Concerning Craft: Raoul Middleman

The “Concerning Craft” series introduces Little Patuxent Review contributors, showcases their work and draws back the curtain to reveal a little of what went into producing it.

Raoul with Self-Portrait

Raoul Middleman at his 2012 American University Museum exhibit beside his 1990 self-portrait (Photo: Bruce Guthrie)

Middleman is at once a supremely painterly painter and a writerly painter,” art critic David Cohen has written. “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 composition with scenario, is incompatible with whatever it is that provides visual art with its essence.” In other words, the perfect artist to select for the Audacity issue of Little Patuxent Review. And the perfect artist for the writer in me to ask, “So, what’s the story with that self-portrait we’re featuring on the cover?” Here’s Raoul’s response:

Two
 reasons 
I 
started 
doing 
self-
portraits 
from 
the
 very
 beginning 
of my
 life
 as
 a
 painter: 
first,
 I 
didn’t
 have
 to
 pay 
for 
a 
model, 
which
 I
 could ill
 afford, 
and, 
second,
 I 
didn’t 
have 
to 
flatter,
 a 
practice 
that 
is
 not natural 
to 
my 
expressive
 disposition. I
 soon noticed
 that
 each 
new 
self-portrait, 
although
 ostensibly 
yours 
truly,
 was
 markedly
 different 
from all 
the
 rest. Not one was the
 same,
 as
 if 
each 
occasion
 of
 self-examination
 was 
a 
totally 
original
 Cartesian 
enactment,
 as if
 the 
notion of
 the 
self
 was 
constantly 
up for 
grabs,
 not 
an
 ossified 
given, 
but
 rather as
 a 
tangent 
of
 many
 defining 
the
 circle 
of 
identity.

I
 have
 done 
thousands
 since,
 spent 
untold
 hours 
looking 
in 
a 
mirror, reflections
 of
 countless 
reflections,
 with 
no 
intrinsic
 repeats.
 
To 
keep 
me 
honest, each
 painting 
begins 
with 
a
 different 
ground
—
sometimes
 the
 original
 white
 lead,
 sometimes
 burnt 
sienna,
 which 
is 
warm, 
or 
Payne’s
 grey
, which 
is cool
—
so
 that
 I 
would
 not 
have
 the
 comfort
 of
 lingering 
in
 the 
rut 
of
 a
 successful 
formulaic 
strategy. I
 grind
 all 
my 
paint 
from 
scratch
 on 
a 
marble table,
 mixing 
powder pigment
 with 
oil,
 safflower 
or 
walnut for
 the 
whites 
and
 cold-pressed 
linseed
 for 
the 
rest.

 I
 use
 two
 whites,
 flake 
white
 and titanium 
white, the 
former 
having
 less
 of
 an 
aggressive
 impact
 on
 the color.

This 
particular 
self-
portrait
 began
 with
 an 
underpainting 
of
 varnishy 
earth 
colors 
on 
a
 warm 
sienna
 ground 
to
 establish 
the 
general
 configuration
 and
 tonality.
 Once 
dry, 
I
 overpainted 
with 
a
 full
 palette 
in
 one 
furious 
go, much like 
a 
jazz 
solo, with
 all 
the 
excitement 
of 
improvised
 brush strokes
 and
 accidental harmonies, 
yet 
all 
in 
the 
service 
of
 establishing
 convincing 
form. The 
point 
of 
view
 is from 
below,
 with
 the
 joists 
and timber
 construction 
of
 the 
roof
 of
 my
 loft
 serving 
as
 background, 
all
 to
 better 
enhance
 the 
attitude 
of
 schmucky 
disdainful
 arrogance.

 I 
used
 to hang 
this
 painting 
on
 the 
top
 of
 the
 stairs
 of 
my
 studio, 
a 
very
 daunting image 
to 
greet
 visitors.

Given 
the 
plethora
 of 
silly
 tropes of 
infantilistic 
energy 
now permeating 
the
 art world,
 maybe 
the 
most
 audacious
 challenge
 would be 
to
 question 
the very
 notion
 of 
the
 avant‐garde itself,
 the
 very 
thrust of
 it, 
and in
 one 
overweening 
desperate 
and
 reckless 
act 
of
 egotistical presumption, 
take
 on 
the
 whole
 shebang,
 the
 entire
 mechanism 
of the 
endless 
Hegelian
 dialectic
—
its 
flip‐flops of 
antimonies
—
that
 has dumped 
us 
right 
smack 
in
 the middle
 of 
this
 frivolous 
post
‐post
modern era,
 fraught
 with 
the 
gimmicky 
slick 
commerce 
of 
the 
marketplace,
 the phatic 
carnival
 of
 art 
fairs
 and
 the 
preposterous 
record-breaking
 prices at 
auction
 house 
venues.

Maybe 
the 
most 
radical
 thing
 to do 
today 
is 
to 
embrace
 wholeheartedly
 traditional 
oil
 painting 
as
 an
 absurd
 contrast 
to 
the 
hard-edged
 industrialized
 flatness 
of 
acrylics.
 What 
better 
stratagem 
than 
a full‐bodied
 oil 
painting
 bulging
 with
 all 
its 
modeled 
egregious 
life 
as
 the fateful
 antithesis 
to 
confront 
this
 new
 academy 
formed
 from
 the
 tireless
 onslaught 
of 
the 
avant‐garde? 

Yes,
 why 
not 
take
 on 
the
 whole ponderous 
weight 
of 
modernism 
itself, 
its 
critical 
flatulence 
and blather?
 And
 what
 better
 way
 to 
embark
 on
 such 
a 
loony
 project
 of
 ill-advised 
bad‐tempered 
self‐indulgent
 defiance 
than
 by painting 
a 
self-portrait!

“I love Baltimore,” Raoul once said. “I was born here and grew up thinking I would be a writer, hanging out at the burlesque shows on The Block, drinking on the Inner Harbor piers. New York was great, but it wasn’t for me. Pop art didn’t satisfy me…I needed to do my own thing, and in New York you have to run with a pack.” He also claimed that his career reads backwards. Rather than starting with landscapes, he preferred to portray people. So, here’s a slide show consisting of a small sample of his prolific painting, from his pop-art period to just last year: people, places and the occasional dead fish. It begins with the 1964 portrait Midnight Snack and ends with the 2011 landscape Storm Brooding.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Note: LPR Art Consultant Michael Salcman’s profile “The Soul that Never Wavers: Raoul Middleman” appears in our Summer 2012 print issue, and Raoul will discuss his work at the June 23 launch. If you’d like to read more about audacious art on this site, check out my essays “What Audacity Looks Like” and “Audacious Ideas: Visionary Art.”

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About Ilse Munro

Ilse Munro was born in Latvia and came to the United States as a war refugee. She was a NASA and Defense Department consultant, the online editor at Little Patuxent Review and now serves as the fiction editor at BrickHouse Books. Her short fiction, collected in Cold and Hungry and Far From Home, appears in TriQuarterly, Atticus Review and Wake and made her a finalist in the Glimmer Train Family Matters Contest and Short Story Award for New Writers. Her novel, Anna Noon, is in the works. She lives in a historic millworker’s house in Maryland. For more, see http://ilsemunro.com.
This entry was posted in Audacity, Baltimore MD, Blogs, Essays, Literary Journals, Painting, Pop art, The Sixties, Visual Arts, Writing and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Concerning Craft: Raoul Middleman

  1. Pingback: Our Memorable Audacity Issue | Little Patuxent Review

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