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.
“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.
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.”