Art Making for Fun’s Sake

The Creative Genius of Raoul Middleman on View at UMUC

It began with a phone call that Eric Key, the director of the UMUC Arts Program, received three years ago. The arts patron on the other end of the line, an avid supporter of Maryland artists, wanted to tell Key about a painter named Raoul Middleman.

Key, who hadn’t heard of Middleman before that call, has spent time thumbing through paintings and sketchbooks in the artist’s massive warehouse and studio ever since. He now refers to Middleman as “one of Maryland’s most esteemed artists and art teachers.” Key also refers proudly to UMUC’s “profound friendship” with Middleman and his wife Ruth, who is also an accomplished artist.

Middleman has donated 194 of his works to UMUC, and he recently celebrated his 80th birthday at the university’s gallery, where 76 of his works are on exhibit. Raoul Middleman’s Romantic Expressionism: Honoring 55 Years of Artistic Excellence is on view until August 30.

Interest in the birthday celebration and artist’s talk was so enormous that people had to be turned away, Key said. “It was just packed. It was the largest crowd we’ve ever had. It was massive.”

To commemorate the exhibit, Middleman also donated a limited edition of numbered and signed etchings, Myself@80, and the sales of the works will benefit UMUC’s Arts Program. “It is the first time UMUC has done anything like that,” Key said.

The nearly 200 works donated by Middleman join what UMUC President Javier Miyares has described as the university’s large and growing collection of Maryland art, which is on view in the gallery as well as in the College Park Marriott Hotel & Conference Center at UMUC and the university’s lobbies, hallways, and other venues. “It is a special honor to be able to continue Middleman’s longstanding legacy of education, introducing and reintroducing his masterful works and unique vision to a broad audience of UMUC students, staff, faculty, and guests,” Miyares said.

Middleman’s sizeable contribution to the UMUC collection is a rare gift, Key said. “When you approach someone about a donation, artists are always guarded about where their works are going.” Middleman did his research and learned about the university’s commitment to supporting local artists. “He just said, ‘I want to be a part of this.'”

When asked to estimate how many of Middleman’s works he saw when visiting the artist’s Baltimore warehouse and two-story studio, Key said he can’t even hazard a guess. The scale of the place “was overwhelming.”

But in his written commentary in the Middleman exhibit catalog, Key observed, “After talking with this friendly, jovial person for only a short time and flipping through some of his paintings, I knew that I was in the presence of a creative genius.”

Recent reports on a Middleman exhibit at Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) draw the same conclusion. “Middleman has come to be widely considered one of Baltimore’s most important contemporary artists,” wrote Baltimore Sun reporter Mary Carole McCauley. She added of the painter, who has taught at MICA since 1961, “He quotes Plato and Nietzsche, but his friends are plumbers and cabdrivers.”

Baltimore City Paper columnist Baynard Woods observed that “Middleman is the greatest painter of bulbous flesh that Baltimore has—and has probably ever had,” and that his work is “the perfect antidote to the Photoshop age of clean lines and smooth tones.”

Middleman combines many different kinds of styles in his work, Key said. He hopes viewers will take away from the work the understanding that “artists still use the traditional technique of painting with their hands,” as well as Middleman’s “fun, whimsical” approach to art making.

“His works, many whimsically pleasing, reflect the people and places of his life. They draw you in with their angles and movement,” Key wrote in the exhibit catalog. “You can feel the wind blowing through the trees or sense how you could fall out of a chair portrayed in a painting.”

“I think it’s intellectual and sensual,” he added. “For him, it needs to be fun.”