Raoul Middleman
Articles and Interviews

Baltimore Magazine| Down the Stretch | June 2015

Raoul Middleman steps into the University of Maryland University College's art gallery, starts chatting up curator Brian Young, and, looking around, stops talking mid-sentence. Seeing UMUC's retrospective of his work, Raoul Middleman's Romantic Expressionism: Honoring 55 Years of Artistic Excellence, for the very first time renders him speechless...
Continues...

Brine Blog | "Raoul Middleman's Selfies" | February 2015

"Art is a form of masturbation," Raoul Middleman says, a wall of self-portraits hanging behind him. I sat in a sea of students for Middleman's MICA lecture on Thursday, February 5th, in the center of his new exhibition, Selfies, which features over fifty years of self-portraits...
Continues...

MICA | Selfies: Over 50 Years of Raoul Middleman's Self Portraits | January 2015

Raoul Middleman's self-portraits are a witnessing and a waiting. Through them he explores, presents, and preserves aspects of himself. In Walt Whitman's famous poem excerpted in this essay, he muses that the self contains multitudes. With his hundreds of self-portraits Middleman bring this concept to life...
Continues...

Hyperallergic | Beer With a Painter: Raoul Middleman | November 2013

I met Raoul Middleman in Baltimore, and after stopping for fried oyster po' boys and ginger ale at the Tooloulou Café, we drove to his studio-warehouse, a building that houses about seven thousand of his paintings. To call him prolific would be a major understatement...
Continues...

artcritical | "Like Renoir, He Doesn't Only Paint With His Brush": Raoul Middleman's Baltimore Babes

It will come as little surprise to anyone acquainted with the paintings of Raoul Middleman that earlier in his career he had writing aspirations, too — and not just aspirations, for they were acted upon in raucous short stories that often delved into the steamier side of Baltimore...
Continues...

Johns Hopkins Magazine | Cultivate Mess By Dale Keiger | February 1997

RAOUL MIDDLEMAN '55 SCOOPS PAINT out of a film can onto a palette. It's a November mid-afternoon in Baltimore, and the remaining daylight is making a run for it. If he's to paint a picture today, Middleman will have to work fast, but that's okay with him. He likes getting his hands in gear before his head has time to intervene...
Continues...

Excerpts Of A Letter From Fairfield Porter To Raoul Middleman | March 1973

Dear Raoul,
I was profoundly impressed by your show. I think it was one of two shows this season that I like very much, the other being the Marin exhibition at Marlborough. I envy your paintings, I wish I could paint like that...
Continues...


Raoul Middleman, Baltimore MagazineBaltimore Magazine | Down the Stretch: Legendary painter Raoul Middleman, at 80, seems intent on riding hard to the finish.

Raoul Middleman steps into the University of Maryland University College's art gallery, starts chatting up curator Brian Young, and, looking around, stops talking mid-sentence. Seeing UMUC's retrospective of his work, Raoul Middleman's Romantic Expressionism: Honoring 55 Years of Artistic Excellence, for the very first time renders him speechless, though just momentarily. Middleman's eyebrows rise over the frames of his glasses, and his eyes twinkle as he takes in the scope of the show, which features 80 of his best pieces and remains up until the end of August.

His surprise quickly gives way to recognition. "Look, it's Al!" he exclaims, taking leave of Young and sounding as if he just spotted a dear friend, which he has. But the room is otherwise empty; friend Al Engelman is framed, larger than life on the wall. "That's the first portrait I ever did of him," adds Middleman, a warm smile spreading across his face.

He then spots more friends, Uncle Sid—"my favorite uncle, the first one to buy my paintings;" Bow Davis, a former colleague at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA), where Middleman has taught since 1961; renowned painter Grace Hartigan, another MICA friend; his wife, Ruth; his three sons: Ben, Nate, and Raphael; Carole Jean Bertsch, "a great spirit"; and Gloria, a night guard at MICA.

The 80-year-old artist appears genuinely moved by these encounters and the images and stories they conjure. "It's a lot of family in my paintings," says Middleman. "All these people are close friends, people I know."

Middleman moves through the gallery like he's navigating a receiving line, past the portraits, landscapes, still lifes, watercolors, and a selection of graphic work that includes lithographs and a woodcut. At one point, he turns a corner and practically shouts, "It's Balthus!" after spotting a favorite dog in a piece titled Gypsy Caravan.

The painting is quintessential Middleman, with its full-palette bravado, industrial backdrop, bawdy vibe, and cast of characters including a one-armed waif, swirling belly dancer, and accordion-playing dwarf, all old friends of his. Middleman is in there, too, standing behind a donkey. It pulses with possibility, like anything could happen, and feels epic. Middleman, who is known for working big, quips that it is "fairly large." It measures 16 feet long by 10 feet high.

Impressed, he hollers to Young: "What a job you've done here! My ego can't get enough of this. It's a Raoul museum, and seeing all this work together makes it kind of wild and rowdy. It's a Raoul-dy museum!"

He laughs at that, before stepping back and taking in the entire room. "It's my life," he says, "that's for sure. But you know what? After all these years, I still wonder where all these ideas come from. They never seem to stop."

Middleman lives, and paints, in a Mt. Vernon row house that he has owned since 1975. He bought it for a buck, when city revitalization efforts included luring young families to this part of town with a promise of cheap home-ownership. At the time, he was married with young children. It's a spacious three-story house, with afternoon sunlight pouring through the back windows, and a creaky wooden staircase leading to Middleman's second floor painting studio.

"Raoul goes deep and isn't afraid to tell a few whoppers along the way."

Sitting in a wooden armchair, Middleman is dressed in a blue-green flannel shirt, brown corduroys, and athletic shoes. In conversation, he comes across like an erudite longshoreman, mentioning Plato and classic French poetry one minute and referring to "Bawlmer" the next.

With works in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the National Academy Museum, he is arguably this city's preeminent painter. The New York Times' Holland Cotter has praised his "choppy Expressionist brushwork and romantic atmosphere"; The Sun's John Dorsey succinctly described his work as being "strong and true"; and Gerald Ross, MICA's director of exhibitions, claims that "Raoul goes deep and isn't afraid to tell a few whoppers along the way."

The room around Middleman is a riot of paint, painting supplies, and paint-splattered furniture. Dozens of works, all self-portraits and still lifes of flowers, are tacked, grid-like, across two walls. Some of them are still wet; all of them were done in the past week or so. He points to a still life of a bouquet, flowers popping against a black background. "That was a 20-minute thing," says Middleman, who is notoriously prolific. "Everything worked on that one. It was, 'Bam, there it is,' one of the best little things I've ever done."

Besides this current stash, Middleman supplies two galleries—C. Grimaldis Gallery on Charles Street and Troika Gallery in Easton—with a selection of work, and he stores an additional 15,000 pieces at a Belair-Edison warehouse. For a recent MICA show of self-portraits, Selfies, he submitted more than 1,000 pieces for consideration; 400 were used.

"My whole life has favored a certain excessivity," he says, "although my parents didn't expect me to focus my energies on art. They didn't want me to be an artist, and I don't blame them."

An only child, Middleman grew up in Ashburton, then a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, and attended School 64 and Garrison Jr. High School. His father was a Johns Hopkins University grad, trained as a mathematician and aviation engineer, who eventually landed at the family tobacco business. His mother was eccentric and imaginative, 12 years older than her husband and born in 1893, "the same year as Soutine, the painter," notes Middleman.

His parents frequented Woodholme Country Club, but that social scene wasn't to Middleman's liking. He became infatuated with an altogether different world, after his Uncle Sid took him riding with Jimmy Hector, a legendary horse trainer, for his 11th or 12th birthday. Middleman, who'd been fantasizing about riding horses while playing cowboys and Indians around the neighborhood and watching cowboy movies at the Gwynn Theater, was smitten with the real thing.

