In 1996, on the cusp of a New York solo exhibition at the ICE Collection, painter and MICA Professor Raoul Middleman engaged in a conversation with Craig Hankin, then the director of JHU’s Homewood Art Workshops and a longtime professional colleague. The interview was originally published as part of a catalogue for the show and since that time has not been widely circulated.
Middleman passed away at age 86 on October 29, 2021, and hundreds of former students, colleagues, and friends mourned his passing. His family is transforming his former studio and home, filled with hundreds of paintings, into the Raoul Middleman Studio Museum, located at 943 N. Calvert Street in Mount Vernon, with a dedication service on April 3 (the artist’s birthday) from 11 to 4 p.m. The museum will be free to the public and open Saturdays from 1-4 p.m. Its first exhibition is titled Raoul Middleman, Life in the Studio.
Rather than editorializing about who Middleman was, this freewheeling and lyrical interview, filled with the artist’s unique language, insight, and stories, is a direct way to experience the ideas, approach, and genuine warmth that have become associated directly with him, cultivated at the height of a professional career.
A freewheeling narrative by Raoul Middleman, as told to and edited by Craig Hankin in July 1996.
I always had a talent for drawing—I’d do cartoons of the family sitting around, playing cards—and they all appreciated that, but nobody thought that it was anything you would want as a profession. It was an amusement, a little bit like a freakshow—you know, “The kid can draw.” When I decided to be an artist, I met a lot of resistance from my parents, and I can’t blame them, because they’re a Jewish immigrant family. They had just started to make a name for themselves in Baltimore. Suddenly, there I am, the next generation, and it was a setback, really. They could only perceive there wouldn’t be any success in that idea, and there would be financial stress. They wanted me to go into a conventional profession.
So I went to college at Johns Hopkins. At 17, I had no idea that I wanted to be an artist. I went in there as a physics major, and then switched to the humanities. I didn’t tell anybody. My father was shocked when he came to graduation. I guess he didn’t read my report card. As a physics major, I had calculus and chemistry and biology. George Boas was the chairman of the philosophy department and I took a course about the history of philosophy with him. Then I took logic and scientific method. I also took a lot of French and English, and some Latin, so I had a full humanities education.
The only art history I had at Hopkins was a night school survey course that I took with my friend, Mike Tenner, who’s now a radiologist. We had a system. Since I could draw and he could write fast, every time they showed a slide I would make a little drawing of it and he would index them with a letter. So we aced that exam. We knew all the slides and everything. There was another part where I did very well. They would show a detail, like the derriere of a horse from a Delacroix, and you were supposed to identify the artist from the dapple, the facture of the brushstroke. I was really good at that. Even though I didn’t know I was going to be a painter, I had an instinct for reading the surface of a painting.
I had just turned 20 when I finished at Hopkins. I thought I wanted to be a writer, so the first thing I did was hitchhike out West with a friend of mine. We wound up in Mile City, Montana, and I worked on different ranches in that area. See, when I was a kid I always liked a writer named Will James III. I read all of his books over and over again—Smokey, Lone Cowboy, All In A Day’s Riding, Sand—and all through high school I would go to horse farms out in the Maryland countryside to ride and train horses. I went to Valley Forge Military Camp in the summer and I was on the jumping team; I was voted best horseman up there. Eventually, I taught riding and ran riding programs. I thought seriously about becoming a professional horseman.
So I worked as a cowboy in Montana until winter, and then I went down to New Orleans. I needed to make money, so I paid five dollars for a license to draw at Pirates Alley near Jackson Square. I’d charge 50 cents to do a straight portrait and people would tear them up. My girlfriend, who had more marketing savvy, hit upon the bright idea of a “mirror maze” caricature—you know, see how you turn out. So I tried that and still people tore them up. I guess I’m just an “uglifier” by nature. Anyway, she was a talented writer and painter. She said, “A writer you already are; I’ll make a painter out of you.” And she taught me the rudiments of how to paint.
The next thing I knew, I got drafted. I went home, had my physical, and I was in the army. I was a company clerk for a railroad battalion. I was still trying to be a writer, but writing was very tough for me. It wasn’t spontaneous. I didn’t have a natural instinct for it.
But I had this hobby of doing art. I’d go down to the hobby shop maybe once every week or two. And somebody from headquarters company saw me there. They said, “You have talent.” And they cut orders for me to become part of training aids as an artist/illustrator. So most of my army career was spent doing that—though I wasn’t very good at the beginning. I did mostly weapons detail and mowed the lawn. Eventually, they gave me some nice jobs. I planned and did the whole thing for Armed Forces Day in Newport News, Virginia. I was good at making enemy soldiers. I’d still try to do it straight. They would cut them out and then shoot ‘em for target practice. They loved me for my enemy soldiers. The same talent I had in New Orleans.
