About a fifth of the way into Bennard Perlman's retrospective at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, the viewer comes upon "Busted Pipe" (1948) and encounters the grown-up artist for the first time.
Although Perlman, born in 1928, was something of a teen-age prodigy, winning local prizes at 13 and 14, the pre-1948 works in this show are really those of a student: a copy of a Tiepolo painting at the Walters Art Gallery, a record of the interior of the Eutaw Place Temple, a streetcar barn that looks distinctly Hopperish.
"Busted Pipe" is a different story. One of the most interesting paintings in a show that covers 50 years, it achieves a combination of the abstract and the representational that marks Perlman's best work all the way through.
It shows an interior with a hole through a wall into a bathroom, but so much more than the scene goes on in this work. For one thing, the composition is basically abstract. For another, there are spatial ambiguities: The scene is one of illusory depth but a series of planes parallel to the picture plane call attention to the surface of the painting and effectively push space out of the picture.
There also is a more subtle and more sophisticated palette in use here than Perlman has shown before and the paint is laid on so as to create a surface texture that further emphasizes the two-dimensionality of the object.
Like this painting, the show in general demonstrates that Perlman has tried to balance the traditional with the modern. Basically a landscape (including cityscape) painter living in the century of the abstract, he has tested the century's experiments while keeping an anchor in the real.
In "Morning Light" (1956) he broke down the solidity of the depicted houses into what he calls "a series of shapes conceived cubistically." In "Composition" (1960) he went completely abstract, creating a work of line, light, pattern and color; but even here the effect of the patterning is something like that of a stained glass window. In "Near Federal Hill" (1980), he painted a group of houses that form basically a geometric abstraction. In the last decade he has used a high-keyed palette somewhat reminiscent of expressionist color.
Perlman is at his worst here depicting people, whether in the early, self-conscious double portrait "The Artist and His Wife" (1951), the moony rendering of his daughter in "Blues Singer" (1965), or the banal picture of two men in Jerusalem in "Toward the Western Wall" (1979).
His best, most modernist works include "Busted Pipe," "Pounding Sea and Surf" (1962), "The Artist's Studio" (1968) and the recent "The Cove" (1989). He gives "The Cove" interest with its series of receding planes, the mast that divides the picture vertically into a harmonious 60-40 ratio, the forming of space into a horizontal hourglass, the counterpoint of intense color and quietly modulated tans. Here Perlman takes subject matter that has been done thousands of times and makes it fresh.
"Bennard Perlman: Fifty Years of His Art" continues through Dec. 1 at Baltimore Hebrew Congregation, 7401 Park Heights Ave. Call 764-1587.