Looking Beyond the Window of His Grief
Author Michael Schreiber spins kindly happenstance into gold in his book on Bernard Perlin, safe-keeping the work and stories of the American painter who fell into an artistic winter after the death of a lover to AIDS
by Sean Black
What began as a fan letter to a revered artist, whose brushstrokes pay tribute to and further illuminate the colorful and largely underground scene of our mid-century gay society, including the likes of Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, evolved into a trusted friendship and a cultural treasure trove of imagery and prose. One-Man Show: The Life and Art of Bernard Perlin, by Michael Schreiber, chronicles the storied life, illustrious friends and lovers, and astounding escapades of Bernard Perlin (1918–2014) through frank interviews with the artist, candid excerpts from his unpublished memoirs, and never-before-seen photos. The publication, which includes an extensive selection of Perlin’s incredible public and private art, has been just recognized by the American Library Association as a 2017 Stonewall Honor Book.
The destiny of this natural pairing of Perlin and Schreiber, artist and archivist, teacher and student, also edged forward a healing from the loss of a partner to AIDS that stifled his creative contributions for the following thirty years. The passing of Bud Lisker brought Perlin’s passion for painting to a crippling halt. Recognized for his pro-war, propagandist creations during World War II as well as work in a style that critics and historians refer to as ‘magic’ realism, Perlin captured aspects of urban, American life, oftentimes imbuing a decidedly homoerotic flair. Hunter O’Hanian, Museum Director of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, hits a descriptive bull’s-eye when touting Schreiber’s prowess as a preservationist and author, “Michael Schreiber proved himself able to go one-on-one with this artistic titan…[He] terrifically husbands Bernard Perlin’s uniquely 20th-century story for a 21st-centruy audience, allowing this gay artist to show his true, fearless self with warmth, humor and humanity.”
A&U’s Sean Black was able to sit down with author Michael Schreiber.
Sean Black: So, tell me how you and Bernard Perlin came to know one another?
Michael Schreiber: I discovered Bernard and his amazing artwork through my great interest in the illustrious gay social and artistic circle that surrounded the legendary photographer George Platt Lynes in the 1930s through 1950s. Bernard was an intimate member of this great New York gay “cabal,” as he called it, whose members and visitors included such artists as Paul Cadmus, Jared French, George Tooker, and Pavel Tchelitchew, the impresario Lincoln Kirstein, and such literary figures as Glenway Wescott, E.M. Forster, Somerset Maugham, and Christopher Isherwood. At age ninety-two, Bernard Perlin was the last living member of this extraordinary company, and so I screwed up my courage and sent him a “fan letter.” He responded with a friendly phone call that led to another and another and ultimately to a drunken all-nighter spent together in glorious conversation in his home in Connecticut. And so began our close friendship and the incredible journey towards this book.
Bernard’s work is extraordinary It’s serendipitous that you were able to work with him directly in documenting further the breadth of his work.
His art truly is as extraordinary as his life story. The work to archive it all began innocently enough, with Bernard expressing to me in our very first phone conversation that there were certain artworks of his in museums and private collections that he was unable to travel to, but that he would very much like to see again. It was easy enough for me to email around and obtain reproductions of these works for him. His excited response to seeing these things again and the terrific conversations we had about them led to him suggesting more searches, which of course I was more than willing to carry out. It all became a wonderful treasure hunt—a process of great reexamination for him, and of great discovery for me. Without realizing I was starting a book; One-Man Show truly began after my first weekend visit with Bernard in Connecticut, when I transcribed my audio recordings of our first long conversations about his life and art. I sent these transcripts to Bernard, who enjoyed them so much that he encouraged me to keep recording our talks. And so it just grew from there. Initially, I only thought that perhaps this would lead to some sort of “oral history” project about Bernard’s extraordinary life and artistic career. But there was always the nagging question of what to do about his tremendous “visual history,” especially as the stacks of reproductions we were gathering kept growing, and I was discovering more and more original artworks, photos, diaries, and other materials from his long life and career languishing in boxes and closets in his studio. A book started to seem like an inevitability.
So he was sharp and very much involved with you, revisiting the merit of his work?
He was completely engaged with reviewing it all. His memory was remarkably sharp, and he was an absolutely spellbinding storyteller. Granted, he was in his nineties, so sometimes he repeated stories, but I learned to let him go on because often, new details or connections would emerge that he hadn’t recalled in his first telling of a tale. His storytelling would also often go down rabbit holes, but again I was always hard pressed to stop him because his side stories were usually just as compelling as the topic we’d start off discussing! While in his company, I often felt like I was a privileged audience of one at a private one-man stage show, hence the title of the book, which also of course makes reference to it being a one-man “art show” in print of Bernard’s work.