It wasn't long before he was hitchhiking to stables on Old Court Road and working for Hector. "For a suburban Jewish kid, it was an escape," says Middleman. "I had this whole other life at the stables, grooming horses and shoveling shit."

During high school—he went to Poly, like his father—Middleman spent the early-morning hours riding at Pimlico with Hector, whom he considered an "ersatz dad."

He recalls a time when his father wouldn't loan him the family car for a much-anticipated date, despite the fact that the couple would be attending a country-club dance. Hector stepped up and loaned him a truck for the evening. "It was the manure truck," says Middleman, "and we hadn't unloaded it." He still remembers the look on the valet's face when he handed him the keys.

Smiling, he adds: "She never went out with me again."

At Poly, he excelled at math and science and finished after the 11th grade. He enrolled at Hopkins as a physics major but, inspired by professors like esteemed philosopher George Boas, exited with a philosophy degree. At the time, he fancied himself a poet, or novelist.

Four days after college graduation, Middleman hitchhiked west in search of ranch work. He spent a few years as a ranch hand in Montana and as a wrangler in the High Sierras. Discussing this period, Middleman, a consummate storyteller, digresses through various adventures: " . . . we had dates with these hairdressers in Miles City . . . my head went through the windshield . . . a telephone—which was attached to a tree—rang, so I answered and it was my mother . . . "

He wrote a novel about his experiences and eventually moved to New Orleans, where an artist girlfriend lived. After he developed writer's block, she vowed to turn Middleman, who had enjoyed drawing as a child, into a painter. He bought oil paints and painted all over New Orleans, favoring places like the Jax Brewery Wharf near Decatur Street and its "rough seamen and tough broads."

He worked shelving books at the public library, lingering over the art books, and painted portraits of tourists for 50 cents apiece in the French Quarter. Nine times out of 10, they would tear them up and not pay him. "I was told I was an uglifier," says Middleman. "But I also learned I had a natural instinct for art."

"I'll go someplace I didn't know I'd ever go, and that's what keeps it interesting and spontaneous."

Middleman honed those instincts during a hitch in the Army. He was company clerk for a Virginia-based railroad battalion before his artistic talents were noticed, and he was sent to the College of William and Mary for instruction. That was followed, after his discharge, by stints at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Maine's Skowhegan School of Painting & Scultpure, and the Brooklyn Museum Art School, where he studied with landscape painter Reuben Tam.

He returned to Baltimore in 1961 and migrated to Martick's restaurant and bar, where he found a community of similar-minded, artistic spirits. Needing work, he was about to start bartending at Martick's, but first placed a call to MICA president Bud Leake in hopes of landing a teaching job. Leake, a fellow painter, hired him to teach freshman painting for $32 a week.

Middleman was, from the outset, "a quirky teacher." He taught at MICA's B&O station building, before it was cut up and divided into studio and gallery space. In those days, it was so wide open that Middleman rode a bicycle from student to student to check on their progress. At times, he might have students paint with the brush between their toes. Or he'd have them paint with the coffee they were drinking, "anything to loosen them up," he says. He started drawing with the students, a practice he continues to this day.

He met Ruth, an artist herself, while on sabbatical in Paris, and they embarked on an extensive trip through Europe, leaving as friends and returning as lovers. He convinced Ruth, who'd been living in France for about six years, to come to Baltimore by telling her it was a lot like Naples. "I know," says Middleman, turned momentarily sheepish by the memory. "But everything worked out."

As late afternoon throws shadows across the studio, Middleman reflects on his longevity. His artistic output and overall philosophy bring to mind something his fellow Hopkins alum, the novelist John Barth, told Baltimore in 2008: "I intend to reach my peak at about age 80. Then, I'll go into a very slow decline."

At this point, Middleman shows little sign of slowing. He sometimes compares himself to a jazz musician improvising on a standard theme, as he might paint the same face over and over. "Each one is a new take, a new feeling," he says. "Sometimes, I'll go someplace I didn't know I'd ever go, and that's what keeps it interesting and spontaneous."

But the key, Middleman swears, is being able to ride the feeling, which he relates in terms that would make Jimmy Hector proud. "You always need to have good hands on a horse," he explains. "If you pull too hard, you deaden the mouth, and they can get away from you. If you give them too much rein, they take over, and you aren't in charge.

"It's the same thing with painting. You need to have a good hand on the brush, where you assert yourself, but you're also resilient to the will of the paint. You have to go with it, but not encumber the creative act."

That way, it remains fresh, says Middleman, "because doing something conventional is like riding a nag."

by John Lewis

Back To Top


Raoul Middleman, 50 years Selfies big wallMAlex Barbera on Selfies: Over 50 Years of Raoul Middleman's Self Portraits at MICA

"Art is a form of masturbation," Raoul Middleman says, a wall of self-portraits hanging behind him.

I sat in a sea of students for Middleman's MICA lecture on Thursday, February 5th, in the center of his new exhibition, Selfies, which features over fifty years of self-portraits. Before his lecture began, the artist took us on a short tour of the exhibit, which is not organized chronologically, but rather by type of self-portrait. The artist proudly, yet humbly, led us from wall to wall of the gallery, as if flipping through pages of his life's quirky photo album, including snapshots with muses, monsters, hats and violins.

As a native Baltimorean with a nomadic history of odd jobs, Middleman sees himself as a "loose-mouth Burlesque comic." Frequently moving locales and shifting moods, he uses self-portraits to explore "what painting is all about, as well as who I am." Although his paintings explore his physical evolution from a twenty-something to a septigenarian, it is his psychological progression that infuses this collection with emotional depth. In certain portraits, a virile, confident, Indiana Jones-esque Middleman stares out at the viewer. Standing in the gallery with the artist, the contrast is even more stark as the wrinkled eyes of an older, graying version of the artist looks back at his younger self with a soft smile. Even the portraits that are closer to the artist's present age seem drastically different than his physical presence because of the artist's changing interpretations of himself. According to Middleman, "the notion of self is always up for grabs."

Despite his evolving appearance and self-awareness, the artist's distinct style, that includes harsh contrasts of light and dark, as well as his thick, slashing brushstrokes, unifies his paintings (he talked a lot about the benefits of painting fast). In addition to a physical likeness, the artist strives to capture his environment. In his most recent self-portraits, Middleman says he hopes to capture "the decay of Baltimore" using "the old and funky colors" he likes, such as Indian Yellow.

This collection presents half a century worth of locations, generations, and states of mind – hung in an overwhelming salon style from floor to ceiling, it encompasses much of Middleman's history. Although he shares a journey of self-discovery that started five generations ago, it could not be more relevant to the selfie-obsessed world we live in today. Unlike the majority of people in our society, Middleman is actually eager to present himself as an aging human being. The artist calls himself an "uglifier" because he paints the good and the bad, but most importantly, the ugly. The ugly is proof that you have made a mark on the world and it has made a mark on you.

The next time you snap a selfie for Instagram, consider the portrait as part of a larger, lifelong series and remember the many faces of Raoul Middleman. Consider "the power of your own seed" and use it to learn more about yourself.

by Alex Barbera

Back To Top


Mid-night SnackMICA | Over 50 Years of Raoul Middleman's
Self Portraits

Trippers and askers surround me,
People I meet, the effect upon me of my early life or the ward
and city I live in, or the nation,
The latest dates, discoveries, inventions, societies, authors
old and new,
My dinner, dress, associates, looks, compliments, dues, The real or fancied indifference of some man or woman I
love,
The sickness of one of my folks or of myself, or ill-doing or
loss or lack of money, or depressions or exaltations, Battles, the horrors of fratricidal war, the fever of doubtful
news, the fitful events;
These come to me days and nights and go from me again, But they are not the Me myself.
Apart from the pulling and hauling stands what I am, Stands amused, complacent, compassionating, idle,
unitary,
Looks down, is erect, or bends an arm on an impalpable
certain rest,
Looking with side-curved head curious what will come next, Both in and out of the game and watching and wondering
at it.
Backward I see in my own days where I sweated through fog
with linguists and contenders,
I have no mockings or arguments, I witness and wait.

