Joel Weishaus


What Ever Became of Gilbert Stone?

While still a teenager, he painted a crucifixion from the deep perspective of blue pigments. This precocious picture braced his living room, alongside a life-size cardboard cut-out of Charlie Chaplin's star-crossed tramp. While I was outside playing ball, he'd be inside, patiently copying Old Master drawings.

In his 20s, his commercial art had begun appearing in magazines around the world, receiving three gold medals from the Society of Illustrators, and hundreds of other awards.

He won the Prix de Roma, and with wife and first child spent a year painting and sculpting at the site of his beloved Renaissance. Returning to New York, they bought a brownstone house in Brooklyn's Park Slope, filling it with artifacts from the auctions he attended built around the idea of getting me into trouble and so giving me the chance to be desperately serious in my attempt to appear as a normal little gentleman with a smoldering cigar.

I last saw Gilbert in the mid-1970s, when, driving down from Cambridge, I stopped at the farmhouse north of New York City they had made their home, converting a barn into a studio. What's trapped in my mind was that the transformation into apes also occurs in Talmudic versions of the Tower of Babel story, in which the builders were changed into 'apes, ghosts, spirits, and demons.' We can similarly understand the appellation 'God's ape' which was used to characterize the artist in the Renaissance, from Villani to Shakespeare. A denigration in antiquity, it became a title conveying high praise in the Renaissance...meaning he had for a pet a monkey in a cage.

A few years later, I was living above a storefront in San Francisco's Mission District occupied by a musician whose drums would explode up through my floor. On one of those head-banging evenings I phoned Gilbert to ask if he'd like to illustrate some poems I had written during my last trip to New York. Carol, his wife, answered. Gilbert wasn't home. To my inquiry, she said, "Gilbert has a patron and is very busy." His patron was the publisher of Penthouse.

O Charlie Chaplin;
a harelip
and two soles-
cruel fate,
as all of us live poorly-
strangers, stranger.

While Gilbert trained himself in the tradition of the Renaissance Masters, becoming one of the best draftsmen in the world, New York was in the throes of Minimal Art. This, and because of his successful career in commercial art--he loved things that money can buy--, he was ignored by the critics whose approval he needed to historicize his work. It must have been disheartening and immensely depressing to have seen artists a generation younger than him, whose only talent was for surfing the current, gaining almost instant recognition, and wealth, from critics, galleries, and collectors.

Now I will try to contact Gilbert again. As he had illustrated stories for Playboy, I query the magazine, and receive this terse reply: "The artist Gil Stone is deceased."

He is no longer painting, but is now a musician. I ask him: Have you stopped painting? He says that he has. Then I tell him that I wrote Playboy to find his whereabouts, only to receive word that he is deceased. Hearing this, he looks surprised; then laughs.

The School of Visual Arts, where Gilbert taught for some 20 years, sends me Carol's address. But it's her brother who replies:

"My sister, Carol Stone, is very ill with multiple sclerosis. Although she is still at home she is primarily bedridden and cannot communicate anything but a few basic needs."

He'll also send me the addresses of two "dear friends of both Carol & Gil." One is the artist Jean MacFarland, who lived with Gilbert & Carol before getting married and moving to Massachusetts, then to Santa Fe. Over the phone, Jean tells me how Gilbert, depressed from rejection by the Art World, along with the tragedy of his wife's progressively crippling disease, began drinking heavily, falling into what he came to see, in a flood of fantastic visions, was 'the other side,' of the visible world, the corruption, the evil, the rot, yet also its primordial power and mystery. For him they were not two sides of a coin but the indivisible essence of reality. Life does not end with fits of violence, and finally heroin addiction.

Jean went on to say that, during one of their kitchen conversations, Gilbert told her: "I got one up on the devil because the devil doesn't have a sense of humor."

Contemporary figurative art is an art of semblance, of the image in the sense not of picture, but of 'public image,' facade, paper tiger...What we are witnessing, then, is the emergence of an art of pose, an art not simply of position and posture...

I remembered one summer day, sitting alone in the darkness of a Brooklyn theater, watching Chaplin's The Gold Rush, about the Donner Party, who on the way to California missed the route and were snowbound in the Sierra Nevada mountains. Out of 160 pioneers only 18 survived, most...dying of hunger and cold. Some resorted to cannibalism, eating their dead, others roasted their moccasins to relieve their hunger. Out of this harrowing tragedy I conceived one of our funniest scenes. In dire hunger I boil my shoe and eat it...loud bursts of laughter turned my head to...picking the nails as though they were bones of a delicious capon, and eating the shoelaces as though they were spaghetti a few rows away. There was Gilbert, doubled over in hysterics, feeding his muse's insatiable imagination.

Gilbert Stone was one of the first persons in the US to die from AIDS