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Reflections in Water

Perlman Captures Lives With Brush and Pen

Joseph Kohl
"When I look at a painting and write about it," Bennard Perlman says, "I know the act of painting."

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 9/23/1998

Bennard Perlman: On the Waterfront

Galerie Françoise et ses fréres through Sept. 30

The numbers are adding up for Bennard Perlman. This 70-year-old Baltimore artist is now enjoying his 73rd one-man show. In planning his exhibit at Galerie Françoise, On the Waterfront, there were no shortage of paintings from which to choose.

Perlman estimates he's done more than 1,000 paintings in a career extending back to precocious recognition as the 14-year-old second-prize winner in a sketch contest sponsored by The Evening Sun. That newspaper is now defunct, but Bennard Perlman is still very much around.

His staying power is suggested by the 28 maritime paintings ranging from the 1940s to the 1990s brought together for his current show. It's also suggested by his long service as an art teacher, which includes being chairman of the art department at Baltimore City Community College from 1954 to 1986. As a curator and scholar of early 20th-century American art, Perlman is an expert on the group of artists known as the Eight; his books in this field include a just-published biography of Arthur B. Davies.

And as a journalist, Perlman's articles, reviews, and illustrations have appeared over the years in local publications, including The Daily Record and The Sun, and national publications such as ARTnews and Art in America.

"Writing and painting are two different ways of expressing yourself," observes Perlman, who also is no slouch when it comes to conversational facility. "There are very few people who write about art who've also made art. When I look at a painting and write about it, I know the act of painting. I think it adds something to my writing. I don't think my writing influences my painting so much as my painting influences my writing."

Clearly, his has been a life immersed in making and writing about art. Mention major American artists of this century and, chances are, he'll have an anecdote about meeting them or their descendants. It's symbolically appropriate that Andy Warhol was Perlman's classmate at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh in the late 1940s.

While Warhol eventually went off to paint soup cans, Bennard opted for different subject matter. Although Perlman has painted in different styles and, for that matter, has painted scenes both at home and abroad, one constant in his career has been an affinity for scenes set along the waterfront.

"I'd say more than half of the paintings I've ever created are of the water," Perlman says. "I've got this insatiable desire to paint water."

Chalk it up, in part, to a World War II—era childhood in which he built model ships in his bedroom. "I was making a whole fleet of balsa wood ships, which sat on my shelf in the bedroom. I'd use toothpicks as guns," Perlman recalls with boyish enthusiasm. "Also, I always liked to draw and would draw ships. It's lasted. By now, I've done everything from rowboats to canoes. I'm also fascinated by reflections in water."

The young Perlman's father would drive him to Baltimore's Inner Harbor, which was then a working port. While his father read the Sunday newspaper, Bennard would draw the rich array of boats. He recalls once drawing a Navy submarine, which prompted a suspicious guard to ask him what he was doing. No, Bennard wasn't a Nazi spy; he was just a curious kid eager to sketch the watermelon boats, submarines, and other vessels berthed along Pratt Street.

The present exhibit includes two paintings from the 1940s that speak to his early interest in maritime themes: "Navy Recruiting, War Memorial Plaza, Baltimore" depicts a large model ship erected by the Navy in front of the War Memorial Building; and "Pier One, Pratt Street, Baltimore" is a subdued, nearly monochromatic view of two gray ships docked side by side.

In Perlman's subsequent career, he would work in styles ranging from Abstraction to Impressionism to Cubism. A good example of his Cubist phase in the current show, "Fisherman's Wharf, San Francisco," is a painting from the 1960s in which interlocking green cubes are used to suggest the wharf's structure.

Represented in greater abundance at Galerie Françoise are paintings influenced by a 1983 trip to the French Riviera. Perlman's time there inspired him to adopt a vibrantly hued palette akin to what Matisse and other so-called Fauve artists were doing in the first decade of this century.

"When I got home, I was so excited about painting with a brighter palette," he says. "I felt I could just burst forth in color, rather than stay with the more subdued palette I'd used for years."

Examples of Perlman's expanded palette include his works "Low Tide at Sunset, Cape Neddick, Maine," with a deep purple and yellow sky that makes the most of nature's Technicolor possibilities. In "Peggy's Cove, Nova Scotia," the houses are painted strong shades of green, blue, and red. Perlman notes that these brightly painted houses actually do appear this way, because their owners are confronted with winters in which the snow accumulates so high that they need gaudy indicators of which house belongs to them. Being a Baltimore artist to the last, Perlman adds: "The colors on these houses are almost like Tyson Street" in Mount Vernon.

An even more extremely Fauve-ist painting is "The Sanctuary on Grasty Road, Baltimore County," in which the sharply defined tree trunks are orange and red. Realistic observation and a more whimsical imagination are obviously working in tandem in such a painting.

Looking at so many paintings, one wonders where Perlman finds the time to do his writing. He spent 15 years researching and writing the first full biography of Arthur B. Davies. The Lives, Loves, and Art of Arthur B. Davies is a thoroughly constructed study of an artist best known for being an organizer of the seminal 1913 Armory Show that introduced European modern art to Americans.

"Davies is best known for his masterminding of the Armory show. Many people no longer know him as an artist, even though he had a great reputation during his lifetime," Perlman says of his reasons for writing the book. "So here I was digging into another unsung hero."

If Davies' art is underappreciated, to some extent it's because he is not an artist who is easy to pigeonhole. The contemporaries with whom he is associated often created bluntly realistic depictions of American urban life. Davies, on the contrary, opted for idyllic scenes of lithe nude maidens placed in Arcadian landscapes that existed only in his imagination. Even though Davies' studio was in the heart of Manhattan, his mind was elsewhere.

"There is always the undercurrent of people who are out of step with the current," Perlman says. "Davies was creating art from the mind rather than realistically. What he has brought to American art is the whole idea of symbolism, and the idea of painting from memory, almost like what the mind remembers upon awakening. He's working from the brain more than the eye."

But he was no mere pastoral specialist. Davies tried out Cubism in the 1910s, and his overall style reflects assorted movements of the era.

"He didn't go back to earlier styles of art so much as he combines various styles," his biographer says. "It's complicated, because he had different forces working on him. He didn't fit neatly into one of the movements. He was not a realist, an Ashcan artist, or a regionalist.

"For him, his art was an escape from the reality of his own life."

Perlman's book digs into the details of an artist who was secretive about his life right up until he died in 1928. Davies' grandchildren assisted Perlman in his biographical quest. Perlman cites the time he was poking around in a family attic and came upon issues of Harper's Weekly from 1882 and 1883 in which the young Davies had colored in the magazine's woodcuts.

But such scholarly discoveries were no match for some of the personal revelations that Perlman found. Most striking of all was that Davies lived a double life. On weekends, he visited his wife and children on their farm outside New York City. During the week, he lived under an assumed name, David A. Owen, with his mistress in New York. This arrangement went on for 25 years. When it comes to marital duplicity, Davies makes Bill Clinton look like a Boy Scout.

"I admire Arthur B. Davies for a lot of things, but not the way he treats women," Perlman says. "I have a wandering imagination, but I could not have written a novel like this. Truth is really stranger than fiction here."

Perlman is now turning his attention to another American figure of the period, the writer and artist Walter Pach, whose letters he is editing. If you haven't heard of Pach, Bennard Perlman is ensuring that you will.

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