~ Walt Whitman, excerpt from Song of Myself

Raoul Middleman's self-portraits are a witnessing and a waiting.Through them he explores, presents, and preserves aspects of himself. In Walt Whitman's famous poem excerpted in this essay, he muses that the self contains multitudes. With his hundreds of self-portraits Middleman bring this concept to life. Over the course of a half-century, Middleman has used his self-portraits as a visual diary to record himself, witnessing his own growth, waiting to see what facet will make itself clear next.

I first met Raoul Middleman while preparing a retrospective of another Baltimore painter named William S. Dutterer. In his 53- year teaching career, Middleman has taught hundreds of painters, including Dutterer in the 1960s. I hoped to gain insight through his memories, and had heard that he was an excellent storyteller. Following Middleman upstairs to his studio was stumbling into a painter's dream. A skylight illuminated swaths of still-drying paintings pinned to the wall. Each wall was covered in rows of Self Portrait, 1980, Oil on paper, 20" x 28" captivating self-portraits. Some were quick sketches loose, free, and uneconomical with paint while others were tighter, painted over and into, their color more considered. From these I was left with the distinct impression that Middleman is a man constantly in search of himself.

Middleman is known for his larger-than-life allegorical paintings that mix aspects of life in Baltimore with fantastical myths. In his self-portraits, he is quieter. In them he creates a meditation on himself, a space to consider and reform his features, to cast new light. Some self-portraits are ugly, twisted while others are brighter, more forgiving, and full of color. Many of these portraits are created on paper. Quick studies capture a certain light, time of day, or mood. They are not precious and do not seek perfection of the form, instead leaving an impression of Middleman that day. Other portraits on canvas, panel, or even a discarded door, took longer to make. These longer studies serve Self Portrait, 2005, Oil on wood, 18" x 12" the same aim of reflection, but allow for revision and refinement. In all of the portraits, Middleman's gaze is directed outwards, he makes direct eye contact with himself and the viewer.

Self-portraits represent each way it is possible to be. They are at once a documentation of the physical, and insight into the inner world. Self-portraits present the artist's hopes and fears about who they are. They also describe the way that the view of the self shifts constantly, influenced by each new encounter. Seen all together, Middleman's self-portraits form a greater whole that describes the complexity inherent in conscious examination of the self.

Middleman's self-portraits draw parallels to selfies, self- portraits taken on a cell phone camera and shared primarily on social media. Selfies are as contentious as they are ubiquitous. They are often derided as self-centered, the product of a generation obsessed with looking at themselves. But really, a selfie is nothing more than the effort to capture the daily self, minute- to-minute as it changes. It is an impulse to preserve and the manifestation of a desire for immortalization.

In the making of Middleman's portraits and selfies, the mirror is a necessary partner. Middleman employs two mirrors in his studio, a large circle and a large rectangle. In some paintings, only the edge is visible, leaving Middleman's bust floating. When the whole mirror is present we are able to see multiple views of the figure at once, referencing the multiplicity inherent in the self. These mirrors make the mechanics of how Middleman creates his portraits apparent, we are meant to know that he was looking at himself. In selfies, we often see the edges of the bathroom or bedroom mirror, which provides a physical frame and context for the figure. We are always reminded that the creators are making the portrait for themselves first, reflecting on themselves physically.

The backgrounds of Middleman's paintings and selfies each provide us with information that defines the narrative of each piece. Designer shoes, a messy floor, choices of décor are all signs and signifiers that inform the particular self we are viewing in the portrait. Like the background of a selfie, Middleman provides clues to himself in his paintings. Recurring images of a Chinese dragon, puppets, a fiddle, and a yellow doorframe make up Middleman's visual vocabulary. These figures are Middleman's companions on his exploration of himself, and each stand for some aspect that cannot be represented through the physical form of his features.

What the figure is wearing indicates as much as any object within the frame. Most often, we see Middleman wearing different hats, indicating the time of year, or even the decade with his particular choices in fashion. This aspect of self-portrait making brings the physical reality into bear on the picturing of the self. The objects we own and clothes we wear do not make us who we are, but they are nonetheless part of how we view ourselves. The relationship between the figure in a portrait and the clothing they have chosen freezes that aspect of the self in the moment of creation.

It is impossible to remove the passage of time from the viewing of self-portraits. In his paintings, we see Middleman age. We see at turns his fear and acceptance of the movement towards a final end. Selfies document daily life and physical changes we wish to remember. These images attempt to capture the present moment, while also highlighting it's passing, creating a record.

Though self-portraits only make up a portion of Middleman's overall work, they are a crucial aspect of the whole. In his studio practice, the self-portraits serve as a space for experimentation and play. Once completed they are a reflection on his ever changing relationship to himself. Here, Middleman gets directly to the heart of what self-portraits mean to him:

“The Self is not ossified in some permanent immutable casement, always the same, but rather manifests itself as fragments of an expandable continuum. Just as a circle can be described by an infinite number of tangents in the trajectory of its rotation, so can the Self. Startled by the jolt of introspection, self portraiture is all about the discovery of the multiplicity of one's being, shifting through the masks of time.”

Middleman's self-portraits are a window. In a truly vulnerable and powerful act, he lets the viewer in, to see him as he sees himself.

by Caitlin Tucker-Melvin

Back To Top


Mid-night SnackHyperallergic | Beer with a Painter: Raoul Middleman

I met Raoul Middleman in Baltimore, and after stopping for fried oyster po' boys and ginger ale at the Tooloulou Café, we drove to his studio-warehouse, a building that houses about seven thousand of his paintings. To call him prolific would be a major understatement. We took a tour around the space, sat down to talk, then toured some more, pulling out dozens of paintings from the racks.

Middleman talks fast — really fast — just like he paints. It is a raucous rollercoaster of conversation. To illustrate an idea, endless allusions and references roll off his tongue. His energy bursts at the seams, like the figures that can't be contained in his painted space.

Middleman was born in Baltimore in 1935, and was a philosophy major at Johns Hopkins. After spending time in New Orleans, he served in the army in the mid-1950s. From 1959 to 1961, he studied painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Skowhegan Summer School, and the Brooklyn Museum Art School. He has taught at the Maryland Institute College of Art since 1961.

He is represented by C. Grimaldis Gallery in Baltimore. From the 1960s through the 1990s he showed with Allan Stone and the Ice Gallery in New York, and more recently with Kouros Gallery and MB Modern. In 2012, he was the subject of an exhibition at the Katzen Museum of American University in Washington, DC. A retrospective exhibition will be held in the fall of 2014 at the University of Maryland University College, which has a major collection of Middleman's work.

Jennifer Samet: You were a philosophy major at Johns Hopkins and planned to be a writer. I've read that a girlfriend introduced you to painting. Did you draw or paint as a young person at all?

Raoul Middleman: I always drew and I started painting a little bit, but I wanted to be a writer. I wrote a novel around the same time as Kerouac's novel, which I didn't know about at the time. Mine I called Hitchhike; his is On the Road. It wasn't very good, but I did save a chapter out of it. And I wrote poetry.

I went to New Orleans. I wondered if I could be both a writer and a painter. I met this girl who was older than me and she said, "A writer you already are, we'll make a painter out of you."

JS: How did you end up in New Orleans?

