Gary Carlson sits at his computer fielding calls from obituary writers within his trailer in the Manhattan Trailer Court on Tonnelle Avenue in North Bergen.
He continually pauses, teary-eyed, reflecting on the relationship he had with Robert Loughlin, his partner of 31 years. Loughlin perished after being struck by a vehicle while crossing Tonnelle Avenue near home on Tuesday, Sept. 27 at approximately 11:15 p.m.
According to Carlson, he was returning after feeding stray kittens that had taken up across the street.
Within his yard rests a large letter “P,” from a sign that once read “Precision.” Carlson and Robert purchased the letter, part of a company sign, that could once be seen from the nearby Statue of Liberty.
In their trailer is Loughlin’s depiction of the Statue of Liberty from the vantage point of the “P.” Carlson thinks often about the day they bought the sign, as if its proximity to the Statue of Liberty bore personal significance, or resembled his own relationship with Robert.
Through his stories, Carlson expressed that his rollercoaster relationship with Robert was a constant struggle, yet it brought to his life a new level of meaning he would have never have otherwise experienced.
Carlson met Loughlin in 1980 at “Boots and Saddles,” a gay bar in Manhattan. At the time, Carlson was working as a cargo-loader for Pan American Air Lines, and had just transferred from Seattle.
“I still remember the smile he had exactly when I first met him,” said Carlson.
According to Carlson, Robert grew up in a dysfunctional family in Alameda, Calif. At the age of 14, he was sent to a boy’s “welfare home” for three years.
As a result of a tough childhood, he was often pushed around and eventually felt unable to stand up for himself.
“I think that’s where a lot of his problems came from,” said Carlson. “He became uncontrollable.”
Carlson said that Loughlin frequently took to alcohol to solve his problems, often taking his anger from being pushed around out on Carlson.
At the age of 17, Loughlin decided to pursue a career as an artist. By the time he and Carlson met, he was working as a designer in Manhattan.
According to Carlson, Loughlin’s artistic knowledge and passion enticed him to give up his hard-working lifestyle. He eventually left his job at Pan American to begin a new life with Loughlin.
While working as a designer, Loughlin’s knowledge of the industry also impressed billionaire Frankie Wolfson Cary, who eventually sent Carlson and Loughlin to collect the latest art deco items in Miami.
“Miami was wide open,” said Carlson, who added that the two would shop at thrift stores, the Salvation Army, and Catholic charities in order to find overlooked pieces to bring to Cary. Loughlin would find many of the pieces, and Carlson mainly ensured that his partner was never taken advantage of.
“We were filling up 24-foot trucks,” said Carlson. “We would make three trips a year to Manhattan.”
Worked for Warhol
Eventually, their success at finding the trendiest art deco items reached the ear of Andy Warhol, who also hired them to curate his furniture. In fact, Loughlin sold enough chairs to Warhol to be affectionately deemed “The Chairman.”
“Even though it destroyed us, how can you argue with it?” – Gary Carlson
After hearing success of the aspiring artist and his partner, esteemed party planner Robert Isabell began purchasing many of Loughlin’s own paintings. Many of his paintings were depictions of “The Brute,” a rough-and-tumble man with a square jaw who was almost always shown smoking a cigarette.
According to Carlson, Loughlin was swayed into selling many of his paintings to Isabel for only 30 dollars.
“This is when I stepped in,” said Carlson. “It was getting so bad. I realized I had to take over the painting thing.”
End of an era
Under Carlson’s direction, many of Loughlin’s paintings sold for up to $5,000. However, after Isabel’s death, Loughlin had lost connection with the last notorious figure in the art deco world. Carlson once again struggled to sell his partner’s paintings for a reasonable price.
“After [Isabel] died it was really bad,” said Carlson. “I was selling them on eBay.”
Carlson said that after Isabel’s death, the paintings typically sold for $200. The two moved to the trailer court in North Bergen, where they have been for 21 years.
“Robert was wrecking things at the same time,” continued Carlson. “He was selling [paintings] to get drunk. And I couldn’t stop Robert from doing that.”
Carlson expressed that due to Robert’s kind-hearted nature, he often bottled up his anger, only releasing it after drinking.
With funds running low, and Loughlin’s alcohol problem worsening, Carlson found it difficult to find happiness.
“It took me a long time to be happy and get O.K. with being happy,” said Carlson.
Carlson continued to encourage his partner, and the two eventually held an exhibit in Phoenix which was very well-received by critics. The acclaim led to a huge increase in sales.
“Robert was so proud,” said Carlson, who continued to state that paintings were sold at roughly $9,000 a piece.
A meaningful relationship
While reflecting back on his life as the partner of struggling artist, Carlson divulges the subject behind the majority of Robert’s paintings.
“I’m ‘The Brute,’ said Carlson. “He’s painting me.”
According to Carlson, those paintings began when the two met.
“When people started taking too much advantage of him,” said Carlson, “I stepped in and destroyed everything that was going on.”
“He really, really, cared about me,” continued Carlson, who claimed that Loughlin would often destroy all of his partner’s nice clothes so that no one else would look at him.
“He was really jealous,” added Carlson with a laugh. “I could never wear anything nice.”
When asked what it was like being the subject of so many of Loughlin’s works, Carlson deflected the question.
“Nothing. Zero,” he said. “It’s like when you read about somebody and you think they had a great life.”
“All that anger he got from being used [by others] all the time would go to me when he was drunk,” added Carlson. “It had to come out somewhere.”
Carlson added, “It was always a struggle with Robert.”
In fact, their relationship was much more complicated than it seemed. While Loughlin was living the dream as an artist, Carlson was constantly countering him, the practical force to keep him grounded.
“You know what love is?” Carlson asks. “It’s super respect. I respected him, because he’s so smart, and he was such a good [artist].”
“Even though it destroyed us,” continued Carlson, “how can you argue with it?”
Stephen LaMarca may be reached at email@example.com.