I’d collect commercial assignments, get work orders and then I’d have to do them. And from book illustrations, I had to enlarge helicopter parts and instrument panels, wiring and stuff. Blow them up and make big charts of them for their instruction classes. It was in the summer and I would drip sweat, which would stain green and wouldn’t erase out. It had copper in it. And they didn’t know what to do about it. You have the drawing down and have to put the brush around it real carefully, you know? So it was like 110° outside of Richmond, and somebody got the idea to wrap my whole body in gauze to absorb the sweat. Just the tips of my fingers were allowed to be free to manipulate the pen to do this job. Otherwise I would splatter beadlets of sweat all over these precise technical drawings. It was like something out of The Mummy’s Curse.
Actually, I had my first real art school experience while I was in the army. They paid for me to go to school at night at the College of William and Mary. I met a civilian artist there by the name of John Needre. He befriended me and encouraged me. In his estimation, I should become an artist. On weekends, he would take me home to his wife and family for dinner, show me art books and discuss things with me. He encouraged me to go to Pennsylvania Academy, because that’s where he had gone.
So three days after I got out of the army in September of ’59, I was at the Pennsylvania Academy. And I didn’t know how to go to an art school like that; I mean, I went to Hopkins, and on the first day you wore a suit. It was hot and sticky—I had on this wool suit and a tie, and all these art students are looking at me like I’m some sort of freak. Anyway, after three months I was advanced out of all the beginning classes. I was older than the other students and I could do portraits, I could do the figure. I couldn’t explain how I did them; I still don’t know how I do them. But I was able to do all of that stuff well enough that I didn’t have to take any of the basic courses. I still did a lot of work at night. Like cast drawing, I did that religiously. I always liked doing that.
At the end of my freshman year, I got a full scholarship to the Skowhegan summer program, which was a surprise because that usually went to a senior. So I went up there and studied with Alex Katz that summer. Everybody said, “You should study in New York.” So I went back and decided to go to the Brooklyn Museum School. Alex helped me get in. I mentioned his name and everybody knew him. But it wasn’t as good as the Pennsylvania Academy. I studied with Reuben Tam, who was a nice man, but he was more like a high school teacher compared to these wonderful, old-time teachers I had at the Academy. Francis Speight, who died recently in his nineties, was a wonderful artist. Walter Stuempfig, fantastic. Franklin Watkins. Hobson Pittman.
I really believe the academic training I received was good for me, because I think, intrinsically, I’m a nut. And to be able to convey a sense of verisimilitude in the traditional way, well, it’s a nice combination with an intrinsic kind of nuttiness, you know? If I had a nuttier kind of faculty teaching me, it wouldn’t have done me any good. But this gave me munitions of credibility with which to take people in under the fictive wing of my demented vision!
I invented different exercises to loosen up the students: I started off with poster paint and had them paint with their feet at first. Then I had them paint skies with cold coffee.
* * *
I was back in Baltimore in 1961 when I heard that the Maryland Institute had a new president. I figured I had nothing to lose, so I phoned Bud Leake and said, “I think I can be of some service.” And he gave me an interview. I had a degree from Hopkins and a year and a half of art school—not really the kind of education you need to get a college teaching job. Alex Katz wrote me a letter of recommendation—I saw it years later and mostly it was about Alex Katz—and I got a nice letter from Hillis Miller, who was one of my teachers at Hopkins. Anyhow, Bud hired me to teach freshman painting for $32 a week in the old B & O railroad station. The school didn’t own that building yet; it was just an empty train station. Dick Ireland taught upstairs and Tylden Streett was teaching sculpture in the baggage room.
It was fun, actually. I figured out a way to teach that came out of my own ideas about painting. I invented different exercises to loosen up the students: I started off with poster paint and had them paint with their feet at first. Then I had them paint skies with cold coffee. Stuff like that. And I got good results. When the foundation show was hung at the end of the year, my students made a good showing. In fact, I think it changed the school’s approach to teaching freshman painting. Later on, I taught drawing and I’d have the kids lay their paper out on the highway and trucks drive over it. I’d blindfold them, take them out to the statues and have them run their hands over the forms. Then we’d go back inside, take the blindfolds off and they had to draw what they felt. I was into Tinguely and that Surrealist jazz. So, if I’m now some anachronistic retardataire painter of traditional values, let it be known that at one point, I was as wild as I could possibly imagine myself being, open to any kind of visual experience.
In fact, when I was still at Brooklyn, I painted abstractly. De Kooning was my hero; I painted like him, a little bit like Kline, a little like Rothko. I put up a homosote wall and I’d do these big, heroic paintings. Then one day, it occurred to me that all the laws of existential behavior had already been codified. If I put banana peels in front of the canvas and I charged, with eyes closed and brush loaded, and slipped and did a cartwheel, a pratfall, and a gesture, I wasn’t being heroic. I was performing according to a sanctioned aesthetic. So I gave that up and went into Pop art, which was just starting to happen. I wouldn’t say it was the most honest way to go about finding yourself. But I was young, and it was a way of getting into figurative art without going through the tortuous, corny, Daniel Boone trails of figuration that I later found myself traversing. So I was in a few shows—New American Realism at the Worcester Art Museum was a big one—and I became known as a Pop artist.
