James Guy on Walter Quirt
Looking back, I can see that my friendship with Walter Quirt from 1930 to the early forties was the closest friendship I have enjoyed. For a period in the early thirties, Quirt and his wife, then Martha Pearse, had a large apartment overlooking Union Square, and I rented a room from them.
We had things to offer each other artistically. Quirt "Shorty" to everyone who knew him‑came from the northern Middle West with a keen knowledge and interest in the American labor movement. This was important for his subject matter. At that time, twentieth‑century artists spent a great amount of time wondering what to paint. Without the patronage of religion, aristocracy, and the middle class, energy was dissipated over questions of still life, landscape, American scene, and abstraction. The social‑political labor movement offered a path for strong art expression. Quirt's earliest works in this vein were cartoons, although he later became interested in painting as well; however, he was not a fast worker in that medium.
In contrast to Quirt, I came from Hartford, Connecticut, and, at that time, the Wadsworth Atheneum was probably the most advanced museum in the country. It presented the first major Picasso exhibition and the first large showing of surrealism in the United States. In addition to painting, Hartford also had surrealist theatre and music. Quirt and I found that since surrealist form permitted the contraction of time and space, it had value for our subject matter.
In the early thirties, Quirt was a secretary of the artists' section of the John Reed Club and was a very vocal and energetic leader. The Club, although radical politically, was made up of very academic artists. Quirt, one of the earliest members, was already active when I joined in 1931. During the early thirties the Club was small, often with only 50,to 100 members per meeting, but it numbered several hundred by the mid‑thirties. Discussions centered around what constituted revolutionary art. After one lecture by Diego Rivera, the meeting broke up into a wild, name‑calling session.
Quirt held some very strong beliefs and defended them passionately. Even those who knew him well often had trouble understanding what he was talking about. It's important to remember that he suffered from ulcers and had had a serious operation. When he was in pain he was impatient, and anyone not aware of the condition might get short shrift.
In addition to our activities at the John Reed Club, a small group of us had an interest in psychology and psychiatry, and we met occasionally to read papers from journals. Quirt was in analysis at the time, and I am sure that much of his imagery was influenced by this. By 1938‑39 some of his other pictorial communication was so personal that it was difficult to understand. Both of us had trouble in the Club over the ambiguity of our images since we disagreed with the notion that a socialist or workers' art should be as obvious as a portrait of Lenin or the communist leader Earl Browder raising a clenched fist.
Quirt was as immaculate in his painting habits as he was in dress. His palette and brushes were always cleaned immediately after use.
We would go around to exhibitions together. We drove up to Dartmouth to see the progress on Jose Orozco's frescoes and were very impressed by them. We were both interested in certain old masters at the time. The John Reed Club also held a series of lectures on techniques of oil painting, since interest in experimental techniques was very much in the air at the time. One could see the techniques and compositions of paintings by Gr'Gnewaid in some of Quirt's early work done in egg tempera. I recall that Emily Genauer, an art critic, compared his painting Give Us This Day Our Daily Bread, exhibited at the Julien Levy Gallery in 1936, to Luca Signorelli's Resurrection of the Dead, and Walter was surprised.
Quirt's interests, however, were not all artistic and intellectual. He had a great interest in sports, particularly in boxing, and we went regularly to various fight clubs in Manhattan. The diversity of his interests helped to make him a stimulating companion and extended the range of our friendship.