Bernard took a long hiatus from his work following the devastating loss of a lover to AIDS—three decades, but then resumed painting in his nineties. Could you share any details from conversations surrounding this hiatus?
Bernard had met a young doctor named Bernhard “Bud” Lisker at the Everard Baths in New York City in 1976. Bernard was then in his late fifties, and although at that point was twenty years into what would ultimately become a sixty-year relationship with his life partner, Ed, the two lived apart, with other physical and emotional relationships being accommodated on both sides. Bernard and Bud’s love affair lasted for a full decade, ending with Bud’s early, tragic death from AIDS at the age of thirty-six in 1986. Bernard took charge of caring for Bud in his final months in his own home, with the aid of a devoted roster of hospice nurses. Through one of them, I’ve been told that Bernard was the first person in the state of Connecticut to privately care for an AIDS patient in this way. As Bernard told me, the experience of watching a man he loved die in such a horrible way just completely gutted him. He did work on one painting immediately after Bud’s passing, Window (1988) as a sort of memorial to Bud and as an expression of his grief. As a doctor, Bud had a windowless office in a hospital, and so some years before had asked Bernard to paint him a “window.” So Bernard had created a beautiful Connecticut scene of rolling hills and trees and sky. Right after Bud’s death, he revisited this painting, reworking it as a sort of allegory of birth, life and death. And then, debilitated by his grief, he put down his paintbrush and didn’t pick it up again for another thirty years. This is not to say that he didn’t ultimately pick up living his life again, traveling the world and eventually renewing his relationship with Ed, whom he married at the age of ninety, as consecrated in his painting, The Wedding (2012). But it wasn’t until his nineties that Bernard began painting again, for his own enjoyment.
Touching. Would you say his oeuvre had defined periods?
Bernard truly confounded art critics and historians because he never stuck to one style, so his oeuvre has defied being labeled in one specific way. He’s been called a “social realist” and a “magic realist,” but the only two labels Bernard ever personally embraced were that of “gay artist” and “American artist.” But yes, his work can certainly be defined by distinct periods. Probably the most long-lasting was his work as a magic realist.
A magic realist?
Up through and just immediately following World War II, Bernard’s work could be described as social realism. He fell very much under the influence of his mentor, the noted social realist painter, Ben Shahn, under whom he worked as a propaganda artist for the U.S. government at the beginning of World War II. This was after Bernard had been rejected for service due to his homosexuality. And yet he ended up serving nevertheless, fighting the war, in a way, with his paintbrush.And subtly, subversively inserting some homoeroticism into his posters of bulging, muscle-bound soldiers! Bernard then actually did to go war, not as a soldier but as an artist-correspondent for Life and Fortune magazines. And there his work was completely socially realistic, or as he called it, “purely reportage.” He was a visual reporter, drawing and painting what he saw on the battlefront or at the Japanese surrender or in postwar Asia. When he came back from the war, he cast that reporter’s eye toward the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he lived, painting scenes not too removed from his depictions of war-torn Tokyo. That’s the period during which he produced what is perhaps his most famous painting, Orthodox Boys (1948).
But then Bernard got a grant to live and paint in Italy, where he made the conscious effort to paint what he called “beautiful pictures,” beginning with a gorgeous teenaged Adam and Eve. It was, in a way, a depiction of the renaissance of mankind, so to speak, the rebirth of mankind after the devastation of war, but also Bernard’s rebirth and renewal as a painter. Those Italian years were an especially prolific period for him, and his work during that time and for many years afterwards shared certain elements with that of other “magic realist” artists who were interjecting unexpected or magical elements into their examination of “real” situations or objects or figures.
One of my favorite paintings of Bernard’s from this period is The Shore (1953), which is a breathtaking bird’s-eye view of a young man in a rowboat suspended on a transparent lake over an intricate bed of pebbles. I also particularly love the plays of light and shadow and color in Bernard’s “Night Pictures,” a series of paintings depicting the swinging “cocktail culture” of 1950s New York City jazz clubs, street dances, and underground gay bars. The latter were very daring works to publicly show when he did, but for Bernard they were just further efforts to depict the full “normal” range of human beings seeking connection with one another. One of these paintings, the sensational The Bar (1957), is now in the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection, and is the cover image for the book, One-Man Show.
Michael Schreiber is a teacher and writer based in Chicago. As curator for the estate of Bernard Perlin, he has organized several exhibitions of the artist’s work as well as an online gallery (www.BernardPerlin.com), where you can see more of Perlin’s work as well as purchase a copy of One-Man Show: The Life and Art of Bernard Perlin. With his husband Jason Loper, Schreiber also regularly contributes to the popular blog This American House, which chronicles their adventures restoring their Frank Lloyd Wright-designed home in Iowa.
Sean Black is a Senior Editor of A&U.