By the mid-‘60s, I was living in New York and commuting to Baltimore to teach. One of my closest friends was Jon Schueler, who was a painter and instructor that Bud Leake brought down from Yale. Jon and I would catch the train every week in New York and would talk for hours on the way down. We were so exhausted from talking that by the time we got to Baltimore, we had little energy for our classes. Jon would pose questions that made me dissatisfied with the Pop thing I was in. For example, I pretty much knew how long it would take me to make a painting. It was like a car on the production line. I mean, you had an idea, you had the concept of manufacturing it, and it took a certain amount of time to crank it out. Well, Jon didn’t know whether a painting would take him fifteen minutes or fifteen years. A much more open, organic kind of concept. I really liked that.
And he was a great teacher. He was very articulate and he had a real sense of showmanship. He was a great raconteur, a natural storyteller. And he was a very good painter. His whole work is about a kind of commitment that was out of phase with more hard-nosed, success-oriented types. It was really a welcome thing for me to see. It made you think about what it was to be an artist at all costs of success. I remember Jon said that one of the ways to be modern might be to just jump into the Atlantic and swim out as far as you could before you drown. Very romantic in a way. It was all involved with a sense of otherness, a sense of his own personal history—the loss of his mother as a young child, his relationship with women—and all woven together with the clouds of Scotland. An almost 19th-century, Keatsian view of things: How do you lose yourself into the unknown and still have the sentient being that can perceive? If you give yourself to otherness and then you lose the sense of self, how do you function as an artist? How do you have your cake and eat it, too?
Schueler was always very generous. He helped me get started in New York. There was 20 years between us, but that didn’t stop him from taking me seriously as an artist. And that meant a lot.
Anyway, around this time I started to move away from Pop art and began painting landscapes. Which was kind of funny, because other than Joe Fiore, I didn’t know any landscape painters. I knew Fairfield Porter had done some landscapes, but I generally thought it was a dumb thing to do. I mean, I grew up in the city with jazz and urban culture. In our age, the concept of nature has been taken over by parks and golf courses and cemeteries. All our preserved nature has been dipped in formaldehyde. There’s very little left. The idea of trudging off in your beret and dragging your gear through swampland, fighting off mosquitoes and wild boars and serpents—who would do that? Well, I did. And I found I liked it. I guess being out in the country with horses and all . . . At least it didn’t have any kind of intellectual basis. I was really disenchanted with the art world. I saw how the whole Pop art scene was totally manipulated, and how fearful all the artists were of making the wrong political moves that would ostracize them from the proper venues of aesthetic acceptance.
A bunch of New York figurative artists had started meeting in each other’s lofts on Friday nights. At that time, it was really difficult to show figurative art. I remember Henry Geldzahler did a show at the Met on art in American Art since 1940, and the only figurative artist he included was Edward Hopper! So I started going to these Figurative Alliance meetings—they eventually moved from lofts to the Jewish Educational Alliance—and found other artists who did landscapes and different types of perceptual painting. There was a good mix of younger and older artists. People like Al Leslie, Philip Pearlstein, Gabriel Laderman, Paul Resika, Louie Finkelstein, and Gretna Campbell. Lennart Anderson and Leland Bell would show up sometimes. Painters would talk about their own work, or several artists might organize a panel around a topic such as, say, the epic in art.
Things could get pretty nasty at these meetings. There was a lot of bitterness, a lot of people who had been rejected by the art scene for a long time. You know, you get out of art school, you’re idealistic, but nobody’s interested. You’ve stuck by your painterly guns, but as years go on, you’re still hawking papers on Times Square. It’s tough. Real issues were discussed with a level of seriousness that could get inflammatory. And there was no veneer of affability, either. Tempers would erupt quickly.
There weren’t supposed to be any art critics at these meetings. One time, somebody invited this guy who was a Rembrandt scholar. Paul Georges come in late, saw the guy, and yelled out, “What are you doing here?” and then threatened, “I’m never coming back again!” The scholar took it in stride, though, and said he was invited. Then, looking hard at Georges, added: “What, did the bars let out early?”
My reputation, whatever it is, began with the friendships I made at the Figurative Alliance. The kind of painter I’ve become and the values that I have found sustenance in that environment, as rough as it was.
* * *
You can’t just go slumming on foreign turf. The weight that you put in a color and the relationship of that color to others are informed by your earliest memories and sensations.
For me, realism is not making things look like things for their own sake. It’s a way of getting people to accept things that are psychologically out of kilter; stuff they wouldn’t normally accept. You know, sort of putting your arm around somebody’s shoulder and getting them to see things your way. It’s a con in that sense. In other words, if you’re going to be revolutionary—and I’m not saying that I am—one way is to attack the culture from within.
