Schreiber, Michael. “One-Man Show: The Life and Art of Bernard Perlin”, Bruno Gmunder , 2016.
Jewish Artist and Sexual Renegade
Bernard Perlin (1918-2014) was an important and extraordinary figure in twentieth century American art history. Not only was he an acclaimed artist and sexual renegade who reveled in pushing social, political, and artistic boundaries but his works appeared regularly in the magazines of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. His art is part of the collections of the Rockefellers, the Whitneys, Andy Warhol and the Astors and it hangs in the Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Tate Modern. Among his portrait clients were well-known literary, artistic, theatrical, political, and high society figures. Even though he had been rejected for military service because of his homosexuality (he openly shared that with the draft board), Perlin served as a government propaganda artist and war artist-correspondent and he produced many now-iconic images of World War II. Bernard Perlin was a proclaimed atheist he was a Jewish artist who privately kept the Jewish holidays as well as some traditions. He was raised entrenched in Judaism but disavowed it as an adult. When I broached the subject with author Michael Schreiber, he mentioned that as he thought about this aspect of Perlin’s life, one of Perlin’s paintings is hanging above his desk entitled “Succoth” that he painted in 1962 and then revisited that theme in 1990. Perlin loved to cook and he often included Jewish traditions in what he prepared. When he was already in his 90’s, he shared with Schreiber over and over that he wanted to learn Yiddish.
Beginning in 1930s, he painted scenes of underground gay bars and nude studies of street hustlers, among other aspects of his active and dedicated gay life.
Perlin’s social life included the upper echelon of the New York gay scene, “the cufflink crowd” and among his friends were George Platt Lynes, Lincoln Kirstein, Glenway Wescott, Monroe Wheeler, Paul Cadmus, Jared French, George Tooker, Pavel Tchelitchew, Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins. Other friends reads like a list of Who’s Who; Vincent Price, Clifton Webb, Ben Shahn, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, Aaron Copland, Christopher Isherwood, Don Bachardy, Martha Gellhorn, Betsy Drake, Muriel Rukeyser, Carson McCullers, Philip Johnson, and E.M. Forster. Perlin found himself at home in the gay underworlds of New York and Rome, where he was sexually precocious and it is said that he competed with the likes of Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams as he cruised young men on Rome’s Spanish Steps. In Paris he went to jail because of public indecency just as he had done in the States. In 2009, when he turned 90, he legally married, Edward Newell, his partner of 55 years and this was quite an emotional and political statement.
The subjects of his paintings changed in the 30s when he began to paint scenes of gay bars, nude male hustlers and portraits of himself and other men who were openly gay. This was a time when gay men did not acknowledge their homosexuality openly and we see that Perlin tried to gain recognition for himself and others as gay people by showing that it was just “another part of the variety of normal human experience and expression”.
Bernard Perlin’s youth was filled with Yiddishkeit and with the traditions of Eastern European Jewry. He was the son of Russian and Yiddish speaking immigrants and his family was religiously observant. He had his Bar Mitzvah and regularly attended his synagogue but after his move to New York he stopped practicing and became interested only in the cultural heritage of Judaism, especially Yiddish. Even with his self-proclaimed atheism, he kept some of the Jewish traditions and continued to light a yahrzeit candle on the anniversary of his mother’s death. He prepared matzo ball soup, gefilte fish and kugel on the major holidays and his life was filled with the Yiddish concept of the Jewish spark. However, it is important to know that his sense of his own Jewishness was not always positive. He had several incidents of anti-Semitism both here and abroad. He seemed to be able to deal with the traumas that these experiences dealt him.
Returning to this country from war-torn Europe, he looked for a safe place and decided on the lower East side and he felt that there he would have that sense of Yiddishkeit that he so loved. In my own mind, I cannot divorce Judaism from the art of Perlin and even though it is not a primary theme running throughout all of his art, to me it is definitely there.
