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Exhibit of Artist Raoul Middleman's self-portraits opens at MICA

The first thing Raoul Middleman paints is his eye.

He paints his right eye, to be precise, in a self-portrait that the Baltimore-born artist created while looking into a mirror. First there's a horizontal brown smudge that forms the upper rim of the eye socket, and then the artist adds a slash of reddish tan that morphs into his nose.

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Middleman's hand moves quickly in the video shot in 1969 by the experimental filmmaker Phill Niblock, almost more quickly than a viewer can track his movements. In 21/2 minutes, the self-portrait is done. And there Middleman is at age 34: thick-necked, ruddy and doing what he does best with those penetrating dark brown eyes — looking.

He's looking at something small and indistinct and evasive and far away, almost but not quite out of sight. His gaze is fixed on the essence of the thing that he's painting, whether it's a ravine full of rocks or a dead fish or a stripper working The Block or an old boot or, in this case, himself.

"Every time I go into the studio," he says now, "I have a chance to get at something I've never gotten at before. Sometimes I get a handle on it. Sometimes it swerves out of orbit."

An exhibit of 374 self-portraits created by Middleman between 1959 and 2015 opened this weekend at the Maryland Institute College of Art, where the artist has been a faculty member since 1961.

Middleman began painting self-portraits as a practical exercise when he couldn't afford to hire a model or wanted to experiment with a new technique. He painted about a thousand of these works over the next 56 years, for an average of one every 20 days. Gradual physical changes that are imperceptible in any three-week period leap out at viewers when the process stretches over a lifetime.

"I never thought I'd show these," says Middleman, who is 79.

"I just stored them in boxes and put them away. Some of these paintings I haven't seen in over four decades. It's interesting to see the changes that happened naturally over the past 56 years to the same mug that I've always had. They've become a record of the self as it's transitional over time."

Over that past half-century, Middleman has come to be widely considered one of Baltimore's most important contemporary artists, along with the late Grace Hartigan and Joseph Sheppard.

Individual paintings of his can sell for as much as $50,000. His works are owned by some of the nation's most prestigious institutions, including New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art and Washington's Corcoran Gallery of Art. Horse racing murals that Middleman created with his MICA students are on permanent display at Pimlico Race Course.

"Raoul is a force of nature," says Jay Fisher, the deputy director of curatorial affairs for the BMA. "It's almost as if his life is a kind of performance piece. He's original, he's authentic and his paintings have remarkable movement and energy."

It's astounding, really, just how quick Middleman is. Consider, for instance, his Pimlico works. How long does is take for a stallion galloping at 40 miles an hour to run past a man with a sketch pad? Three seconds? Four? Yet these drawings — no more than a blur of color and a few squiggly lines — practically stride off the page.

"I've got some portraits I created in 20 minutes and some that I've worked on for 15 years," Middleman says, "but the best stuff usually happens right away because it's fresh and concise.

"The hardest thing I had to teach myself was how to not go back into the paintings. Do you know that quote from Wordsworth? 'Our meddling intellect / misshapes the beauteous forms of things. / We murder to dissect."

That's quintessential Middleman. He quotes Plato and Nietzsche, but his friends are plumbers and cabdrivers. As a boy, he spent a lot of time at the Pimlico racetrack (to the horror of his country club-attending parents). He worked briefly as a cowboy in the 1950s after earning a bachelor's degree in philosophy from the Johns Hopkins University. Though Middleman later attended art schools in Brooklyn and Philadelphia, he dropped out of both.

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His two favorite phrases are, "Let me tell you a funny story" and (after one of his philosophical musings) "Does that make sense?"

Middleman isn't just blazingly fast; he's also notoriously prolific. And though the 374 paintings on view at MICA represent less than 4 percent of the roughly 10,000 artworks Middleman has created, some show visitors might assume the artist has an oversized ego.

In reality, his friends say, Middleman is exploring something subtler and far more interesting. As one longtime buddy, Abram "Al" Engelman, puts it: "When you look at Raoul's self-portraits, people may say, 'Obviously the man is a narcissist. How many selfies can you make?'

