Baltimore artist recalls Andy Warhol as an art school classmate

At age 82, Bennard B. Perlman, the noted Baltimore artist, critic, author, professor and lecturer, is as busy as ever and shows no sign of slowing down.

The other day he called to say he was looking forward to the BMA's " Andy Warhol: The Last Decade" exhibition, which opens Oct. 17 .

The forthcoming exhibition has special significance for Perlman, who was a close friend of Warhol's when the two were painting and design classmates from 1945 to 1949 at Carnegie Tech, now Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh.

World War II had been over for three months when the two 17-year olds, Perlman and Warhol, found themselves as freshman art students, surrounded by returning veterans.

In an unpublished memoir, Perlman wrote that when "classes began the first week of October 1945, we were lost in a sea of coeds."

"Andy was certainly there, but his presence was easily overlooked. Standing just 5'9" tall and weighing a mere 135 pounds, he appeared to disappear into the crowd both visually and verbally," he wrote. "I never heard him shout or argue, never saw him in a fit of rage. He often seemed timid, awkward, vulnerable and noncommunicative."

Perlman recalled that a week into the semester, a nude female model made her appearance before the class. For some who had never actually seen an undressed woman, this was a slightly shocking and embarrassing situation.

"Poor Andy, whose previous drawings of girls had been limited to those imaginative interpretations of only their faces," Perlman recalled in the memoir. "He appeared to grow pale and a coed whose easel was adjacent to his thought he was about to faint."

Perlman said in an interview that when a teacher asked each student to draw a shoe complete in charcoal with such details as laces, cracks, scrapes and worn heals, one of the future founders of Pop Art wasn't quite certain what to do.

"In those days, most people wore two-tone saddle shoes," he said.

Warhol, who specialized in drawing with pencil, pastel or watercolor, never used charcoal.

"Charcoal was not part of his vocabulary; he was just unaware how to shade the gray tones lighter with a tortillion [a tool used to blend or smudge pencil, charcoal or graphite lines] or darker or darker with a paper 'stump' '[used for shading], " Perlman wrote.

The next morning, Perlman asked Warhol what had happened to his shoes.

"He had painted the entire fronts of his saddle shoes with black paint," Perlman said, laughing.

Warhol turned and in hushed tones, said, "The next time we have an assignment like this I'll be ready for 'em."

Over the years, the two artists kept in touch with one another. In 1975, when Warhol came to the BMA to sign copies of his autobiography, "The Philosophy of Andy Warhol From A to B and Back Again," Perlman was in line with some 1,600 fans.

Many of those who lined up wanted the artist's signature not in his recently published book but on the elastic from the waistband of a pair of jockey shorts, T-shirts, panties, sneakers and even bras, remembered Perlman.

Perlman, like many others, brought two cans of Campbell's tomato soup, which became an iconic example of Warhol's work.

Because Warhol had remained extremely youthful and often misrepresented his age, Perlman said his children came to doubt his stories that the two had been close college friends.

When his turn came, Perlman sat down at a table next to Warhol and said he wanted some kind of proof that they had been at college together.

"Oh, Bennard, I forgot that you lived in Baltimore," Perlman recalled the artist saying.

"It was the same meek voice I had initially heard some 30 years earlier, when we sat side-by-side in our first drawing class," he said.

Perlman pulled the two soup cans from a bulging paper bag.

"To my classmate Bennard Perlman, Andy Warhol," he wrote, adding to his autograph a few decorative lines across the red and white portions of the label, Perlman said.

Perlman still has the two cherished soup cans in his art collection in his Lutherville home. Though the two men kept in touch by letter and phone, that meeting at the BMA was the last time Perlman would see Warhol in person before he died in 1987.

"Although I failed to realize it at the time, this would become the fond farewell to my fabled friend whom I had the pleasure of knowing and observing as he was transformed from a common moth to a one-of-a-kind butterfly," Perlman wrote.

fred.rasmussen@baltsun.com

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