Caravaggio did that. Nobody had more sheer talent than he did. He had that incredible ability to render and compose from the beginning. Roger Fry said that Caravaggio planted a bomb in the Renaissance. He used the icons and mythology of the Church, but he was really talking about his own homosexual reveries and behavior. He’s a bit like the Francis Bacon of his time. He was able to get away with an outrageous kind of subject matter because his culture accepted the vernacular language of signs that he used in public. But he was talking about a very subversive, private thing. And that’s revolutionary. Suddenly, you wake up and say, “Oh my God!” But it’s too late—you’ve already been taken for the ride.
Revolutionary, too, is the visual language he created. Gone are all those beautiful colors and gentle transitions between things; everything is set against black now. Painters like Velázquez and Rubens and Rembrandt were profoundly influenced by him. A lot of the time, revolutionaries are the guys who come in from the outskirts, from the boonies. Cézanne and Courbet are good examples. They came in, just like Caravaggio, and they put a bomb right in the center of the culture.
A critic once told me that Cézanne had no imagination because the orange-reds on his palette are just what you see in the soil of Aix-en-Provence. Well, I think his whole palette is taken from Aix. But to me, that’s imagination—to be able to see through the inherited cliches of a given place or time.
I think all artists are local artists. Alex Katz’s work is about the glitzy glamor of Broadway musicals; Richard Estes’ is about the celluloid-wrapped world of New York City. On the boat to France from England, I met a critic from the Figaro in Paris. He told me to stop in Le Havre and see the Boudin museum. So I did, and when I hit the harbor of Le Havre, there was Boudin. The absolute adjustment of color, the pitch of the reds, the powdery blues, the wet blues, everything; his palette was right there.
Or take the Venetian School versus the Florentine School. If you look at the hillsides of Florence, they’re baked hard in the summer; they’ve got a more linear, local color kind of concept. If you go to Venice, you get the water, the stone, and the sky all knitting together at the mercy of a capricious light of sun and shower, different than the hard light of Florence.
My wife Ruth and I were in Venice one time, and saw a little band coming into the piazza of San Marco. It was a gloriously sunny day, just a few clouds, and the musicians set out their instruments. Out of nowhere, these huge, dark clouds came up. Suddenly, big bolts of lightning shot out of the clouds, the rain came pouring down through the piazza, and all the guys scampered with their instruments under the colonnade. We had just come from the Accademia where we’d seen Tintoretto’s Transport of the Body of St. Mark. It’s painted on a brown ground, very dark, and shows St. Mark’s body being escorted through a space like San Marco. It’s got the same storm clouds, the terror coming out of the sky, the people scattering—it was the same scene! A remarkable quality of localness.
In 1973, I got a grant from the Institute to paint in New Mexico. I had a little show in Santa Fe and the artists there said they liked my paintings but I put too much humidity in them. I brought eastern humidity to New Mexico. Kokoschka could paint these high, mountainous views from New York or London and no matter where he painted, he still got the fitful, hit-and-run light of the Austrian mountains, where he came from.
I remember when I was painting in Tuscany, I saw a Morandi show and realized I missed the whole thing. I didn’t get the light right; I have a different sensibility. I don’t know whether Morandi could have gotten the light on the bricks of Baltimore like I can, but he certainly did get the light around Bologna. You can’t just go slumming on foreign turf. The weight that you put in a color and the relationship of that color to others are informed by your earliest memories and sensations.
For me, Baltimore is not just where the light hit at 5:00 p.m. on the old brick buildings before they were torn down, or the erratic harbor. It’s also the whole feeling of burlesque I grew up with. We had the Block. During the day, the Block was used by businessmen. A man’s world by day and a woman’s world at night—kicking neon stockings that would flash across the wet streets, you know? Victorian buildings housed the burlesque shows and nightclubs on the Block. These Victorian houses would shudder back in horror at the use made of their lower limbs.
Two blocks away from that kind of carnival world was the harbor. When I was in the army, a friend of mine and I both dreamt about being artists. He wanted to be a poet and I wanted to be a painter. I’d come back from the army and on the weekend we’d get a bottle of booze and sit on a barge out on Henderson’s Wharf, which is now all fancied up. But in those days we would see the barges and ships coming in through the Dickensian fog, like the opening of Our Mutual Friend.
I loved the juxtaposition of the carnival world of the Block and the dark, funereal life of the harbor. That’s probably what attracted me to a filmmaker like Fellini, too.
