We visited the painter Chuck Agro at his Atlantic Avenue studio last week. The room smelled of benzene, as we admired the bright enameled colors of Agro's tragicomic caricatures, emblematic of a 49-year-old artist who has shown with gallerists as disparate as Irving Blum and Earl McGrath and sold multiple canvases to the likes of Mick Jagger and Harrison Ford.
"My wife is a professional psychic who works with celebrities. We just had a baby boy named Caidin," said the proud father, showing us snaps of his cute kid in a Yankee cap.
Chuck, who is built like a stevedore, supervised the complex move of the Museum of Modern Art offices to Queens two years ago and then back to 53rd Street last fall. The Buffalo native also enjoyed a long career as a bartender and club manager for the petroleum roustabouts in Dallas.
His work betrays a deep empathy for the lost, the alienated and the just plain goofy.
"I'm doing a series of lonely crowd scenes based on my favorite painting, Excavation, by Willem de Kooning."
These works also recall the cartoon books of William Steig, such as The Lonely Ones, which were best-sellers in the 1940s. Such disturbances mirroring the weirdness in all of us can be hard to hang on one's wall, depending on one's level of self-esteem. A large orange Day-glo Circe is titled Girlfriend wants to be an actress, and a trio of assorted doofuses is called My embarrassing, beautiful friends.
"See this picture of a hamburger devouring a girl's head?" Chuck grinned. "I'm not satisfied with my drawing of the hamburger."
Agro is a legendary student of artistic materials and their best use, advising painter Lisa Yuskavage, among others.
"Robert Storr comes to my studio a lot. He's a vulture for technique. He likes the way I cut my lines and lay on the enamel, but I've given up telling others my secrets, because too many artists steal my ideas."
"I've been accused of not having a narrative in my work," Agro commented. "I think the new crowd pictures solve that problem."
It was a pleasure to visit this veteran of the art wars, a blue-collar humorist in an age when the nouveau riche and the next young thing dominate the contemporary art scene.
When the celebrities who buy Chuck's stuff start laughing, the paintings, and the artist, laugh back. Commenting on the chairman of a major New York museum, Agro said, "He wanted my staff to move things for his family, but only on the condition that we stare at the floor and never make eye contact with his family members. Screw that!"
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).