Day 246: Coming in a month, The Man Who Signed the City

I have growing confidence that The Man Who Signed the City will publish on September 1. (Please don't be snarky and point out how often that date has shifted.) I'm about to start the final proofing, and I'm dying to show you some cover design concepts, but the designer would kill me. Suffice to say it's going to look great.

Twenty-one profiles comprise the contents, and one of my favorites features the Baltimore painter Raoul Middleman. Here's a taste.

Raoul Middleman scoops paint out of a film can onto a palette. It is a November mid-afternoon in Baltimore, and the remaining daylight is making a run for it. If he is to paint a picture today, Middleman will have to work fast, but that is okay with him. He likes getting his hands going 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; one serves as a warehouse for his work. He does not know how many canvases he has 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 has 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, crab houses, carryouts, and, on one recent 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 he puts one color next to another.

With an assist from teaching at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, he has 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 ran to $28,000. 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.” Other painters have been generous in their praise. Eugene Leake, president emeritus of the Maryland Institute, 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 is sometimes combed but usually not, an ever-present pipe clenched between his teeth, and stained fingers that could get him mistaken for an auto mechanic. No matter what he is doing—painting, teaching, greeting guests at a jacket-and-tie gallery reception—he latches a ring of 23 keys to his belt loop, like a night watchman. He has long forgotten what most of them unlock. Garrulous and hammy, he is 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 have not been glimpsed in years. Tacked to the walls are paintings of fish, landscapes, self-portraits. “Cultivate mess,” he likes to say. “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 from Baltimore's Lexington Market. He works out the arrangement he wants, then begins the underpainting, sketching the basic composition in brown tones, laying in darks that will underlie the color. "This is like setting up 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.