RM: I was hitchhiking around. I wanted to see the country. I was a cowhand, went to California, worked on a wrangler and deer hunting concern. Then I went down to New Orleans and worked for the Department of Agriculture. I also worked in a library, and that's where I learned art history.

I got a license to sell my drawings in the French Quarter. I made portraits of people and people would always tear them up, even though they were only fifty cents, because, as Al Hansen would say, I'm an uglifier.

Then I had to go to the army. I went back to Baltimore to get my physical and waited around there all summer. There were two things I liked a lot in Baltimore. We had a big burlesque area, called "The Block." Now it's condensed, but it used to go into all the side streets. The strippers and the burlesque comedians and burlesque shows were a big part of my life; I loved it.

Two blocks south of that was the harbor. It was full of darkness and decay: the wharves, built by man, and reclaimed by nature. My friends and I would get a bottle and sit on the barge and dream about being artists and writers, as the fog would roll in. These two things: the burlesque being carnival, and the harbor being funereal, really influenced my work.

In the army, they noticed I had talent, and cut orders for me to be an artist. But I had problems. I was too messy for commercial art. Once I was drawing an eagle and I slid the T-Square the wrong way. The pen went over the wet ink. I messed it up, and next thing I knew, they put me on weapons detail, mowing the lawn, anything but art! I did cut-outs of enemy soldiers. I would try to paint them straight, but they came out ugly and they would be used for target practice.

Three days after I got out of the army, I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. It was five hundred dollars a year and my parents paid for it. The next year I got a scholarship. I loved the teachers there. And I went to the Barnes Foundation and studied with Violette de Mazia. I got started teaching at the Maryland Institute in 1961. I used to be the youngest guy, now I'm the oldest guy.

JS: Were you making figurative paintings during those early years?

RM: I was doing abstract art. Then Roy Lichtenstein came around, and I wanted to be current. I remember Grace Hartigan said, "You've gotta go to New York, seize destiny by the hand." My friend Jon Schueler took my slides up to Eleanor Ward, who had the Stable Gallery.

My Pop paintings were discovered. I moved to New York into Malcolm Morley's old loft down on South Street. Agnes Martin was upstairs. I had a beautiful wife, my first wife, and an art dealer fell in love with her. The whole thing disintegrated. My marriage broke up. My whole life was cancelled. I had to reinvent myself. I couldn't go anywhere with Pop Art. There was a wall.

I knew how long it would take me to make a Pop Art painting. It was like being a car mechanic in Detroit. It would take me three months if I was teaching, and a month if I wasn't teaching. Jon Schueler and I would have long talks about painting. He said about his own work, "I don't know how long a painting will take me. I might do it in fifteen minutes, or I might do it in fifteen years." That appealed to me: the freedom you have in that.

People who interest me come from different quarters. I knew guys around Schueler, like B.H. Friedman. But I also knew the Pop world pretty well – Al Hansen, Richard Artschwager, Lichtenstein. I became friends with Raoul Hague and I rented a place in Port Jervis, New York. I started doing my first landscapes up there. I thought making landscapes was the dumbest thing you could do. You got flies, insects, cowpies, humidity. But I loved it.

Maybe I loved it because I couldn't attribute some kind of graduate school theory to it. The absurdity of making landscapes in the 20th century was a kind of release, and I was angry and rebelling against the whole Pop art world. There is a crazy arrogance to taking on the whole avant-garde.

I went down to the meetings of the Figurative Alliance. I met my friends there — Paul Resika, Paul Georges, Rosemarie Beck, Louis Finkelstein, Gretna Campbell. Gabriel Laderman — he was difficult and complex, but ultimately supportive. Marjorie Kramer and Sam Thurston. They were welcoming.

JS: Some have suggested that your paintings are literary. Do you agree? How do you see the differences between telling a story visually versus in writing?

RM: The point of view at that time was art for art's sake. Form and color were the important things, and anything that smacked of illustration was morally evil. The question is: what makes a painting illustrational, and what transcends it.

In Shakespeare's Julius Ceasar, Antony says, "This was the most unkindest cut of all." That is bad grammar. But, it is great. Here was Brutus doing something so unkind that it breaks the law; the morality of friendship was broken. The grammar becomes a violation of its own rules, in order to express the idea.

Or, take the example of Mozart's Don Giovanni. Usually in opera you have the main character sing an aria that would identify the persona. But in Don Giovanni, you wait for him to deliver the goods. The story of Don Giovanni is that he tells the girls, "Wait for me." So the idea of waiting for the form — the aria — to transpire, is also the content.

In Titian's Bacchanal of the Andrians, in the Prado, the nude is in the corner. You never put the most voluptuous nude in the corner. But the painting is all about being drunk. Everything is out of whack because the form is a drunken kind of form.

The form can become an extension of the content. I find in my own work that these things happen organically. Often, it is only after I have finished a painting, that I discover the formal elements, which add to the narration. For example, I did a portrait of a man in politics who accepted bribes and went to prison. He was a great guy, though, head of the city council, and did a lot for the city. There was this bit of red. I left it, but I was going to come back to it. But I forgot and he took the painting. He said to me, "You know something? You put the brand of Cain on my forehead." He could never go back into politics.

So what is this? As an artist, you are like a medium. It is very mysterious. You have to listen to the structure, and not impose your own intellectual will too much upon it. At the same time you have to impose your will. It is like riding a horse: if you give too much rein he'll run away with you, but if you pull back, you will numb the mouth. That is all in the touch, the paint. Being in the groove, the zone, applying the right amount of pressure to the brush.

JS: You talk about cultivating a mess, admiring the idea that you can smell the humanness in a Rembrandt, painting ugliness that is real life. Can you address this? Aside from Rembrandt, who else are your models for this in art history?

RM: Yes. With a Rembrandt you can smell the cabbage cooking, and the cream cheese and lox in his gums. Whereas painters like Velazquez and Corot stand back; there is a reserve. Rembrandt is hot and he is vulgar.

De Kooning said he liked the melodrama of vulgarity. Vulgarity isn't necessarily about painting armpits that exude a vapor of stench. It could be just about getting into your private space. Frans Hals does that. He paints like a used car salesman — the elbows in your face. It's like a schmuck trying to sell you a Dodge.

In A la recherche du temps perdu, Proust says that every time a new art form comes along, it might appear ugly. It doesn't necessarily obey the canon of rules of beauty, and so it challenges the old order. When Jackson Pollock first came up, the paintings looked like vomit to people. Now they look like cake icing. Impressionism was considered to look like dirty laundry.

Beethoven's Grosse Fuge is a great work of art but it is still an incredible lumbering giant of ugliness. It hasn't become cake icing like Pollock. It is still inchoate energy, dysfunctional sound.

There can also be elegance within that, however. Soutine's paintings have tremendous power, anxiety, and turmoil, but at the same time, his paintings are like a bird builds a nest. His body throws the paint, and makes a perfect oval. A certain tenderness encapsulates the violence of his emotions. Ugliness can be beautiful, enchanting, transformative, and it can create a new order.

Rembrandt's painting, "The Apostle Paul," in the National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., has a furious expressionist brushwork. Saint Paul is listening; his pen is poised. His ear is the center of the painting. And, the garment that comes over St. Paul's shoulder is shaped like an orifice, like a big ear. The painting is about listening for otherness to inform. St. Paul is listening for the word of God. But that becomes a metaphor for listening for a new order of painting that Rembrandt is developing. Ugliness can be about attacking this closed moral system.

JS: There is a quote by Renoir, in which he says something like, "You should smell the perfume of the model but not her body." Still, I think of him when you talk about these issues. What are your thoughts on him, in terms of these ideas about ugliness and beauty?

RM: I think of Renoir's paintings as experiential; I think of them as truth. Renoir has terrific balance between thick and thin. Renoir is good, really good. And the reason why people have trouble with Renoir now is that they have forgotten the language of painting.

