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.