The Life and Art of Bernard Perlin
One-Man Show is a 2017 Stonewall Honor Book (Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award from the American Library Association), a 2017 Lambda Literary Award Finalist, and the “First Runner-Up” of the Eric Hoffer Book Award in the art book category.
Bernard Perlin was an extraordinary figure in 20th 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, 50s, and 60s; 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.
He moved in the upper echelons of New York gay society, counting among his most intimate companions George Platt Lynes, Lincoln Kirstein, Glenway Wescott, Paul Cadmus, Jared French, George Tooker, Truman Capote, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, and Jerome Robbins.
In One-Man Show, Michael Schreiber chronicles the storied life, illustrious friends and lovers, and astounding escapades of Bernard Perlin through no holds barred interviews with the artist, candid excerpts from Perlin’s unpublished memoirs, never-before-seen photos, and an extensive selection of Bernard Perlin’s incredible public and private art.
The Arc of a Gay Artist’s Life
“But it ain’t true that just because it’s cock and balls, it’s art.”
Each human life has a certain beginning and end. What remains a mystery is that which happens in between.
Bernard Perlin led a full and fearless life as a gay artist. He is an important and yet often overlooked artist of our time. He is the real thing: a gay man growing up in the 20th century while developing and thriving as an authentic artist.
Here is a figure who won a Fulbright scholarship and not one, but two Guggenheim fellowships. He attended art classes at the New York School of Design, the National Academy of Design Art School, and the Art Students League, and was surrounded by people like Thomas Hart Benton, Mark Rothko, Clifford Still, Harry Sternberg, and others. From early in his career, his prodigious talent allowed him to support himself as an artist from the sale of his drawings and paintings, as well as commissions, the first of which was done for the legendary movie actor Vincent Price.
Yet, while he pursued his career as an art maker, he spent part of his daily life busily having sex with as many men as he could. He saw men as “packages of pleasure,” an inclination he proudly believed originated from deep within his DNA—a human desire so evident in the work he made. One only has to look at the drawings he made for the US Office of War Information to sell war bonds or the illustrations he made for magazines such as Life and Fortune to appreciate his point of view.
While in his early 90s, living on his own in Ridgefield, Connecticut, a place to where Perlin retreated in self-exile (he “hated the art world”), he sat with Michael Schreiber and spent countless hours telling his life story, a rich yet uncomplicated tale. His life, in his own words, was a direct path to making art and seeking human connection. At times each was messy, but without question, they were successful and rewarding.
Circumstances being what they were, like many of his generation, Perlin was often left to explore his personal side in dangerous and sometimes unsavory situations. In 1938, at age 20, while the planet was on the cusp of World War II, he moved into a fifth-floor walk-up apartment in New York’s Greenwich Village with his then lover, Alvin, and never looked back. At the time, he saw every show on Broadway for 55 cents (except for hits like Porgy and Bess, which set him back $1.10). He survived on work doled out from the New Deal-inspired Works Project Administration. He took assignments that led him overseas, to the Pacific.
In Rome and Paris, he visited the underground gay bars of the 1940s and 1950s, running into Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, and Gore Vidal. He competed with Jean Genet for (and won) the attention of a young man at the notorious cruising spot at the base of Spanish Steps in Rome. He even found himself imprisoned—actually locked in a large cage with straw on the floor—in de Gaulle’s Paris for “behavior against public decency.”
He was active in the gay Greenwich Village scene in the 1950s that included outdoor cruising spots, underground gay bars, and bathhouses. The world was so different then that he felt he didn’t get his money’s worth if he didn’t have sex with a least five people a night at the bathhouse. Later in life, when he was in his 50s and 60s, he was unafraid to befriend and have sexual relations with men in their 20s. Later in life, at age 91, he legally married his longtime partner, Ed Newell, as a “political statement.”
Yet, he had five one-man shows at the historic Catherine Viviano Gallery from the 1950s to 1970s. His work is in every major institutional collection. He led a life that put him squarely in the middle of the Paul Cadmus and Jared and Margaret French circle. He chummed around, both personally and professionally, with everyone from Glenway Wescott, Monroe Wheeler, Gian Carlo Menotti, Leonard Bernstein, Liz Smith, Grace Hartigan, Don Bachardy, David Hockney, Casey Donovan, Jerome Robbins, Arthur Laurents, and Lincoln Kirstein. He received great friendship, as well as an inheritance, from George Platt Lynes. He was someone who had the standing to say Roy Cohn was “really hideous in person” or to spend time with Robert Mapplethorpe in his “male impersonator outfit.”
Later in his life, Perlin made reference to his paintings and drawings of the male nude. “I’m painting these pictures that I want to paint,” he said. “And so I’m going to leave this large collection of basically homosexual, homoerotic paintings behind. So why not? I don’t have anybody to be protective of or ashamed for. And shame shouldn’t come into the act. I mean, we homosexuals are valid and deserve, I think, some attention. At least I’m not in the category of what typically passes for gay art. Well, it can be well-meaning, but it ain’t true that just because it’s cock and balls, it’s art.”
* * *
Michael Schreiber has done something rarely seen: He took the time to accurately record the tales of a historic figure at the later part of his life. Schreiber studied the decades, explored, and proved himself able to go one-on-one with this artistic titan. His task was lightened to some degree, as his subject was honest and forthright with an impeccable memory. However, it was no easy effort for Schreiber, since at one point in his life Perlin tried to write some of this story but changed his mind and “took the scissors to it.”
