2021, the Daniel Cooney Fine Art Gallery in the Chelsea area of New York City held “It Doesn’t Thunder Every Day”, an exhibition of twenty works on paper by Stanton that captured the faces of a generation of people lost in the early stages of the AIDS epidemic. Larry Stanton’s work is housed in the permanent collection of New York City’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.
Notes: A full collection of Larry Stanton’s paintings and drawings, as well as personal tributes and remembrances by friends such as Arthur Lambert, Henry Geldzahler and David Hockney, can be found at: http://www.larrystanton.net
A recent collection of poems by gay poet Winthrop Smith entitled “Take Down Portraits: Drawings and Portraits by Larry Stanton” was published by Chiron Review Press. Bringing the portraits back to life, Smith’s poems imagine the encounters between Stanton and his sitters, which reconstruct the experience of New York at the height of the AIDS epidemic.
Top Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Larry Stanton”, circa 1968
Second Insert Image: Larry Stanton, “Man in Jockstrap”, circa Early 1970s, Pencil on Paper, Private Collection
Third Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Arry Stanton in His Village Basement Studio”, circa 1981
Fourth Insert Image: Larry Stanton, “Joey”, 1975, Pencil on Paper, Private Collection
Bottom Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “larry Stanton, Fire Island Pines”, circa 1980