One-Man Show: The Life and Art of Bernard Perlin

One-Man Show: The Life and Art of Bernard Perlin

by Michael Schreiber


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One-Man Show: The Life and Art of Bernard Perlin by Michael Schreiber

Bernard Perlin (1918-2014) was an extraordinary figure in twentieth century American art and gay cultural history, an acclaimed artist and sexual renegade who reveled in pushing social, political, and artistic boundaries. His work regularly appeared in popular magazines of the 1940s, fifties, and sixties; was collected by Rockefellers, Whitneys, and Astors; and was acquired by major museums, including the Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art, and the Tate Modern. His portrait clients included well-known literary, artistic, theatrical, political, and high society figures. As a government propaganda artist and war artist-correspondent, he produced many now-iconic images of World War II. From the 1930s on, he also daringly committed to canvas and paper scenes of underground gay bars and nude studies of street hustlers, among other aspects of his active and dedicated gay life.

Socially, he moved in the upper echelons of New York gay society, a glittering “cufflink crowd” that included 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. He also counted among his most intimate companions such luminaries in the arts as 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. Yet he was equally at home in the gay underworlds of New York and Rome, where his unbridled sexual escapades put him in competition with the likes of Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams.

In One-Man Show, Michael Schreiber chronicles the storied life, illustrious friends and lovers, and astounding adventures of Bernard Perlin through no-holds-barred interviews with the artist, candid excerpts from Perlin’s unpublished memoirs, never-before-seen photos, and an extensive selection of Bernard Perlin’s incredible public and private art.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9783959850186
Publisher: Bruno Gmuender
Publication date: 11/01/2016
Pages: 256
Sales rank: 445,730
Product dimensions: 8.50(w) x 11.20(h) x 1.10(d)
Age Range: 16 - 10 Years

About the Author

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 the online gallery, 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. One-Man Show: The Life and Art of Bernard Perlin is Michael Schreiber’s first book.

Read an Excerpt


I first came to know Bernard Perlin the artist through a photo portrait taken of him in 1940 by the legendary photographer George Platt Lynes. That portrait, included in a hulking coffee table book of Lynes’ work that I’ve long owned and cherished, shows a young Bernard Perlin standing in shirtsleeves, one arm flung up over his forehead, with languid eyes peering out beneath. It’s a terrific study, but one I would’ve just chalked up to being another in Lynes’ teeming portfolio of equally exquisite portraits were it not for the fact that I was completely haunted, beguiled, charmed, and ultimately curious about the mysterious figure it captured. Compounding the intrigue for me was the fact that I had found the name of this mystery man, Bernard Perlin, threaded through all of the books I had devoured about the illustrious gay social and artistic circle of which George Platt Lynes had been a part from the 1930s through the 1950s.

Then I acquired a copy of David Leddick’s “triography” of George Platt Lynes, Paul Cadmus, and Lincoln Kirsten, a book entitled Intimate Companions. To my utter, gleeful surprise, I discovered the book contained a foreword written by Bernard Perlin! It is an absolutely delicious sampling of his recollections of all three of those celebrated men, with some tantalizing hints about Perlin’s own place in their illustrious company and shenanigans.

But ... hints. I wanted to know more about this man, Bernard Perlin. The Internet and various books only maddeningly provided a few more clues: some images of his own incredible art, some scant details of his own dazzling credentials. I learned that his work had been privately collected by Rockefellers, Whitneys, Astors—the cultural elite of his day—and publicly by major museums: the Smithsonian, the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Tate Modern. From what little I had seen of his art, I could well understand why: I was already captivated by his gifts as a creator, from his “reportage” work during World War II, to his paintings as a social realist and, later, as a “magic” realist. Wow after wow.

As a teenager, I had written countless fan letters to movie and TV stars I idolized. But I choked at the prospect of writing such a letter to an artist, much less the last living member of a great New York gay artistic “cabal” whose other very talented members had included George Lynes, Glenway Wescott, Monroe Wheeler, Lincoln Kirstein, Paul Cadmus, Jared French, and George Tooker. How does one even begin a fan letter to an “art star”? Especially since that was all I was: a mere fan, not an art historian or a museum curator or someone in any way connected with the art world? I stuck the address I had come across for Bernard Perlin in a drawer to await a more courageous day.

A year passed, and then I had the unexpected opportunity to purchase a Perlin drawing through eBay: a beautiful, delicate silverpoint study of a female nude. My sudden transition from mere “fan” to “collector,” I reasoned in the afterglow of making this acquisition, now gave me justifiable reason for a letter: some right of entrée, if you will—at least into Mr. Perlin’s mailbox. So, I wrote him—yes, a fan letter.

Within a week, he called me.

Once we’d gotten past the introductions (including his immediate insistence that I drop the “Mr. Perlin business” and call him Bernard—which, he was also careful to point out, is pronounced “BER-nerd,” not “Ber-NARD”), he informed me that while he couldn’t remember anything specific about the drawing in my collection, he did have quite a tale to tell about the sexual proclivities of the young poet to whom he had initially given the drawing back in 1945. And so he told it—and my jaw was on the floor. Actually, so was the rest of me, for his telling of the tale was absolutely uproarious, as indeed was the rest of his conversation.

He broke the hilarity finally with a note of melancholy about having donated all of the reproductions he had had of his work to the Beinecke Library at Yale University, telling me that he would very much like to see images of certain paintings of his again. It was easy enough for me to print out what few images were then available of his work on the Internet, and so I immediately sent these to him. His excited response to receiving them a few days later was incredibly seductive, as was his curiosity: Might I be able to track down further images of his art in museum and private collections, if he provided me with clues as to their whereabouts?

