The Brute “1937” Oil On Canvas Created By Robert Loughlin (1949 – 2011), 2008
Painting come's with Certificate of Originality
Artist: Robert Loughlin
Materials: Oil paint on canvas
Measurements: Canvas: Width 61 cm, Height 61 cm, Depth 6 cm
The Brute “1937” Oil On Canvas Created By Robert Loughlin (1949 – 2011), 2008
Like many art stories, this one begins not with a birth but a death — that of Robert Loughlin, whose demise was wild enough to give Vincent van Gogh a run for his money.
In life, Mr. Loughlin was a furniture picker who sold Paul Evans tables to New York’s swankiest midcentury furniture shops. In death, he has gained a measure of immortality for his Dadaesque series of paintings, “The Brute,” which depicts a kind of Cro-Magnon James Dean with a cigarette dangling from his mouth.
He is the misanthropic muse whose sole pleasures in life, aside from nicotine consumption, are plaid shirts, sex and a stiff drink.
Ostensibly, the Brute was inspired by Gary Carlson, a strapping Vietnam War veteran whom Mr. Loughlin met in 1980 at the gay leather bar Boots & Saddles. But Mr. Carlson wound up being entirely tamable, while the more diminutive Mr. Loughlin lived like a wild man until his tragic death.
In September 2011, while in the middle of a bender, Mr. Loughlin, 62, was hit by a car as he crossed the highway near the Airstream trailer he shared with Mr. Carlson in North Bergen, N.J.
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He died instantly, leaving behind a trove of his works, which he painted not just on canvas but on skateboards, wooden tabletops and Louis XIV chairs.
Since then, Brutes have been popping up in seemingly every design magazine in the world, hung like Where’s Waldos on the walls of modernist apartments in proximity to the requisite Serge Mouille spider lamp, shaggy Moroccan carpet and that erstwhile totem of moneyed minimalism, the George Nakashima coffee table.
Sean MacPherson, the hotelier behind the Marlton and the Ludlow, is a collector of Robert Loughlins. So is William Sofield, the designer of Tom Ford’s stores and David Barton’s gyms. Oribe, the well-known hairstylist, has a pile of them, including a tattoo of the Brute on his arm.
Many collectors purchased their Brutes at interior design stores like Mantiques Modern in Chelsea and Johnson Trading Gallery in Queens. Others got them directly from the artist during his days buying and selling furniture at the Chelsea flea market, where he was a fixture.
Either way, the world of interior design has both facilitated Mr. Loughlin’s rise as an artist and prevented him in a certain way from becoming a bona fide star, since the decorative arts have always been the ugly stepsister among high-end collectors.
But Mr. Loughlin was enthralled with both design and art, the sort of man who saw a great pair of legs as being one of the great wonders of the world, whether they belonged to the person he was painting or the chair he was sitting on.
And Mr. Loughlin had an eye that was considerably ahead of his time. He was born in Alameda, Calif., one of seven children in a difficult home. He drifted to San Francisco and then New York, where he earned a reputation selling furniture.
Long before Art Deco came into fashion, Mr. Loughlin sold Gilbert Rohde tables to Andy Warhol. Later, he helped turn Robert Isabell — the party planner to the Kennedys, the von Furstenbergs and Anna Wintour — on to midcentury designers like Edward Wormley and George Nelson.
Robert Mapplethorpe was one of Mr. Loughlin’s clients. As was Jean-Michel Basquiat, who had a drug connection across the street from the furniture gallery Mr. Loughlin ran in the early 1980s.
“Can I mention the drugs?” asked Mr. Loughlin’s friend Alan Moss, whose namesake shop on Lafayette Street is a high-end destination for 20th-century antiques. “He would buy a $50 package of cocaine and come in and say, ‘Give me something to paint on.’ And then he would go to work on a cutting board.”
For sure, Mr. Loughlin was industrious.
In 1987, shortly after the death of Mr. Warhol, Mr. Loughlin attended an auction in upstate New York, where he found an unsigned Mao painting that looked to him like a Warhol.
Benjamin Liu, one of the Factory’s many habitués, was there and advised Mr. Loughlin against buying it.
“He said, ‘It’s clearly a fake,’ ” Mr. Carlson said. “And Robert said, ‘What could be better than a fake of a fake?’ Just before it came up for auction, Robert stood up and yelled, ‘I’m going to buy that painting if it takes everything I’ve got!’ ”
He had $60 in his pocket; he got it for $55.
Soon after, Frederick Hughes, the founder of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, authenticated the painting, and Mr. Loughlin sold it through Sotheby’s for a low five-figure sum, which he used to buy the trailer that he and Mr. Carlson lived in for the next two and a half decades.
They never got rich off the Warhol, just as they never got rich off a Salvador Dalí painting Mr. Loughlin discovered seven years later, rolled up in the basement of a Salvation Army on Spring Street.
Mr. Loughlin was a man perennially broke and perennially ahead of his time.
In the last years of his life, things grew desperate. The furniture scene retrenched after the 2008 financial crisis, and 1stdibs.com, a kind of Craigslist for antiques, wiped out the old-school pickers. Efforts at getting Mr. Loughlin sober were unsuccessful.
“He had the finest taste of any picker that ever lived, and then I think the world of pickers died with him,” said John Birch, the owner of Wyeth, one of Manhattan’s premiere emporiums for midcentury modernist pieces.
One day in September 2011, after a month and a half of sobriety, Mr. Loughlin came into the city with Mr. Carlson in his pickup truck.
They stopped first at the apartment of a client who gave Mr. Loughlin a few hundred dollars and a bottle of wine to sign a couple of paintings he had previously purchased. Then, Mr. Carlson and Mr. Loughlin dropped another Brute off at Mr. Sofield’s, before heading over to Mr. Moss’s store.
Ever obsessed with the beauty of the male form and the perfect antique, Mr. Loughlin propositioned an employee, before settling on a white vase that he intended to use as a canvas.
The next day, Mr. Carlson went to take a nap in the trailer in North Bergen and woke up to find Mr. Loughlin outside drinking.
“He gave me this funny smile,” Mr. Carlson said. “It was the same smile he gave me when he first met me. I said: ‘Robert, I’m going back to bed. I’m going to lock the door.’ ”
A little while later, Mr. Carlson awoke again to the sound of knocking. It was the neighbors, crying as they informed him that Mr. Loughlin had attempted to cross the highway to feed a couple of feral kittens he had become enamored with. He was dead.
Outside the trailer was the vase Mr. Loughlin had borrowed the day before from Mr. Moss.
Sometime afterward, he had drawn the Brute onto its surface with a felt-tip pen.
Mr. Carlson knew instantly that Mr. Loughlin’s ashes would go inside it.
“It was ghostlike,” Mr. Carlson said. “It was beautiful.”
Over the next year, demand for Brutes increased, particularly after Mr. Johnson staged an exhibition of Mr. Loughlin’s work at Art Basel in Miami. The Carnegie Museum of Art purchased one, and the art aficionado Beth Rudin DeWoody made a purchase, too.
Then Mr. MacPherson put one in the Marlton’s bar. “They conjure this downtown New York demimonde that’s slowly or rapidly being replaced,” he said.
Still, Mr. Loughlin’s work hasn’t become seriously valuable, at least not in comparison with that of his former furniture clients. But that is part of the fun of it, said Mr. Sofield, who likened the Brute to the Warhol painting Mr. Loughlin found at auction.
“I don’t think it’s dissimilar,” Mr. Sofield said. “And many of Warhol’s paintings are much more annoying. This is like the street version. It’s gutter Mao!”
Written by Jacob Bernstein ( The New York Times, 30 September 2015 )