People have forgotten the great sensibility of Renoir — how he just touches the paint and brings it out opaque. You get that in a Titian. I always tell students: "You want to learn how to paint? Put your nose up against a Titian! See how the paint goes in and out of the fabric of the linen, and the weave." You start to feel that sensuous application of the paint, being a kind of lovemaking, in the case of Renoir. Renoir paints youth: the sheer unabashed luminosity of flesh, of youth, whereas Rembrandt paints age.

JS: You are prolific and tend to work quickly. Do you generally complete paintings in one session? And do you consider the compression of space in your paintings aesthetically related to a compression of time, in terms of working fast?

RM: There is a concept in literature: like in Charles Dickens's David Copperfield, the character Mr. Micawber. Whenever you come across him, he is this bundle of compacted energy, compressed, about to explode.

In my paintings, I am like a rat. I will work with any space but the image just gets bigger and bigger — bulging out. It gets out of control that way. I don't set out to do that, but it happens. Occasionally, I can fit a whole figure in a space, but usually, when I want to put the whole figure in, I am lucky if I fit the earlobe.

I generally do better when I am going fast. Most of my paintings are one-session paintings, although I have some I've worked on for years — the narratives. But the best things I do all at once, even big paintings.

I try to do my portraits in three or four-hour periods. My landscapes I like to do all at once. I guess I am like a slugger. John Scheuler said I'm an intellectual; I ain't no intellectual! I need to get into the fray. There's something phony about coming back into a painting. The day is not the same; the mood is not the same; the light is not the same.

Usually if I come back into it, I repaint everything; I don't try to improve something I've done. Sometimes you have to take out the best part of it, or you get stuck. Where my intentionality is focused, I might not get it. It is a matter of having a balance of looseness and intentionality. A certain amount of daring-do, but not so much that you become irresponsible.

I try to keep the primitive quality of a painting. I paint fast, because if I spend too much time on a painting, I might bring it back to a place where it becomes a palliative condiment to assuage the nerve endings of a jaded public. I would rather keep it at that point where it is a frontal assault on our central nervous system.

by Jennifer Samet

Read interview online: http://hyperallergic.com/92607/beer-with-a-painter-raoul-middleman/

Back To Top


Mayartcritical | "Like Renoir, He Doesn't Only Paint With His Brush": Raoul Middleman's Baltimore Babes

It will come as little surprise to anyone acquainted with the paintings of Raoul Middleman that earlier in his career he had writing aspirations, too — and not just aspirations, for they were acted upon in raucous short stories that often delved into the steamier side of Baltimore. This is the city where he grew up, taught for many years at the prestigious Maryland Institute College of Art, and continues to make his home. But it is also, in his writings and paintings alike, a city of the imagination, transported beyond its present bricks and mortar to the planet of Joyce's Dublin and Durrell's Alexandria, Atget's Paris and Kirchner's Berlin. These are cities mapped by longings not landmarks. For many years he has kept a studio of mythic magni- tude in the neighborhood of the famed Copycat building, amidst the raw, mean streets that serve as location for The Wire.

Middleman is at once a supremely painterly painter and a writerly painter. His illustrious, fecund career provides a service to aesthetics by dispelling the prissy formalist notion that somehow to tell a story in paint, to illustrate a type, to animate a com- position with scenario, is incompatible with whatever it is that provides visual art with its essence. Middleman's vital, brimful- of-life riposte to such a reductive way of thinking reconnects narrative painting to centuries of endeavor in countless genres, many of which latter he himself has attacked in his greed for imagery. In virtually any Middleman painting, an event has just happened and there is more to come. Subjects are never passive. The universe is in flux.

There is something to remind us of Balzac in Middleman's mammoth scope and prolific output. His monumental narrative paintings have taken on epoch-defining moments like Custer's last stand or whimsical themes that marry music lore and Americana with titles like "The Devil Went Down to Georgia, or The Prodigal Son". He retells classical myths ("The Calumny of Apelles") in a raucous, vernacular present tense that fuses the once discrete categories of allegory and low life. Even when he paints a modestly observed domestic set up the elements in it are restless. Supposedly dead fish glisten and writhe, literalizing the name of the genre: still life.

And then there are the Baltimore Babes: Madge spilling out of her motorcycle jacket; Linda the Valkyrie; Stephanie, more naked within her negligee than she would be without; booted Colleen; defiant Tracey; demure Heather; eager Anthea. Boy, this is one seriously politically incorrect exhibition. Here is the work of a straight male of a certain age taking irony-free delight in the portrayal of alluring women. Libido is manifest in every brushstroke. Like Renoir, he doesn't only paint with his brush. Like Rodin's Balzac, there is more than a clenched fist in his dressing gown.

If only the artist were a few years younger and a few brushstrokes more intentionally "bad", the doting objectification would be "transgressive" rather than merely a tad louche. The show title is playful with the sitters' status, as are the forename-only names given to individual works. From a cold, one line description (on Twitter perhaps) they could be imagined, albeit rather luxuriously executed and extravagantly scaled, as calling cards for professional ladies of a kind to be found in a very large and highly cultured telephone kiosk, if there were still such things in the world.

But then again, maybe not, for any lasciviousness in these pictures is concentrated in the paint handling, not on poses. These are not people selling themselves or leading anyone on. The women in this group span generations, occupations, social sta- tions, ethnicities and sartorial preferences. They are clothed less for modesty's sake than for added drama. Sure, they have in common a propensity to arouse. But not – once we begin to study what the painter has given us of their personalities – a vocation to do so.

But then again, maybe not, for any lasciviousness in these pictures is concentrated in the paint handling, not on poses. These are not people selling themselves or leading anyone on. The women in this group span generations, occupations, social sta- tions, ethnicities and sartorial preferences. They are clothed less for modesty's sake than for added drama. Sure, they have in common a propensity to arouse. But not – once we begin to study what the painter has given us of their personalities – a vocation to do so.

And anyway, compelling though these personal presences are, and despite the names being of the actual women who sat for these works, who include the artist's son's fiancé, personal friends, professional models and fellow artists, these are not por- traits per se. At least, they are no more so than, say, Rembrandt's paintings of Bathsheba or a young monk are portraits when we recognize Hendrickje Stoffels or Titus as their sitters. As in all Middlemans, the observed is swept up into the imagined.

Willem de Kooning's maxim that flesh was the reason oil paint was invented is so delightful and suggestive an apercu that it seems churlish to question its validity. In fact, a whole exhibition was presented on its premise at the Phillips Collection in Washington DC a couple of years ago, "Paint as Flesh," and Middleman, with his masterful evocations of flesh, could have settled nicely into the ranks of the realist mavericks, first generation AbEx'ers, denizens of the School of London and young "bad" painters gathered there. Middleman belongs, in fact, to a strain of American realism that ranks Reginald Marsh, George Bellows, Thomas Hart Benton, Paul Cadmus and Middleman's friend and contemporary Paul Georges among its luminaries, and the late Carl Plansky as a younger peer. Middleman's Gloria, for instance, feels squeezed out of her canvas in a way that re- calls Benton in turn recalling El Greco. But then, Middleman's affinities with European expressive realism run deep. He clearly channels the work of Max Beckmann, Oskar Kokoschka and Lovis Corinth.