Interestingly enough, is that perhaps his most famous painting totally reflects his Jewishness. In 1948, when he had turned 30, he painted “Orthodox Boys” which today hangs in the Tate in London. He did this painting when he was trying to establish himself as a serious easel painter after having been mentored by Jewish painter, Ben Shahn. This was painted after he began his period of capturing gay bars and hustlers on canvas and it is an indication that his religion was important to him in his own way. There is a sense of anxiety in the painting of two Jewish adolescents (or Yeshiva Buchers) are having a conversation at the Canal Street subway stop near a kiosk. Behind them is a wall covered in graffiti which serves, I understand, as a “conceptual chalkboard” on which Perlin shared aspects of his life including professional contacts, love affairs, family relationships and artistic influences. Perlin painted it when he was living on the lower East Side and it shows the aspirations and anxieties of the Jews in post-war New York. “Orthodox Boys” is when Perlin began to define himself as a mature painter. His plan was to capture the street life of New York after the war. In the painting perspective is collapsed and we sense constriction with the two boys and there is also a feeling of tremulousness. When Perlin returned to the States after the war, he found anti-Semitism here. The two boys look very Jewish with their kipot on their heads and they seem to be looking around to see if it is dangerous where they are. There is a “sinister specter” that is not the result of a bully but of recent history, one that produced the Holocaust. As they wait for the train, we cannot help but be reminded that the Jews of Europe were taken to the their deaths in train cars. There are swastikas scratched into the wall and these show something about the insecurity of Jewish life. The fascination here is that these clearly Jewish boys are there in plain sight standing in front of a wall where the graffiti tells a different story about Jews in America. Also on the wall are Jewish names as something about Perlin’s family and yet there is a feeling of trepidation from looking at the boys.
As I sit and stare at the print of the painting I find so much more there. One of the students is carrying a book with the word “sefer” on it and in it is written in Hebrew, “Why, my son, did you come late”. Just looking at and reading what is written on the wall is in itself an undertaking that says so much about the artist and his religion but that I will leave to you to discover yourselves. That wall was the threshold of Perlin’s more mature period and it is interesting that he could not escape his Jewish roots. We see three major ideas here— Jews, trains and a wall of names. It is indeed fascinating that we see here an evocation of Nazi Germany’s genocidal anti-Semitism and the horrors of the Holocaust and it really comes down to what was it to be Jewish in America after the war. Here was a Jewish gay artist using an unpopular art style to depict his sensitivity to the issues of power and vulnerability and at a time when people were not ready to deal with the horrors of that period.
I am not sure how to classify this painting in terms of the feelings it unleashes. It is not hopeful and we see fear and anxiety in it. The boys appear to be frozen and yet they are solid and physical yet they hold their ground. Are they indeed symbols of resolute Jewish endurance?” We see them isolated and alone in an ominous location and they are worried and still. We realize that the painting opens up two conversations—one is of course Perlin’s own Judaism and the other is how spaces are marked and defined by individuals and communities.
Michael Schreiber’s wonderful coffee table book is much more than just a book to put on your coffee table— it is to be read and savored and pored over. It is the story of Perlin’s life, his friends and his lovers and contains interviews with Perlin himself, excerpts from his still unpublished memoirs and photos of his public and private art, some that have never been seen before. For me, the book is a treasure chest that can be looked at and reread again and again. It is Schreiber’s knowledge of and love for Bernard Perlin that makes this book what it is—a wonderful adventure into the world of art and the sexual activities of a period now lost to us forever.
Schreiber is the curator for the estate of Bernard Perlin and has organized several exhibitions of the artist’s work as well as the online gallery. It is very obvious that he listened to every word that Perlin spoke and hung on to them carefully making him an authority on the artist. In fact, Perlin gave Schreiber the rights to write his story and what a story that is. Each of the 270 pages in “One-Man Show” is a work of art. I understand that Schreiber sat with and recorded Perlin’s stories that he shared towards the end of his life. Yet in the book, it is not Schreiber but Perlin who speaks and as he does we truly get a sense of the man.
The relationship between Schreiber and Perlin began with a simple fan letter, Perlin invited Schreiber to his Connecticut home and they sat and talked until three in the morning developing a bond of trust and mutual respect. During the next three years the friendship grew and strengthened and Schreiber was given permission to record and transcribe their chats. This was to become the biography and the book that we have and it is colorful and uncensored and a wonderful read. “One-Man Show: The Life and Art of Bernard Perlin” is a chronicle of Perlin’s life and of his friends and of his lovers as well as of his work and it all comes together through the chats, the unpublished memoir and the plates of his public and private art. There is just so much to say about this book and Bernard Perlin so I am planning on two more reviews— one dealing with the sexual aspect of his life and the other about his Judaism. I feel very lucky that I have found in one man, two of my favorite subjects that also happen to he the two aspects of my personality that best and truly define me.
Birth is a beginning, death is an ending and between these two comes life and its journey. We all begin the same and we all end the same but what happens in life depends on us. We are so lucky to have Michael Schreiber share Bernard Perlin’s life with us. I must say that I consider myself to be an erudite man who is in touch with his culture but I had never heard of Bernard Perlin until Schreiber told me about his book and since it arrived, it has become part of me. I have had friends come over just to talk about one page or one painting and it is almost as if I am apologizing for my former lack of knowledge. This is only part of the story. I have concentrated on the Jewish aspects of Perlin’s life. As a asexual renegade and an active gay male, there is a whole other story that I will eventually write about as well.