Portrait of a Critic Insights: Writer gets an insider's view of the artist's process when Raoul Middleman paints his picture.

February 04, 1996|By John Dorsey | John Dorsey,SUN ART CRITIC

I am a little late. It's 10 minutes after 1 o'clock when I ring the bells -- one electric, one pulled on a string -- at Raoul Middleman's studio a block and a half north of the Guilford Avenue bridge. I have come to have my portrait painted.

A painter of landscapes, portraits and narrative paintings, Raoul Middleman is one of the best-known artists working in Baltimore. He has decided to do a series of portraits of people associated with art in Baltimore -- Grace Hartigan, Joyce Scott, Gary Vikan, etc. -- and has asked me to be one of his subjects. It is quite an honor.

In the days since we made the appointment I've felt flattered, but also slightly apprehensive. Getting my portrait painted means I'm going to see myself as somebody else sees me. Suppose I don't like what I see? And if I don't, will that be because of who I am? Or because of who Middleman is?

I am putting myself in the hands of someone whose work I admire. But I have also written some negative things over the years. What if he wants to get even?

Well, I can't back out now.

Middleman opens the door and extends his arm, saying he has paint on his hand. I shake his arm. We go up to his second-floor studio. Stacks upon stacks of paintings fill about half of the enormous space. Another 50 or 60 hang on walls where they can be seen.

Middleman's colorful, dynamic art is gritty, tough, full of life -- even the landscapes with their heaving skies. A self-portrait, done when he wore a beard, leans against a stack of paintings. It captures a fierce, angry-looking guy. He is without the beard now, and looks considerably less fierce, graying brown hair peeking out from under a hat. He doesn't act fierce at all. His gruff voice might be intimidating if he weren't so open, friendly, enthusiastic. He puts me at ease instantly. And I'm not easily put at ease.

He shows me finished portraits of Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery, and Jack Rasmussen, director of Maryland Art Place. Gary's portrait is the better of the two. Jack's makes him look much tougher than my impression of him. But both of these paintings have the Middleman touch. Loose, gestural brushwork giving painterly, expressionistic renderings. These faces make an impression, as do all the faces that stare out at me from the walls.

Middleman has already ground the paints for my portrait, a process he says takes a couple of hours, but he briefly demonstrates how he does it. Some of these pigments, he says, are very expensive, up to thousands of dollars a pound. He grinds his own paints rather than buying them in tubes, because he doesn't like what the manufacturers add.

The paints he has prepared for my portrait are blues and purples, whites, and yellows through reds to browns. They are right for what I'm wearing: my usual work uniform of blue blazer, brown pants, blue shirt, dark blue tie with red, gray and white stripes.

The paints are already on his palette. He says he is one of a very few people who still use a palette. He prefers it to working from a table of paints. A palette has to be balanced on his arm the whole time. It must be tiring.

Together we choose a low chair for the sitting, and a pose: legs crossed, one hand on the legs and one beside me on the chair. It feels natural. Middleman brings out a tall, narrow canvas, about seven feet by two and a half. I am a little taken aback by its large size, and I mention this tentatively, but he goes right ahead.

An he begins

I have worried that it might be boring to sit for several hours and hold a pose. As he begins, I find it a little discomforting that he keeps looking at me. Well, of course, I think, what did I expect? I guess I assumed he would look for a while and then work for a while on the canvas. Instead, his eyes dart from the canvas to me and back every few seconds. That quick shift of the eyes makes me feel as if I have said something that he's questioning. I wonder what he's seeing.

Now that I'm with him, I'm no longer afraid that he might accentuate the negatives in this portrait. It's perfectly obvious he is not that kind of person. And he seems much too happy and secure in himself to have been bothered by anything I might have written. It was grandiose of me to think otherwise.

So there's no question of his putting something awful into my face. But what if he finds something awful? He has to paint what he sees, and I'll bet Raoul Middleman sees a lot.

As he paints, I wonder whether to look him straight in the eye, and at first I do. But he keeps moving around in front of the canvas as he paints, so to meet his gaze I have to keep moving my eyes, and maybe my head, too. So after a while I fix my gaze on a spot of cloud in a painting on the wall beyond him.

First, he tells me, he draws in an outline of the painting with dark paints. This first session takes a half hour or more, but the idea that I would get bored was quite false. He talks occasionally, though by and large it's a quiet business, getting yourself painted.

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