De Kooning's assertion needs to be challenged, however, not, literally, from a historical perspective, to probe the origins of this medium, so much as to say, is it really skin that so particularly requires the dexterity and malleability of oil paint? Put another way: it would be axiomatic to say that flesh is the reason clothing was invented, to keep flesh warm, out of the harmful rays of the sun, and of the vision of respectable citizens and impressionable youths. But the genius of fashion is to persuade us that clothes are the reason that flesh and bone were invented; that the second skins of fur and fabric and stretched materials layer limbs with greater allure as well as signifying all manner of meanings and values. Oil paint comes into its own in the depiction of all kinds of surfaces, and the gooey swish of mixed colors and tones to suggest, say, light on the stretch of spandex in May's stockings (May, 1989) is a sexier amalgam of the properties of medium and message than exposed skin – although the play of light on May's forehead and arms is equally masterful. There is as much relish in the painterly evocation of the contour and surface of May's corset as there would be for the flesh it constrains. (From the tautness of skin over the sitter's shoulder bone and across her brow it seems that a corset is a superfluous decoration anyway on so lithe a figure as May's.) The point here is that Middleman lusts to describe not to possess. The "babes" send us back to the woods where we find that Middleman's penetrations of the Delaware River, as indeed of the dead fish that might have come from it, have as much "lust for life" as the paintings of the beauties that visit his studio.

Middleman's art is comprised of observation and imagination in equal measure. He is truly an heir of Rembrandt in that flight of fantasy takes off from earthy ground. True to his name, he opts for the middle way. Having said that his "babes" are narra- tives not portraits, therefore, is only half true. When a woman plays a role for Middleman she is still herself. Middleman is like a demonic director who sucks the souls from his performers to get a fully living picture, to flesh out the abstraction of a literary character with the actuality of its enactor. Even if Middleman's intention was to evoke the epitome of a femme fatale, when painting Tracey with such harsh chiaroscuro that her hairline seems as carved as the fissures in her purple slip, Tracey remains Tracey in the way Medea remains (or better, retains) Maria Callas, or Vivian Sternwood does Lauren Bacall.

For all his addiction to drama, allegory and type, Middleman is incapable of stereotype because he relies on actual human presence to evoke humanity, and works with such empathy that humanity cannot be denied. And so it is with all the "babes": they are as fully individuated as anyone who presumes to regard them. Linda is her own Valkyrie, not Wagner's, or Middle- man's, or yours, or (hopelessly as I want her to be) mine.

By artcritical Editor David Cohen

Read review online: http://www.artcritical.com/2011/03/13/raoul-middleman/

Return To Top


Johns Hopkins Magazine | Cultivate Mess By Dale Keiger | February 1997

RAOUL MIDDLEMAN '55 SCOOPS PAINT out of a film can onto a palette. It's a November mid-afternoon in Baltimore, and the remaining daylight is making a run for it. If he's to paint a picture today, Middleman will have to work fast, but that's okay with him. He likes getting his hands in gear before his head has time to intervene.

"If you get too analytical, you lose it," he says. "I try to see things before language. The painting has to have its own inscrutability, like the world itself. I'm not saying I get that- -it's an aim."

Middleman has been painting full time, day in and day out, for 37 years. When he can paint seven days a week, he does. He has two studios in Baltimore, and one serves as a warehouse for his work. He doesn't know how many canvases he's stashed there, but he guesses anywhere from 5,000 to 7,000. When representatives of The Ice Collection in New York came to select pictures for his recent one-man show, they gave up in exhaustion before they could survey the entire trove. The painter Paul Resika once said of Middleman, "I remember thinking, when I first met Raoul 30 years ago, that he had this enormous energy, like John Marin or Jackson Pollock. And that he had painted more pictures, of every subject and every mood, than anyone I had ever seen." He paints portraits, nudes, still-lifes, kitschy narratives, landscapes, seascapes, and cityscapes. He's painted in Scotland, France, Wales, New Mexico, the countryside around his farmhouse near Havre de Grace, Maryland, and the rusting industrial underbelly of Baltimore. He paints women in black bras and boots, woodland streams, rocky shorelines, grumpy self-portraits, horses, crabhouses, carry-outs, and, on one occasion, a writer who had come to interview him. He paints with bold color and vigorous brushwork. He likes to talk, he likes to eat, and mostly he likes to see what happens when you put one color next to another.

With an assist from teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, he's made a living as a figurative painter, no small accomplishment in the latter half of the American 20th century. His asking price at a recent show was $1,400 for a framed figure drawing. For some canvases, the tab was as high as $28,000.

Gerrit Henri, writing in Art News, said, "Where Middleman's deep painterly energies are coming from is, considering the present art situation, something of a mystery, but the evidence of his powers is undeniable." Shyka Cohen, the president of The Ice Collection, calls him "the last American painter." Says Cohen, "We do have some exceptional painters, but I've not seen another Raoul, who goes and paints America. You find another one--I don't know where he is." Cohen's hardly impartial. He's Middleman's friend and former student, and he'd like to sell some paintings from his gallery's show. But other painters have been generous in their praise. Eugene Leake, president emeritus of the Maryland Institute and founder of Hopkins's Homewood Art Workshops, calls Middleman "a born painter," and adds, "Everything is big, including his talent and ambitions." In a letter, the late landscape painter Fairfield Porter once gave Middleman what could be considered the highest praise, painter to painter: "I envy your paintings. I wish I could paint like that."

The object of all this laudation is a slouchy, baggy figure, age 61, with a gray woolly beard, thinning gray hair that's sometimes combed but usually isn't, an ever-present pipe clenched between his teeth, and stained fingers that could get him mistaken for an auto mechanic. No matter what he's doing--painting, teaching, greeting guests at a jacket-and-necktie gallery reception--he latches a ring of 23 keys to his belt loop, like a night watchman. He's long forgotten what most of them unlock. Garrulous and a little bit hammy, he's a storyteller who can joke with a genteel, Chardonnay-sipping audience about painting pigeon shit on a rock, offending no one. He cheerfully describes himself as a vulgarian, a "Jew-boy from Ashburton" who misses strip-joint burlesque and admires Rembrandt and other giants of representational painting for how they rendered life in all its earthy, fleshy rawness.

His primary studio, like the rest of his house in downtown Baltimore, is a remarkable jumble. His wife, Ruth Middleman, is a painter too, and neither seems inclined toward housekeeping. Stuff is piled, stacked, shelved, stashed, and tossed everywhere: tubs of pigment with evocative names--alizarine crimson, burnt sienna, cadmium yellow; shopping bags chock-full of the film cans he uses to hold the paints he grinds himself; bottles of linseed oil, turpentine, and walnut oil; tins of Rattrav's Black Mallory and Dunhill Nightcap pipe tobacco; an old but indestructible dial phone; a paint-spattered stereo system beside a stack of CDs that include Bach, Mozart, Handel, Sonny Rollins, and Thelonious Monk; a human skull with badly bucked teeth and no lower jaw; framing wood; a cart full of brushes; a couple of easels; a big circular mirror; stools so encrusted with paint, their original surfaces haven't been heard from in years. Tacked to the walls are paintings of fish, landscapes, self-portraits.

"Cultivate mess," he says. "For me, art comes out of mess. Disorder is crucial to discovery."

Today's painting will be a still-life: a few lemons (one of them halved), a plate, a silver teapot, and some whole fish just purchased at Baltimore's Lexington Market. He works out the arrangement he wants, then begins the underpainting, sketching the basic composition in brown tones, laying in the darks that will underlie the color. "This is like setting up a scaffolding," he says. "You can just paint direct. There's more freshness that way. But there's more richness this way." He doesn't talk much while he works. The only sounds are the moist sucking noises of his pipe and the scrape of his brushes against the canvas.

IN A TINY OFFICE IN THE FRONT ROOM of his house, Middleman and I spend one morning talking about his youth. There's barely room for our two chairs. Art books, papers, slides, and unopened mail are stacked on every available surface. Atop the shelving unit that separates the office from his wife's studio rests a violin; Middleman plays second violin in the Hopkins Symphony Orchestra. The family dog, a golden retriever named Balthus, silently checks me out, accepts having his head scratched, then ambles back to a favored spot on the kitchen floor. When Ruth sticks her head into the room, Raoul says, "Here's my kept woman."

