A couple of years ago I was introduced to the Italian stage director Fabio Cherstich while he was in Rome for work. We immediately got along, and discussed our common interest in visual arts. “Have you ever heard of the artist Larry Stanton?” he asked me, with his distinctive enthusiasm. He took out his phone and showed me an image of a crayon self-portrait of a young, attractive man. The name didn’t ring any bells, but the caliber of the work intrigued me. When I asked where the artist was based, Cherstich turned melancholic: Stanton had died in the early 1980s, due to AIDS complications, at the age of 37.
Cherstich discovered Stanton’s works almost serendipitously. In January 2018, he came across some images of Stanton’s drawings while doing online research, and was able to locate the representative of the estate, Arthur Lambert. A distinguished gentleman in his 80s, Lambert had been Stanton’s partner, mentor, and close friend since the late 1960s. He invited Cherstich to visit him in his Greenwich Village flat, where he generously provided access to Stanton’s archive.
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“Arthur lives surrounded by Larry’s drawings and paintings and has many stories to tell about a New York that no longer exists — he considers himself a survivor of it,” Cherstich explained in conversation.
While the director was exploring the archive, Lambert opened up, revisiting memories about his former lover: their friendship with David Hockney, long conversations with Christopher Isherwood and Ellsworth Kelly, hanging out with Robert Mapplethorpe and Sam Wagstaff, museum trips together, and travels around the world with Hockney and Henry Geldzahler, the legendary curator of contemporary art at the Metropolitan Museum.
While feverishly exploring the archive, Cherstich unearthed drawings, paintings, photographs, polaroids, Super 8 films, diaries, and sketchbooks. Some of this material is collected in Larry Stanton: Think of Me When It Thunders, produced by Luca Bombassei and recently published by apartamento.
The book is part catalogue, reproducing Stanton’s portraits of friends and lovers made in the late 1970s and 1980s, and part photographic album, documenting the artist’s life, pre-AIDS crisis.
The texts — some of which were printed in the first publication on Stanton in 1986 — add depth to the figure of the artist, conveying his natural talent as a portraitist, alongside his personal struggle with mood swings, depression, and alcoholism.
Lambert’s frank words about Stanton have a poignancy: “His appearance in the gay underworld of 1960s New York was pretty spectacular,” he recalls in his essay. “Many people in the community had already heard that a new kid was around, one who was unusually attractive, and many wanted to meet him, including me. […] He was just 20 years old and beginning his whole life. I was 34 and felt awed by the obligation of guiding him in some direction.”
In 1968 Lambert managed to introduce him to Hockney, who was struck by Stanton’s personality and took him under his wing.
“There was colt-like eagerness about Larry that was at the same time endearing and somewhat daunting. His lack of formal training in art made him avid for information and for articulated distinctions with regard to quality,” wrote Henry Geldzahler in 1986.
Stanton’s work is visually indebted to Hockney’s. The influence is especially clear in his still lifes and black-ink drawings, in which it can be hard to tell the artists’ works apart. Without a doubt, Stanton’s talent comes across more vividly in his crayon portraits.
“In his drawings he reached the character of his models. As they were mostly young men, they didn’t have the time or life experience to build up character in their faces, but as they look out at us, they appear attractive, self-contained, lively, and innocent,” Lambert states in his text. Even if Stanton’s works have the spontaneity and intimacy of quick sketches, something of each subject’s personality shines through.
With few exceptions — which include Alice Sulit, a devoted friend and occasional studio assistant, and Dr. Julia Mayo, Stanton’s psychotherapist — all the portraits are of handsome young men, some of whom would spend time in the Fire Island house Lambert bought in the early 1970s. “I remember all the boys who visited, but not always their names,” he writes in the book. “They came from New York City and from states far away to enjoy the freedom there, the dancing, the beach, and, of course, the sex.” A number of them were talented people working in the arts. It is disheartening to think that many died of AIDS a few years after they posed for Stanton.
“Whom the gods love die young,” wrote Menander. The gods must have loved Stanton more than others, as the artist passed in 1984, at the beginning of the AIDS pandemic. He left behind an engaging body of work, a moving tribute to a generation of creative minds lost forever.
Larry Stanton: Think of Me When It Thunders (2022), edited by Fabio Cherstich and Arthur Lambert, is published by apartamento and is available online.