When I first started painting, I had a place on the harbor, down on Pratt Street. I lived there for five years. There used to be all these seaman joints. I remember these two fat twins who ran a joint where you could eat brains and eggs for fifteen cents. All the hobos would eat there. A strange and interesting place. You never knew what you’d see. One night, around 8:00, I was walking along Light Street, across from the McCormick spice factory. Nobody went down there at that hour. All of a sudden, I hear “Help, help!” I ran over and there’s this large Black guy who was hanging on to the dock by his fingertips. He was drunk or drugged out and somebody had mugged him and thrown him in the water. He was going to die. He’d been there for a couple hours. I couldn’t lift him. He was so big, he must have weighed over 300 pounds. So I ran across the street and got one of the guards from McCormick who helped me get him out.
Today, the harbor is a totally different place. They tore down all the fringe areas that people passed by and thought were ugly. It broke my heart, but it’s probably better for the city. Hawthorne said that if the city fathers made the same kind of aesthetic judgments that artists do, they’d be in a state of degeneracy. What I always liked about the old harbor was the sense of manmade things going to disrepair. Then nature reclaims them and they rot and decay into this otherness—the flotsam of the jetset as it wends its way over the avenues of neglect. That has a richness to me. Old walls. Like Delacroix said in one of his journals: Les choses toutes neuves ne me disent rien. “Things altogether new don’t show me beans” is the way I translate it. So now the harbor is nice for shopping and eating frozen yogurt and all, but from my own personal, selfish point of view, I lost a lot.
* * *
Maybe Delacroix had a failure of courage at that moment. Maybe the hand was really saying something, but it was so out of phase with his time that he couldn’t accept it. That’s one of the great challenges of being an artist, to find that courage when everything looks so failing and skimpy.
Some of the things most meaningful to me in narrative painting have nothing to do with painting. They’re the kinds of insights that are outside of painting. Sometimes they come to me weeks or months or even years after I do a picture, rather than before.
For example, I was doing a painting of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. I was painting the background, using some zoo drawings I’d done. It was one of the few times I did the whole thing in drawing first and made it all work. While I was painting, I had a vague thought of a tapestry like the Hunt of the Unicorn, with flowers and animals and birds. When I got to the side of the painting that was outside the garden, I used other sketches I had done from down behind a hill, across a marsh, set against a really dark sky. But I was not conscious of what I was doing; this was not at all verbal.
Later I realized I had put a medieval tapestry inside the garden. And outside of the garden I had a doomed, 19th-century landscape. So the whole concept of landscape changes as you move from the garden to beyond. To me, that’s really an important part of the painting, and it was not an intentional thing. I think of the artist as somehow being a medium, in a certain sense, for something that’s very magical.
You follow the color patch—it’s the only thing that you know how to do—but in a way, it opens your mind to the invisible informants. If you’re any good, it’s some sort of uncanny authority. More than just telling stories, it’s the way I come to a certain kind of psychological truth again and again. Though I’m interested in storytelling when I’m making the painting, what I’m ultimately looking for is transformation, a revelation. A lot of people don’t believe in the idea of transformation, but I do. I want there to be transformation into meaning somehow. Not an extractable meaning, but a meaning that’s integrally tied in with the substance of the painting. The greatest thing is when it haunts you without your being able to pinpoint exactly what it is. You have to get to that thing through the painting, but by no means is it bounded by the language of the painting—it’s an otherness. To a lot of people that’s too mystical, but that’s been my experience.
Maybe you postpone resolution; it’s like a chess game where you don’t sacrifice all your pieces. It gets a certain density and infrastructure built out of complex affinities. You know a painting is finished when it becomes “other.” When suddenly all the loose ends lose the self and become this otherness, independent and finished. That’s what finish is for me. It’s not filling in the blanks or honing everything; just when it has that voice of authority, of rightness. You might call it truth in a parochial, subjective way. It rings true. And it looks back at you.
I once did a painting about the death of an Indian princess. It was based on a story I read by George Catlin, who painted American Indians in the 19th century. In the story, he writes about going to paint this Indian girl who was sick and dying.
When he finished the painting, he went back to his canoe. At that moment, the braves appeared with tomahawks and knives. They wanted to cut the painting out of its chassis because they believed he had stolen her soul. He willingly gave the painting back. So I made a painting of that. I had myself painting there as Catlin, with tennis shoes. I didn’t have any Indian friends, so I used this Black guy, Tony, in Indian guise. My Indian princess was an Italian girl with swarthy skin. She’s passed out in someone’s arms while I’m painting her. An angel of death is flying overhead with a horse skull, because Indians are close to animal spirits. The hurtling angel’s foot is in the foreground, real big, like a Tintoretto, and the whole thing zooms back into space. But I noticed that I painted the princess smaller than she should have been. Much smaller, like a doll. I could have changed it but I left it. There were so many factors and maybe it was a mistake. I don’t know why I left it.