"Well kept," she says, grinning, then sets off on an errand.

Her husband was born in Baltimore, the only child of Paul and Betty Middleman. He describes his mother as an eccentric, his father as a perfectionist: "I remember going into the attic and finding boxes of his school papers, with nothing less than 100 on them. Devastating for a young person to find that.

"We had a very difficult relationship. He thought I was a bum, as did most of my family. I understand this. Ours was a Jewish immigrant family that had made some headway into the culture. Then I come along and thumb my nose at all that, wanting to be an artist, which is a childish, ego sort of thing from their standpoint. My father got proud of me only later."

As he recalls growing up in the Ashburton section of the city, a few miles north of Druid Hill Park, he says, "I was a little eccentric. I had to go a few blocks to find friends. That's not worth talking about, okay? I still don't understand that." As a kid, he had a hot temper and got into fights. He played guard for the neighborhood football team, the Ashburton Butchers. The people across the street owned horses, and he learned to ride.

He had a knack for drawing, though as a kid he never thought about being an artist. He enrolled at Hopkins as a physics student, but soon switched majors, a change his parents didn't notice until they attended commencement and were shocked to see him receive a degree not in science, but in philosophy. He had decided he wanted to be a writer. George Boas, then head of the Hopkins Philosophy Department, told him, "You probably won't succeed, few people do. But don't listen to me. If you follow someone else's advice and fail, then you've got two asses to kick."

Middleman liked riding and physical work, and he figured a writer needed some adventures to write about. So after graduating from Hopkins in just three years, he set out for Montana and found work on ranches near Miles City. One night, he was a passenger in a truck driven by the ranch boss's brother-in-law. The driver suffered an epileptic seizure on a wet road and the truck lurched into a ditch. Middleman's face rocketed through the windshield. In the hospital, he could only remember his name at first. Then he laughed. "The doctor asked me why I was laughing. I said I'd just remembered that I was a philosophy graduate of Hopkins, and now I'm working as a ranch hand." He and the physician discussed Kant's answer to Hume on causality while the doc gave him 37 stitches.

Ranch work paid only $7 a day for riding fences, slopping hogs, tending horses, and pitching hay, but his employers provided room and board, so Middleman could save enough to spend winters in New York or New Orleans. A girlfriend in Louisiana taught him the rudiments of painting and suggested he might better spend his time as a painter than as a writer. "She said, �A writer you already are. I'll make you a painter.' It was just more natural for me," he recalls. "I had writer's block. I never had painter's block. I'd try to write something and end up doodling on the page."

His first foray into the art market didn't amount to much. In New Orleans, he set up a stand in Pirate's Alley and tried to sell drawings of people for 50 cents a pop. Most of his subjects took one look at their little portraits and tore them up. "I didn't try to distort things," he says. "I didn't try for ugliness. It's just how I naturally do things." He then tried to sell them as deliberate distortions, fun-house mirror drawings. People still tore them up. One day, while trying to paint near the Mississippi River, he lost his balance when his stool collapsed and he kicked a new set of paints--a present from his mother--into the water. "I should have quit then," he says. "Somebody was telling me something."

In 1957, he voluntarily entered the Army just before it drafted him. There he did drawings for training manuals. One hot summer, he sweated so badly on the drawings that he had to wrap himself in gauze, with only his fingertips exposed. "It was horrible."

John Needre, an artist working for the Army, befriended him, taking him home for weekend dinners and showing him books on art. Needre had attended the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and encouraged his friend to do the same. When his hitch in the Army ended, Middleman enrolled as a full scholarship student. "Once I got the notion to be a painter, I was always committed. Art becomes a salvation. If you're inclined that way, it becomes the most exciting thing you can do."

MIDDLEMAN COMPLETES HIS UNDERPAINTING, pauses to relight his pipe, then begins adding highlights. He makes darting glances at the gleaming fish, then squints at the canvas and dabs on a little titanium white. His T-shirt and khaki pants are speckled and smeared with paint, and the trousers have a slit in the seat. "I don't know why I like to paint fish," he says. "I just do."

The phone rings and it's Ben, the middle of the Middleman offspring (all sons--Rafe, Ben, and Nate) and an intern at The Ice Collection. Middleman banters with him and ribs me: "Yeah, the writer's here. He's taking notes about everything. He's one of those Midwestern pragmatists who thinks you'll find everything in the facts."

After completing the highlights on the canvas, he props it against a chair and turns a fan on it. He'll let it dry while he grinds new paints. He doesn't like commercial colors, which he says are too full of adulterants added by the manufacturers to extend shelf life. He wants vivid, saturated color. "I'm gonna do this Indian yellow. It used to be made from the urine of cows fed mango leaves, but they outlawed that. Now it's all synthetic."

Another ringing interrupts him. "There goes the phone. Phones are horrible.

IN EARLY 1961, MIDDLEMAN LEFT PHILADELPHIA for Brooklyn, because friends had advised him to go to New York. At first, he did abstract painting. "I was just doing what art students do, you know? It was all codified by theory. It was hard to find yourself in it." He began a fling with pop art, which was successful as flings go. He appeared in a few big shows, and the Chrysler Museum in Massachusetts bought one of his paintings. Some years later, the Chrysler "deaccessioned" it, which is museum-babble for unloading what it no longer wants. The painting later sold for a few hundred bucks at a flea market, and now hangs in the Bang Bang Hair Studio in Baltimore. "My paintings have a more interesting life than I do," Middleman says.

Despite some commercial success, he grew tired of pop. "It was a kind of market that was manipulated," he says, "a dealer-controlled market." He spent some time in Woodstock and Port Jarvis, New York, and began painting landscapes. "You wouldn't try to find originality that way, but I liked that. It was cleansing. There was freedom in it. I really loved manipulating the paint. My paintings changed radically after that. Maybe the most radical thing you can do is return to the traditions of painting."

In New York City, he began attending meetings of the Figurative Alliance. Figurative painters were out of fashion and had trouble showing their work. Each week, artists like Paul Resika, Philip Pearlstein, Joe Fiore, Gretna Campbell, and Louie Finkelstein would gather to talk about their work, argue, and complain. "It was very feisty," Middleman remembers. "There was a lot of thwarted idealism. It turned kind of bitter."

Late in 1961, Middleman moved back to Baltimore to teach at the Maryland Institute. (He would return to New York for the latter years of the '60s before settling for good in Maryland.) By then his artistic course was set as a figurative painter. He began prowling the city's industrial waterfront, painting its aging industrial landscape. Once he pulled out of the water a drunk who'd been mugged and was hanging from the dock by his fingertips. Another time, he was working on a painting when a bum walked up to him, surveyed the scene for a moment, then said, "If you turn this way, I think it's a better motif."

On sabbatical in Paris in 1970, he met Ruth, and they married the next year. They lived for a time on The Block, in an apartment above Boot's Show Bar and next door to the Pussy Cat. They moved when their first child was 2 and they could no longer stand the vibration from the music downstairs, and the noise of the strip joint dumping an evening's empty beer bottles in the alley at 4 a.m. Middleman went back years later and visited the ruins of the Pussy Cat, which had suffered a fire. He came home with a pigeon-befouled piece of linoleum as a keepsake, but Ruth made him throw it out.

The phone rings again. This time, it's an assistant from the Ice gallery, an Algerian woman named Fadila Yessaad. "C'est Fifi? �a va? Yeah. Yeah. He's taking notes and stuff. Yeah. All about my sex life. That'll take maybe a sentence and a half."

MIDDLEMAN BEGINS APPLYING THE TOP COAT of colors to his painting of the fish.

