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Dan Rodricks: Drawing and painting to the end, Raoul Middleman leaves an indelible mark on Baltimore and the art world | COMMENTARY

Baltimore artist Raoul Middleman works on a painting in his two-story studio in the rear of his Mount Vernon rowhouse on Calvert Street. Middleman died on Oct. 29 at age 86.
Baltimore artist Raoul Middleman works on a painting in his two-story studio in the rear of his Mount Vernon rowhouse on Calvert Street. Middleman died on Oct. 29 at age 86. (Benjamin Middleman)

The first time I visited Raoul Middleman’s rowhouse on Calvert Street and took the stairs to the third floor rear, I needed a few seconds to understand what had happened there: Carpenters had removed it. They had cut away the third floor entirely, opening the second floor to the skylights and creating a studio two stories tall and full of the wonder of natural light. Middleman painted on the second floor, and if you were lucky, you might stand on a little balcony overlooking the studio below and watch one of Baltimore’s most robust artists at work.

His ways were old school — grinding paints from dry pigments instead of squeezing them from tubes, working from a palette on his left arm — and he would sit or stand at a wooden easel, a brush in his right hand and maybe another in his left. There would be a paint-splattered table nearby and another for jars and brushes. The wood floor had been rubbed raw and stained with oils and other droppings from the artist’s alchemy. There was an upholstered chair and blankets, buckets and ropes, stereo speakers and stools, a ladder and mirrors, a platform on wheels and tall wooden brackets for Middleman’s largest canvases. The studio was part workshop, part magic shop.

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The walls were covered with painted selfies — not because of self-love, but because of self preservation. Middleman was driven to paint or draw every day and sometimes several times a day, and if there was no model or other subject available, he painted portraits of himself. He painted thousands of them, always curious to see, on any given day, what fellow might come out of the brush.

Middleman, who died from cancer last week at 86, was a passionate and prolific artist. But those words hardly seem sufficient. He was absolutely driven to paint, to capture the raw emotions of a moment on canvas. His wife, Ruth, says he painted or drew right up until the end, despite his illness, and none who followed him through the years would be surprised to hear that.

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Middleman’s legacy is a body of work that literally fills a warehouse. He once estimated that he had produced 20,000 works of art over half a century. By luck, my son acquired a fairly large Middleman painting that had been left in a Baltimore rowhouse, and when we showed it to the artist, he could barely remember it.

I don’t mean to emphasize quantity. It’s not just the number of paintings, sold and yet sold, that impresses. It’s the energy, the daring, the bravado in Middleman’s brush strokes. Some might find his work unrefined, unrealistic and grotesque. But that’s the stuff that made it exciting and powerful — Middleman’s high-energy expressionism. He once showed me a series of charcoal renderings of horses, and they still seemed to gallop with the same force that was in Middleman’s hand on the long-ago day he sketched them.

The first time I met this man, in the 1980s, I found him in the company of a ragged band of vagabonds, carnies, punk-rockers and bare-chested women in cowboy boots. It was something like that — a tableau Middleman had pulled from a dream, orchestrated on a Maryland farm and turned into a huge, garish painting in his studio in an old industrial building on Guilford Avenue.

I found it overwhelming at first, trying to understand this man and his narrative paintings of Felliniesque characters in all manner of settings, from bucolic to postindustrial. Middleman, in paint-stained pants and a black sweater, played the violin and smoked cigars, the former during breaks from painting and the latter as he painted.

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Endowed with seductive bohemian charm, he was given to quoting poets and philosophers. He had Olympian rhetorical skills that took anyone near him on fast journeys up streams of consciousness. As was the case with some of his paintings, you never knew where the trip would end. In the course of five minutes, he might recall and recite the campy patter of strip club barkers he had overheard on The Block, then transition to an analysis of “Las Meninas” by the Spanish artist Diego Velázquez.

Middleman relished the journey of his work, the spark of first impression, the first stroke of pen or brush and the odyssey that followed. Many of his paintings and sketches were painted in an hour, two hours, three. He sometimes produced multiple paintings in a day in oil, gouache or watercolor.

He called himself an impatientist. John Dorsey, the late Sun critic and once himself the subject of a Middleman portrait, described the impatientist style as “a combination of energy, quickness of mind and the urgent need for self-expression.”

Raoul Middleman’s impatient style originated in the lusty desire to tell a million stories and share a million thoughts, the drive to make dreams come true, to make his life and his art as meaningful and as indelible as possible. Mission accomplished. Rest in peace.

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