Years later I was in a museum and I saw a painting by the Flemish artist Gerard David. He had painted a dead Christ in the arms of Mary. And his Christ was much smaller and lighter than Mary. That’s when I realized I did the right thing with the Indian princess. Through disproportion I actually expressed the idea of her dying better than if I had made her in the academically correct way. The lifelessness of her body was expressed by being out of sync with the rest of the painting. My instinct was right about that and that pleased me a lot. Now, I don’t know what stopped me from changing it, but I’ve experienced this sort of thing over and over again—something which, from a rational point of view, would be a mistake, but you leave it and it turns out to be just what you should have done.
I remember a story about Delacroix and the issue of proportion. Delacroix was in his studio working on a figure. He was painting a hand and the hand got bigger and bigger and bigger, over a couple hours. Finally, he got disgusted and he took a rag and wiped it out. Now, Delacroix, as an artist, was a wild man, very expressionistic. But in his personal life, he was controlled by the mores and social behavior of his time. He had his froideur anglaise; Bonington-inspired. He was cold and haughty, a dandy. He was puzzled by Rembrandt. He liked him, but he was supposed to like Raphael more. And the idea of finish obsessed him—he thought Michelangelo and Shakespeare were unfinished.
So he’s painting this hand and it gets bigger and bigger and he wipes it out. Was it his social conscience that wouldn’t allow this? Could it have been at that moment he was inventing Soutine and he couldn’t accept it? Giacometti does these little snot-pickings on armatures. Where does he get the courage to leave it at that? Or Rothko just makes a blank red, with a fuzzy kind of hardware-store pigment fluttering in and out of the weave of cheap cotton duck. How does one leave that without doing more? Maybe Delacroix had a failure of courage at that moment. Maybe the hand was really saying something, but it was so out of phase with his time that he couldn’t accept it. That’s one of the great challenges of being an artist, to find that courage when everything looks so failing and skimpy. All of us who paint face these opportunities, but we force-finish things into cliches and conventions of our time. It’s a tough problem.
A likeness is a very subjective thing. It goes in and out all the time. You have to get to that point where you feel that each brushstroke is illuminating something that you feel about the person.
* * *
One of the first portraits I ever did was of my mother. I gave it to her and she hung it in the hall outside the bedroom. My father couldn’t sleep at night unless he closed the door!
I guess I’ve just always had a feel for distortion and the grotesque. It wasn’t an intentional thing. If I try to do a portrait in a kosher way, it comes out dead. It’s like jumping down the stairs two at a time: if you think about it too much, you get self-conscious and trip over your own feet. Seeing, for me, is not a quantitative act. It has to come from my very essence; I have to feel. A likeness is a very subjective thing. It goes in and out all the time. You have to get to that point where you feel that each brushstroke is illuminating something that you feel about the person. It’s not as if by adding all the parts you automatically get a likeness. I think it’s like the way Rembrandt draws versus the way a lot of other people draw. He draws from the inside, a feeling gestalt. When something is really working, each step along the way is an essential contribution to the emergence of the subjective idea. And it doesn’t matter whether you’re painting a person or a landscape—you can feel it.
Of course, you can also feel it when it’s not working. When each touch you add leads you further astray. Failure is really the name of the game for all of us, no matter what we’re doing. We never achieve what we want to achieve and our humanity is really about our failure, not about our success. Rembrandt, I think, is all about failure. And also doubt.
I don’t want to sound like a pretentious humanist, but I’m really moved by people like that, people on the edge of society. Marginalized people that I can identify with as an artist. Growing up, I was kind of an oddball in my neighborhood. People thought I was really strange. Even though I’ve got tremendous height—you know, if I fell over I’d be halfway home—I never felt like I fit in. And I can sense that in people I like to paint. So I guess it’s a way of singing their song.
I read a lot of Dickens when I was young. And one of the things I love about Dickens is that the modalities of character stem from an essential rather than an existential orientation. They all have this energy that’s just crammed into a kind of comic cliché. I think I’m very much like that. The essence of the person has been so compacted that it’s going to burst through its confines. And I think a lot of my portraits have that kind of “excessivity.” Keats said, “I prefer a fine excess to singularity.” I love that. (I told Paul Resika that quote and he said, “In your case, I don’t know how fine it is.”)
I like to paint industrial sites that are no longer in use: huge pieces of antiquated machinery that have become freaks of technology. In the old days you could understand things according to horsepower. Now you’ve got a little cartridge of energy that can power whole cities, with no way to understand the correspondence of scale to production. So these grotesque monsters of industry remain, discarded and ostracized, on the fringes of old, rotten piers and vacant lots, rusting forever. They are an embarrassment to the whole cleaned-up image of technocratic, industrial panache.
This reminds me of a problem I have with the streak of pragmatism in American painting that you can trace from Copley to Eakins to Pearlstein. Look at Copley, who might have been America’s first great painter. If he paints a button, you get every stitch of thread that holds that button to the waistcoat. Or the scientific thoroughness of an Eakins, making all the model studies, to get accurately the way the lens of the eyeglass casts a shadow on the cheek. Or the need to see every pore on the kneecap in a Pearlstein.