Clearly Schreiber’s keen knowledge and thoughtful approach earned Perlin’s trust to record his story for all time. Schreiber terrifically husbanded Perlin’s uniquely 20th century story for a 21st century audience, standing aside and allowing his subject to say his piece. Having had the opportunity personally to spend time with Perlin, I can attest that Schreiber has accurately captured the tenor and depth of this amazing individual. As he would have wanted, Schreiber allows this gay artist to show his true, fearless self, with warmth, humor, and humanity.
What follows teaches us many lessons—about honestly, art, identity, and learning from the past. It fills in some of the mysteries between birth and death.
Hunter O’Hanian, Former Museum Director
Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York
“Perlin was an emancipated man who lived a life against the grain, both in his love and sex life and his figurative art, which defied the juggernaut of abstract expressionism. Perlin’s life serves as an inspiration of sexual bravery and as an art and social history lesson of the times.” (The Advocate)
“Perlin is a kind of artist hero for the present moment… It’s difficult, almost impossible, to understand now how brave and even creative it was to be the openly erotic gay man as described by Bernard Perlin… Even during those closeted days, queer limits were pushed, and this handsome, randy artist pushed them as far as he could. The book throws Perlin’s persuasive, crystal-clear memories of what he painted and who he seduced in front of the Pollock/de Kooning/Cedar Bar narrative we’re used to. It’s an important and corrective gay scrim to postwar U.S. art history.” (The Archive: The Journal of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art)
“That he was a gay artist was never in doubt…it never occurred to him not to fully embrace and express who he was despite the anti-gay mainstream culture in which he started his career. In his art as in his life, [Perlin] sought to promote a recognition and acceptance of homosexuality as being just another variety of normal human experience and expression. He marketed illusionary memories to excite in viewers a recognition of our shared experience as human beings.” (The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide)
“One-Man Show is filled with delicious name-dropping gay gossip, but none of the juicy tales Bernard [Perlin] tells about any of his famous friends can truly rival his own astounding story.” (The Windy City Times)
“It’s wonderfully daring to write a whole biography in interview format. It’s also refreshing for the reader, because he or she can enter the touching tale of Bernard Perlin’s multi-layered life and career as if listening to a private conversation. You can join this poignant conversation at any point, which makes getting lost in the book easy. No matter where you start, the narrative will suck you in and keep you spell-bound, helped by an eclectic mix of private images and art works, both ranging from sensuous and sexy to formally stylized, both mirroring the changing attitudes towards homosexuality throughout the 20th century.” (Dr. Kevin Clarke, author of The Art of Looking)
“Michael Schreiber has done something rarely seen: He took the time to accurately record the tales of a historic figure at the later part of his life … [proving] himself able to go one-on-one with this artistic titan. Clearly Schreiber’s keen knowledge and thoughtful approach earned Perlin’s trust to record his story for all time. Schreiber terrifically husbanded Perlin’s uniquely twentieth-century story for a twenty-first-century audience, standing aside and allowing his subject to say his piece. Having had the opportunity personally to spend time with Perlin, I can attest that Schreiber has accurately captured the tenor and depth of this amazing individual. As he would have wanted, Schreiber allows this gay artist to show his true, fearless self with warmth, humor, and humanity.” (Hunter O’Hanian, Museum Director, Leslie+Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art)
“The Symbolic or Magic Realists remain the biggest influence on my work, Bernard Perlin high among my favorite artists, and Orthodox Boys still one of the paintings I truly love.” (Sir Peter Blake)
“Bernard Perlin [was] an American painter who displayed a mastery of light and line across seven decades and a wide range of work, including wartime propaganda posters, street scenes of New York and effervescent views of Italy.” (William Yardley, New York Times)
Anna Zorina Gallery (New York)
Arkansas Arts Center (Little Rock)
Art Institute of Chicago (Chicago)
Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford (United Kingdom)
Columbus Museum of Art (Columbus, Ohio)
Detroit Institute of Arts (Detroit)
DC Moore Gallery (New York)
de Young Museum/Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco
Fitzwilliam Museum, University of Cambridge (United Kingdom)
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution (Washington, DC)
Leslie/Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (New York City)
Mariners’ Museum (Newport News, Virginia)
Michael Rosenfeld Gallery (New York)
The Michele and Donald D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts (Springfield, Massachusetts)
Minneapolis Institute of Art (Minneapolis)
Museum of Modern Art (New York City)
National Academy Museum (New York City)
National Gallery of Art (Washington, DC)
National Portrait Gallery (Washington, DC)
Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (Kansas City, Missouri)
Norton Museum of Art (West Palm Beach, Florida)
Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (Philadelphia)
Philadelphia Museum of Art (Philadelphia)
Princeton University Art Museum (Princeton, New Jersey)
Sheldon Museum of Art (Lincoln, Nebraska)
Smith College Museum of Art (Northampton, Massachusetts)
Smithsonian American Art Museum (Washington, DC)
Tate Modern (London)
University of Richmond Museums (Richmond, Virginia)
Vincent Price Art Museum (Monterey Park, California)
Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (Richmond, Virginia)
Whitney Museum of American Art (New York City)
Worcester Art Museum (Worcester, Massachusetts)
256 pages, 21,5 x 28,5 cm, hardcover with dust-jacket, full color