"But it's just not true. Almost everything Raoul paints is a landscape, including his portraits and self-portraits. No two are the same. They're all different. He's chasing the light, and it changes from moment to moment."

All that productivity has forced Middleman to keep not one studio, but two: his home studio in Mount Vernon and a warehouse in Belair-Edison where he stores the thousands of paintings not in museums or private collections.

Middleman shares a home with his wife, the painter and printmaker Ruth Channing. Stepping from "her" rooms into "his" can be disorienting, especially since they share a common hallway.

Channing's rooms are neat and tidy. The living room — hers — has rose-colored walls, a Victorian sofa and antiques.

Middleman's rooms overflow with discarded jackets with the sleeves turned inside-out and a pile of hats and his beloved ceramic Foo Dog and an open ladder and buckets crammed with brushes of every conceivable size and plastic bags tumbling off chairs. Splatters of paint — Middleman famously mixes his own colors — are everywhere. Finished works are strewn over the floor, so visitors have to be careful where they step.

The disorder is such that, to hear former Walters Art Museum director Gary Vikan tell it, he feared for his life on the day in 1994 that he went to Middleman's studio to pose for a portrait.

"My sitting was on a hot October day," Vikan recalls. "Raoul was smoking a pipe. Turpentine was flying all over, and I remember thinking, 'It's probably not wise to be waving around matches.'"

The artist says that mess for him is a way to find order because it leads to surprising combinations and juxtapositions.

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"Raoul breaks a lot of rules," says the MICA show's curator, Caitlin Tucker-Melvin, who winnowed 1,000 self-portraits down by nearly two-thirds. "He flops on so much paint, and you're never sure where he gets his colors from. But it manages to work anyway.

"You think, 'How is this ever going to dry?' or 'Why is this pulling me in?' He makes some really ugly paintings, but they're kind of entrancing."

By his own admission, Middleman is not one of the artists like Renoir who, as he says, "paint the newness of things and have the taut flavor of springtimes and beginnings."

His aesthetic is closer to Rembrandt's or Titian's, both premier painters of people in old age. So though Middleman in his prime was a strikingly good-looking man, his 79-year-old physique seems to suit him better.

"I'm an uglifier," Middleman says. "I like the sense of what time does to you. There's a depth, a certain richness that comes from age and decay. Our humanity comes from our failures."

Middleman adores Rembrandt, and indeed, it's not difficult to trace a line from the Old Master, who himself created 100 self-portraits in 40 years, to Middleman's paintings. Others see a connection to the intentionally grotesque portraits by the late British painter Lucian Freud, though Freud's models often look unhappy while Middleman's subjects exude vitality.

"I sometimes think that if Raoul hasn't painted something, it doesn't really exist for him," Channing says. "He loves the act of painting more than the finished work. Even though he saves his canvasses in a huge warehouse, he doesn't take very good care of them."

Channing and Middleman met in 1969 when both were living in Paris while Middleman was on sabbatical. It's fair to say that he made an immediate impression.

"He had an old car that was full of painting supplies but just the clothes he arrived in," Channing says.

"He brought a few pair of underwear to Paris for a year and a half, but not one change of clothing. He was terribly worried about what he would do if he ran out of paint, but not at all concerned about what he would do when his clothes got dirty. He just continued to wear them. I had to take him in hand and explain to him that most humans change their clothes every day."

But Channing had never met anyone who loved art as much as Middleman did. He was so preoccupied with painting that he dreamed about it at night. There was nothing he didn't want to paint — vases of flowers, copper pots, skeletons and dwarfs, even his own face.

Some time during the year the couple met, Niblock filmed his video of the artist creating a self-portrait on a mirror. Even after repeated viewings, it's still mesmerizing.

Bit by bit, the shiny reflective surface becomes covered with smears of color. Bit by bit, the artist's exuberant, rococo, inquisitive personality emerges.

The last thing that Middleman paints is his left eye.

If you go

"Selfies: Over 50 Years of Raoul Middleman's Self Portraits" runs through March 15 at the Maryland Institute College of Art's Fox Building, 1303 W. Mount Royal Ave. Free. Call 410-225-2300 or go to mica.edu.

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