This pragmatism shows American culture’s profound distrust of subjectivity. It’s one of our real drawbacks. There are a few exceptions, like George Inness and John Marin, who got away from it, but our main tradition has been very sad. You can see it in Wyeth. And all these guys sentimentalize loneliness.
The Abstract Expressionists were a great breath of fresh air because they allowed a sensuous flow of organic life, and accident and response to it, to become part of the painting process. Whereas Hopper, even though he’s a terrific artist, controls everything so much there’s no chance in it. I ran into Malcolm Morley years ago, who said to me, “One can’t afford the luxury of transformation.” And even though he’s British, that really captures the American mentality. There’s that distrust, deep in the American soul. It’s like, just the facts, please. I’m from Missouri, show me the facts. It’s in Copley, it’s in Hopper. Pearlstein can never see enough. He can’t get enough pragmatic light on that kneecap; he’s got to have more fluorescents on it than Carter’s got liver pills. There’s this kind of hard, hard look at things. And if you take any chances in color or drawing, people are ready to jump on you to defend their ideas of accuracy and precision.
When a collector said that he found Turner’s work imprecise, Turner said, “Tell that collector imprecision’s my forte.” Having that kind of courage in this culture is hard. Too many people now are reading too many magazines, trying to figure out what’s going to be the next big thing, and programming themselves so that they don’t have time to explore avenues that might be “loser” positions. But the whole idea of having a loser position is what being an artist is about: that’s where humanity lies. There are a lot of artists now who almost get the training of a junior executive. They learn the Wittgensteinian talk, the Merleau-Pontian blather, and that’s what their education consists of, to a large extent. Less studio time, more time in presentation and verbal critiques. When I went to school, you didn’t have that. You didn’t get crits all the time. You had to live with your work. Live with doubt. Live with uncertainty. Now, if students have an anxiety about their work, they can talk it away. It’s a whole different ballgame.
* * *
There’s a thread in the late work of painters like Rembrandt and Velazquez that has to do with the precarious way you hold sensation. In other words, you don’t possess things, you just touch them. You can’t take possession of sensation. You can’t really take possession of anything; it’s a transient encounter. And that’s what life is. You get that especially in Rembrandt’s late self-portraits, that very human moment—it holds. Nobody could make things that you can hold better than Rembrandt. He could make silk and gold; he could make solidity and flesh that was just rank with its own body odor. He could paint a guy with oniony breath and gums that would be replete with last night’s meal. The guy would have all that factuality, all that materiality, and at the same time he’d have this invisible thing. And it’s in that dialectic that his world really becomes alive. It’s there in the late paintings of Titian, and it’s in the late sculpture of Michelangelo.
It’s not the cocksureness of a young artist. There’s this knowledge of transience and impermanence, a certain vagabond spirit that we all have to understand as we witness life. It’s not about finish. Finishing paintings just means having good hands. It’s like when you first learn to ride a horse. Most young riders, when the horse moves, they rein him in. They cut off all the circulation and the response. Heavy hands. Good hands involves this delicate give and take. It allows the other to be and doesn’t pull.
Take Cézanne. He really created monumental art. Yet, if you look at the way he painted the edge of Mont Sainte-Victoire, there’s a tentativeness, a delicacy. Or if you look at Soutine, your first thought is that it’s wild, all that thick, heavily laden paint. But it’s actually so delicate, the way the paint is layered on. Even in his landscapes, the paint surface is like the nest of a bird. The edges curl around and hold, in the tenderest embrace, this “shambliotic” world of violence. It’s a moment of real tenderness, coupled with vulgarity. In the great ones it’s all there: darkness and light, beauty and obscenity, and all those things that are humanity. I mean, Rembrandt has actually startled me.
I remember coming down the steps at the National Gallery in Edinburgh. I looked up and there was a painting of Rembrandt’s wife in bed, lifting her hand. I wasn’t expecting those heavy, fleshy hands, that nudity. It was just suddenly there. And I jumped several inches off the steps. You know, if you put a flashlight on a lot of Rembrandt’s heads—which are supposed to be so sensitive, so full of what they call humanity—you’ll see vulgarity, a grotesqueness. They’re not flattering portraits at all. With him there’s the vulgarity, the finesse, the failure, the doubt, the assurance, the invisible religious factors, and the rank Dutch materialism. So many things that are all part of the image. And that’s what makes it live. I think art lives in contradiction. Like when Keats wrote, “Thou still unravish’d bride of quietness.” It’s a non sequitur: the definition of “bride” and the idea of “unravish.” It’s about the urn and two senses that are in opposition in their intention. I think art’s the only statement that can do that. Philosophy has to move procedurally, from A to B to C. All men are animals, and a donkey is an animal, therefore all men are donkeys. Or jackasses.