And so my “Sherlockery,” as he came to call it, began in earnest. Within just a few weeks, I had tracked down and obtained images for Bernard of many of his paintings and drawings. Our excited phone conversations over these found treasures grew more and more frequent, our conviviality now well-established. Within a few months, he summoned me to Connecticut for a face-to-face meeting.

And so I came to know Bernard Perlin, the man.

From that very first phone conversation to our many in-person visits over the next several years and almost-daily talks in the last year of his life, Bernard regaled me with stories that left me completely disarmed; enthralled; in stitches; and always, always, wanting more. Bernard was a storyteller, the likes of which I have never before encountered, and I still can’t quite believe my good fortune in being a privileged audience of one, hearing all that I did.

With his encouragement, I began recording and transcribing our conversations, feeling compelled to preserve the rich story of his life and times as told in his own colorful way. Bernard read my transcriptions with great enthusiasm (“because it’s all about little me!” he’d exclaim), and for a time attempted to supplement them with essays he drafted about particularly significant periods and people in his life. As wonderful and as authentic to his voice as these pieces are, he eventually abandoned the endeavor, however, deciding that he preferred to let the rest of his story unfold in a raw, conversational way between us. He thought it was “less pretentious, more honest, more real.”

But the “work” between us to preserve his artistic legacy and story was not the glue that ultimately bound us together. Our rapport had been easy and instantaneous from the start, our friendship fast and intimate. It may have helped some that I was not the “usual nice, middle-aged Jewish man, overweight, bald, with glasses” that he had initially envisioned me to be from our phone conversations. I was instead, according to Bernard’s oft-repeated recounting of our first face-to-face meeting, “this kid in sneakers!” I was hardly a kid—in fact, far from it—but from that point onward, he called me “kiddo.” For my part, Bernard, at age ninety-two, was every bit the venerable yet mischievous old character I had imagined him to be. That I kept up with his increasingly salty stories and scotch drinking until 3 a.m. that first evening together won me his respect and trust. That it was me who pulled Bernard out of a potted plant at the end of that first evening of glorious talk and drink, and surprisingly not vice versa, sealed our brotherhood. There would be many, many such evenings to follow over the next three years.

What I learned from the privileged time I spent in his company was that in his life as in his art, Bernard Perlin was an inveterate explorer, one who reveled in pushing social, sexual, political, and creative boundaries. It’s no wonder that critics of his art, while applauding individual works and even entire, small-scale one-man shows of his paintings, often complained that his body of work, when assessed as a whole, seemed to lack cohesion from one show to the next. Bernard shifted styles and themes often throughout his long career, making him truly difficult to categorize. Further muddying the waters, he rejected the labels that critics, curators, and art historians have often used to describe him and his art (“social realist,” “magic realist,” “romantic realist”). He only embraced one label—that of gay artist—although he would never allow even it to limit or overly define his work. It had simply never occurred to him not to fully embrace and express who he was, in spite of the far less accepting worlds and times through which he moved, and the real risks he often faced, both socially and physically, for being openly gay. Indeed, his active pursuit of sexual pleasure and adventure was the main preoccupation of his life, second only to his art.

In the end, however, Bernard Perlin’s life cannot be measured solely by his art and his sexual proclivities. They were the outward creative expressions and explorations of a man fully engaged in living his life to its fullest—pursuits that served to enrich a life replete with other explorations, experiences, and extraordinary connections. Yet, at the last, Bernard was fearful that his self-indulgence had perhaps erased his impact on the world: That in so pursuing the sensual pleasures of life, he hadn’t pushed his artistic expression to its fullest, nor had he actively promoted his art enough to leave behind a legacy comparable to that of his contemporaries Paul Cadmus and George Tooker.

But for Bernard, his art had never been about how others might perceive it. One might say it, too, was self-indulgent, but he simply found great passion in what he created, in how it allowed him to observe and interpret the worlds he explored and experienced. A by-product was the fact that his art informed, entertained, and impacted others who observed it. That certainly also gave him a tremendous amount of joy, but it wasn’t what fundamentally drove him to do it.

Given the nature of who he was, Bernard committed to canvas his moments of emotional memory, but in a way that was illusionary and amplified, so that effectively anyone who observed his work could feel something larger than life about it. He hoped viewers of his art would not only buy into the illusion but would also bring something to it of their own: that whether gay or straight, they would see themselves in a similar place or interaction and remember it, feel it, sense themselves in it. He marketed illusionary memories to excite in viewers a recognition of our shared experience as human beings, but also to demonstrate that it’s not only OK but important to see and feel the way each of us uniquely does. That’s where the magic came into his art.

But his art also did something more: By blending homoerotic works into an oeuvre occupied with looking at a variety of “normal” human experiences and expressions, he sought to promote a recognition and acceptance of homosexuality as being just another part of the natural order of things. That’s where his realism came in. He backed this up by the way he lived his life, demonstrating that there is a reason why it is lovingly referred to as being “gay”: that having the ability to be happy with your own existence and to be joyfully engaged with it leaves a person healthier, happier, and less problematic to himself and others. Bernard simply didn’t make it anybody’s business to make his homosexuality abnormal.

In Bernard Perlin, I was blessed to have observed a fellow human being who had the ability to dominate his life—a man who was fully occupied with living, loving, and leaving nothing unexplored that interested him. While he reveled in being ever surprised by life, he also found that sometimes it was necessary to actually go out and surprise life in order for life to give up its secrets.

The “secrets” contained in this book are those Bernard uncovered during his extraordinary journey through life and wished to share with the world, either on canvas or on paper. His is a human story of seeking and finding, of seeking and not finding. It’s a human story of going to excess, and then backing away. It’s a human story of expressing and exploring. It’s a human story of living and loving and sometimes losing. It’s a very human story.
— Michael Schreiber, curator, the Estate of Bernard Perlin

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