Johns Hopkins Magazine -- February 1997
Johns Hopkins Magazine





"Disorder is crucial to discovery," according to figurative painter Raoul Middleman '55.
H U M A N I T I E S    &    T H E    A R T S

Cultivate Mess
By Dale Keiger
Photos by Mark Lee

All paintings are courtesy Raoul Middleman and cannot be used or reproduced without his express permission.

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.

South Baltimore, oil on linen, 26" x 30", 1992
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.

The Fisherman, oil on linen, 36" x 48", 1991
"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."

Sadie, oil on linen, 45" x 68", 1992
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."

Local Motor Port Covington, oil on board, 24" x 24", 1990
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 there all along."

Middleman uses much of his Guilford Avenue studio as a warehouse for his work: some 5,000 to 7,000 paintings.
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.