In a Jackson Pollock there’s a lyrical sense of release, and at the same time, an angst-ridden kind of uncertainty that turns back on itself in the skeins of paint. Contradictory stuff happens all the time. It reminds me of a passage from Yeats’ “Who Goes With Fergus?”: For Fergus rules the brazen cars, And rules the shadows of the wood, And the white breast of the dim sea And all dishevelled wandering stars.
Which is a beautiful and lyrical release, but like a Pollock, has an anxiety that turns in on itself. It has a despair, like energy with nowhere to go. “All dishevelled wandering stars.” It’s that kind of contradiction in which it lives.
You have all these ambitions. You get into the studio, and you see the hopeless limitations, the miserable affectations of all that bourgeois bric-a-brac. Then you have to deal with that. Whenever you start a painting, all things are possible: Rembrandt, Velazquez, Titian. As you paint on it some more, it soon reverts back to the confines of your paltry imagination. You get tired of yourself and that boredom with yourself helps you change and grow, I guess. You try one thing one day, and another thing another day. And a lot of times it comes out of the materials—you want to see what a color does, or what happens if you put an underpaint on this, or if you paint it fresh on white ground. It’s like Maggie’s drawers when you’re in the army.
You have to shoot, and you try to get in on target. But you can’t see, so they throw up red drawers. They pull down your target to see where your bullet went. I seem to aim a little this way on one painting, and I aim a little tighter on this one, a little looser on that one, a little heavier on the next. Once in a while you hope to get a bull’s eye. But most of the time you’re a little too one way or the other.
The suggestion of the medium itself can be a very powerful thing. I’ll take paint and spread it around, see what it’s doing. I get excited by it. I let it move, let it go. In fact, I think most painters do that. I think Rembrandt really says a lot about what white lead will do. I think Rubens says a lot about what vermilion does. Different artists have different things that evolve through the materials. When Michelangelo drew he did a lot of cross-hatching. And because his work is so powerful, other people started to draw like that. Genius, as Kant says, gives a rule to nature, makes it seem like a truth. So everybody drew that way. (The powerful artist usurps your imagination, curtails your freedom to find your own expression.) But what Michelangelo was drawing with the cross-hatching is the way a sculptor thinks. Because he has a tool with these little prongs, and you go across the surface this way, then you go across the surface that way. So he’s seeing the form as a sculpture. People always think of technique and materials as something that intrudes upon the freedom of artistic expression. But I feel exactly the opposite.
Think about what charcoal does in a drawing versus what ink does. In a way, you can let materials show you the nature of something. But you have to relinquish a certain amount of willfulness on your part to allow it to be, and a lot of that comes in the way that you look at an image. It’s like a triple response. You respond first when you find something you want to do, taking your cues from the dictates of nature. Then you see what happens on the canvas, what the image tells you. And then you have the history that you recognize as your tradition, your past. So you keep going back and forth, between artifice and the genuine response, between spontaneity and the persiflage of old fictive techniques. As Degas said, it takes as much cunning to make a work of art as to perpetrate a crime.
* * *
When I was a little kid, maybe between three and five years old, I had these visitations by what I called Bite ‘Em Girls. I would go to sleep at night and after a few hours, something would wake me up. Often, it would be like a pinching or biting sensation. I’d open my eyes and these little gnomes would be standing there. Straight out of my fairytale stories. And they were very real. (If you’re being visited by the other world, your mind would make the imagery for it—like in 2001: A Space Odyssey, when the astronaut goes to Jupiter and beyond, it’s really hyped-up images of the Grand Canyon or something.) But there was something there.
I had this way of getting rid of them when they scared me too much. I’d wave my hand down once and they’d get small, twice they’d get smaller, and the third time they would disappear, bowing each time. And they’d have a look of incrimination on their faces because there was no need for me to do that. They were not going to harm me. But I’d get scared. I wouldn’t do it unless I really got frightened by one of these incarnations. But I could control them.
One night, this beautiful girl in a green dress was swinging on a swing that came out of the wall. Then she just swung off the swing and glided more than walked to my bedside. She had blonde hair and was so beautiful in the moonlight; she was almost corporeal. I jumped out of bed and I grabbed her. And she didn’t disappear right away—she did a kind of slow diffusion through my fingers. After that nobody ever came back. I had violated some pact.
When I do portraits, I think I get some of the feeling of those visitations. They were like this subjective world that materializes for a moment, somewhat frightening, but essentially benign. When I feel myself in the paintings, I feel what I felt when I looked at the Bite ‘Em Girls. I don’t know exactly what it means. I paint a head and it’s not just a head—I feel like I’m in contact with something else, that hallucinatory childhood presence I experienced so long ago. It still reverberates in my work.
'Music That Raised Us' at Black Artist Research Space
Music That Raised Us, which ran March 19-April 16, was an amalgamation of the collaborators' experiences but also of any artist who has been touched by the melody of a Stevie Wonder song or moved to move by the rhythm of a funk tune.