"My whole life has been in the studio," he says. "Kind of uneventful." In the growing murk of late afternoon Eastern Autumn Time, the fish take on a silvery gleam. Middleman applies colors, blue and green and red, that you don't notice are on the fish until he paints them. A few swirls of his brush and the lemons and teapot become round. "The whole idea of substantiality has gone out of art," he says later. "The palpability of the illusion. You look at Rembrandt, you can smell his armpits, you can sense the lox and cream cheese interlarded in his gums, the oniony breath."

Two weeks ago, I'd heard him say the same thing, all but word for word, to an audience at The Ice Collection. A similar comment appears in an interview published in the catalog of the Ice exhibit. Middleman enjoys language, and when he works out a good verbal riff he likes to reuse it. Sometimes the words just tumble out of him. It's easy to get lost when he starts talking about the "Hegelian flip-flop" or "the spume of personalized diversions." Sometimes it's better not to listen too closely-- just enjoy the ride. To make a point about painting, he'll quote Yeats, invoke Beethoven, tell an anecdote about C�zanne, cite Corot, quote Proust (in French), then pause a beat and say, "Does that make any sense?"

He soaks up everything around him and plays it back. In the Ice catalog, W. Bowdoin Davis, a professor of art history at the Maryland Institute, says, "He seems to reach everywhere at once for anything that comes his way, either visibly or audibly or intellectually. It's not that he's uncontrolled, but is alert to almost everything." One day I tell him about a television documentary that chronicled the painter Willem de Kooning. In one segment, a crew is trying to film de Kooning as he works on a canvas, and the self-conscious artist can be heard muttering to himself, "I feel like a horse's ass." A week later, when I want Middleman to talk about his own work, he struggles for a while, then says, "When you talk about this stuff, you feel like a horse's ass."

As the light continues to die in his studio, he struggles a bit with the image of the plate, trying to make it interesting beside the fish and the lemons. Then he pauses, steps back, and says, "We're getting there. Wherever there is."

MIDDLEMAN TEACHES PAINTING AND DRAWING one day a week at the Maryland Institute. He gripes about modern art school curricula: "It used to be you'd concentrate on something for hours, day after day. Now, students take my class, then wait seven days to take it again. Meanwhile, they take Japanese Gardening and The History of the Elbow. Art schools today, they ought to give an M.G. degree--Master of Generalities."

Tonight his class is drawing a pair of nude models. The models are good-humored and blas� about being naked. The students are young, motley, and intent: skinny women in black jeans, a guy with a triple-pierced left ear and his head sprouting a fountain of dreadlocks, a black kid who misses most of Middleman's instructions because he's clamped headphones over his ears. They work in charcoal on big sketchpads, in pen on little sketchpads, in watercolor and pencil. Some stand at easels, some sit at desks, some sit cross-legged on the floor. Middleman circulates among them, making suggestions, telling stories, recounting jokes that ruin the composure of the models. He encourages his young charges to loosen up: "Follow it. Get lost in the drawing. The drawing becomes a record of the experience, rather than the idea of a good drawing."

As the studio becomes so dark the students can barely see the models, Middleman instructs them to keep going, to work with tones instead of lines, curves, and edges. He's excited and gabby: "Wild! Modern! The dying of the light! Farewell to the light! Mystery! The ineluctable! Sense the air! Get away from this goddam art school drawing!"

He looks down at one woman's work lying on the floor and says, "That's a great drawing! You're moving! You're moving! You're seeing so much more. Terrific drawing!" She beams as he walks away.

He pauses before another pupil's output and says, "That's actually very good."

The student brushes a mop of curls out of his eyes, smiles, and says, "Surprised?"

"Surprise, surprise!"

"It was in there all along."

Middleman grins. "That genius...in there all along."

Days before this, in his studio, he had said, "I always tell my students to pursue ugliness, because ugliness is a challenge to the stereotypical presumptions of the time about what makes order and what makes beauty."

And this: "Some people think of realism as making things look like things. Realism is a certain sort of devious persuasion of the public to the nodes of your wacky sensibility. It becomes a way of conning someone into an acceptance. You make people take your imagination seriously. Does that make any sense?"

And this: "Just a simple, mindless journalism about the world is not what I want. For me, making art from photography is like getting laid in a whorehouse."

One day, while I'm hanging around the studio, he announces that the subject of today's painting will be me. In a few hours, he completes a large portrait. As we look at it afterward, he says, "I like it. It's got energy. You got an interesting head and you sit still. Most guys would take two weeks to do a painting like that, a couple hours a day for two weeks. 'Course, it'd look more like you."

Actually, it does look like me, mostly, and in the one way it doesn't--he has painted my eyes as misaligned--it looks inside me. Look at my right eye in the painting, and I seem to be watching something--the intent, coolly appraising observer. Look at my left eye, and I'm lost in thought, completely self-absorbed. The same effect shows up in other Middleman pictures. "I seem to do that," he says. "I don't know why." I point out that some of his portraits lack this feature. He ponders that, then muses, "Maybe some people don't have an inner life."

Middleman's pictures are bold in their colors and brushstrokes and sensual detail. They are the product of a man with appetite. One day, we are driving back from the market and he is pawing through a fresh bag of trail mix. He says, "Now a minimalist would stop after four or five of these nuts."

"I notice you're digging right in."

"You got it. Should I save some of this for Ruth?"

I close the bag and stash it out of his reach, to give her a chance.

Middleman says, "Ah, I see you're a family man."

DAYLIGHT GIVES WAY TO DARKNESS and Middleman cleans out his brushes. The still-life of the fish and the lemons is done, and he finally turns on the overhead lights, making us squint. He likes his paintings to be direct, to create as little mediating space between themselves and the viewer as possible. "The world doesn't begin 50 feet in front of you," he says. "It begins at your kneecaps."

He stands back and scrutinizes this newest picture.

"Another Middleman," I say.

He smiles wryly and replies, "Another Middleman."

Dale Keiger is the magazine's senior writer.

Read interview online: http://pages.jh.edu/~jhumag/0297web/raoul.html

Return To Top


Excerpts Of A Letter From Fairfield Porter To Raoul Middleman | March 1973

Dear Raoul,
I was profoundly impressed by your show. I think it was one of two shows this season that I like very much, the other being the Marin exhibition at Marlborough. I envy your paintings, I wish I could paint like that. They remind me in my feeling about the way I have apparently always felt about Marin–I say apparently because I have not thought about Marin for a long time, and when I saw the paintings at Marlborough, many of which I remember from the first time I had seen them at Stieglitz's "An American Place," I found that I felt the same way about them as when I saw them first. But I don't like Marin's oils. Your oils are what Marin should have done, if only he could have had the freedom oil that you have in watercolor. Your paintings, which I couldn't imitate, are nevertheless an inspiration to me, as often paintings that I am unable to imitate are…

… Your paintings have something that I have seem when I teach (which isn't very often) to be looking for, or expecting, and it is at the same time not at all what I do. There are painters whose work I like very much but don't for some reason envy, as they don't really have my idea of what painting is about. It isn't that I reject them, it is only that it isn't just what I am doing or think I would like to do. This is not at all a matter of any decision that I make, it is just what I can't help recognizing is, as it were in spite of myself, my aim. There you do it, and I look at your paintings, and now while I am painting, I think that I mustn't let myself fall into the same automatic stale and meaningless habits that keep adding up to something deadly…

… I am lately painting a lot of sea pictures–but I hope much better than almost all of the ones in my (1972) Baltimore exhibition–and I think all the time about your way of painting the shore at Wareham. I don't try to do it your way, because now I know that this is always hopeless, but to learn something from your example. I don't know whether or not it is succeeding, but he keeps me going…

Fairfield Porter: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fairfield_Porter

Return To Top