Artist Jack Perlmutter helped NASA document the Space Age, founded the Corcoran’s printmaking department, and squared off against Clement Greenberg. And his plate is still full.
“Are you ready? Are you sure you’re ready?” asks Jack Perlmutter with a mischievous smile, acting as if we’re about to visit a secret garden hidden in his Adams Morgan row house. He swings open a door in his living room and walks through.
“Ta-daaaa!” he says proudly, his arms in the air, revealing a storage space filled with hundreds and hundreds of paintings, drawings, and lithographs. Pieces of his art are everywhere, stacked up against each other, loaded into floor-to-ceiling racks. Their vibrant colors shine the same way Perlmutter’s turquoise eyes glow against the milky palette of his skin. “You haven’t seen anything, kid,” he says in his New York accent, his tuft of a white mustache wiggling. “This is nothing!”
There are three more floors to go14 rooms, nearly a half-century’s worth of work. With each higher floor, there are more and more pieces, crowded into every bit of wall space, leaning in every corner. Even the coffee tables in Perlmutter’s living room are made of the carved wooden blocks he uses to make his prints, all fastened together and covered with glass. A cabinet by the front door is packed not with coats or shoes, but with paintings; more, maybe another hundred, are stacked in front of the bay windows. They’re everywhere. I soon realize that no matter how much time I spend at the house, there’s no way I’ll be able to see it all.
Appropriately enough, I’m meeting Perlmutter for a tour of his studio and home almost exactly 60 years after the event that indirectly made him an artist: the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Since then, the 80-year-old Perlmutter, whose work has been displayed in 135 museums worldwide, has built a career peppered with names such as Andy Warhol, Herblock, Richard Nixon, and NASA. Right now, a painting he did of the first space shuttle flight, which he attended in 1981, is touring the nation aboard a cross-country traveling museum called Artrain USA.
And to think: He was supposed to be a doctor.
Perlmutter was a Navy man working in Washington on Dec. 7, 1941, though he doesn’t much like to talk about those days. He was within weeks of taking leave to go to medical school when Pearl Harbor was attacked; after that, the Navy needed to keep him on, so he put his med-school plans on hold indefinitely.
During his off-duty hours, Perlmutter found escape by rediscovering his childhood interest in art. He had been introduced to lithography when he was 8 years old and living with his family in Coney Island, N.Y., a place whose lasting impression would later show up in his work: the cityscapes visible from the elevated subway, the beach and boardwalk that he especially treasured during the winter, when he could have them all to himself.
Perlmutter used to draw on the sidewalks of his neighborhood, where author Joseph Heller was a playmate. One day, a neighbor took an interest in Perlmutter’s handiwork and asked the boy’s mother if he could bring him into Manhattan to show him his lithography business. The young artist was especially entranced by the press. “My God, it looked like a Benjamin Franklin press,” Perlmutter remembers. “He said, ‘Do you want to ink it?’ and I was a kid, so I said, ‘Yeah!’ And I didn’t do so bad. After that, he took me out for a chocolate milkshake, and I went back there a couple times….That changed my life.”
Perlmutter later worked his way through New York University by painting signs for local businesses. He even struck a deal with the maintenance staff of one of the school’s buildings to paint signs such as “Boiler Room” and “Danger” in exchange for free lodging in the building’s labyrinthine basement. He took over a storage room, painted “High Voltage, Keep Out!” on the door, and lived rent-free for two-and-a-half years.
But Perlmutter’s art career really took off in the late ’50s, when he made his first lithograph and entered it in a print show sponsored by the Library of Congress. He’d printed it on construction paper with a $75 press. “The press was a toy, and the paper had no permanency, but it was the perfect textureand I got in!” he says, still with a certain disbelief. “My first print I ever made in my life, and they purchased it!” After that, he sent some of his work to a few local galleries and even got a piece into the Phillips Collection.
It was around this time that Perlmutter mentioned to someone at a partyhe can’t remember whomthat he would love to study printmaking from the Japanese masters. “In Washington, something happens, and you don’t know that someone you’re talking to has tremendous contacts,” Perlmutter says. “I didn’t know anything about grants, but someone said, ‘I do some work in one of the Fulbright offices. Why don’t I send you some information?’ So that was the beginning. If I’d’ve been anywhere else, it never would’ve happened.” Before long, Perlmutter was applying for, and winning, a Fulbright grant.
When Perlmutter came back from Japan, in 1960, he started teaching at the Corcoran School of Art, where he founded the museum’s printmaking department. The influential critic Clement Greenberg, who helped launch Jackson Pollock’s career, spent a lot of time at the Corcoran and knew Perlmutter and his work. In fact, he even tried to recruit Perlmutter for the much-buzzed-about Washington Color Painters, a group of area abstract artists then making a name for themselves. “This guy was the guru of the whole country, and these painters were doing great. He was getting them shows in major museums,” Perlmutter says.
“One made circles; one made stripes; one made the letter M as the letter W upside down, one made diagonals. The idea was that you made abstract forms and put the colors in that balance,” he says. But this approach was very different from Perlmutter’s style of painting: He was, and is, committed to making strong, recognizable images and scenes brought to life by a surprisingly bold palette, and he wasn’t about to change. “[Greenberg] asked if I was going to join, and I said, ‘No, I think I’ll do it my way,’” Perlmutter says. “And then he said, ‘I’m not talking to you anymore.’ And that was it.”
Even without Greenberg’s help, Perlmutter did OK. His pieces were selling in D.C. and in New York, and he managed to get his work into the most prestigious address in town. “I made this portrait of Nixon on wood-block that I thought they could use for a campaign poster, but they never did. I think his wife didn’t like his face,” Perlmutter says. “But [Nixon] bought the whole edition, and he gave it out to the senators or his staff. He wrote me out a couple things on the posters. I still have them.”
Perlmutter’s 1981 oil painting Flight of Columbia, one of the 78 works selected for the Artrain’s current “Artistry of Space” show from some 2,000 pieces in the NASA Arts Program collection, is a perfect example of what Perlmutter calls his “color abstractionism”: Against a sparkling sky, the shuttle Columbia bursts through a chain-link fence and the branches of a fruit-laden tree.
Visitors to the Artrain, which has been showing the exhibition across the Northeastern United States since 1999 and will be heading to the South and the West Coast beginning in January, have been especially drawn to Perlmutter’s work. “What’s striking about it is the amount of symbolism in the piece and the vibrant colorspeople really respond to that,” says Laura Drew, program director for Artrain. “Columbia is flying like a bird out of the top of this tree; it really shows that breakthrough in technology.”
To organize the show, Drew enlisted the help of James Dean, who founded the NASA Arts Program when he was working in the organization’s public affairs department in 1962. Dean had decided that it was important to find a way to chronicle the emotional aspect of the newly flourishing space program. “With photography, you could look at the facts of what was happening, but it was missing the excitementit was missing that electricity,” Dean says. “It occurred to us that an artist could capture both that excitement and the facts.”
NASA brought in a handful of artists beginning in 1963; it offered them an honorarium to pay for their expenses and gave them remarkable access to the grounds at Cape Canaveral. “We were able to get the artists into close-up places the night before the launch,” says Dean, who stayed with NASA until 1974 and was then a curator at the National Air and Space Museum until 1980. “We could get just outside the fenced-in area, and they could sit in the dark and see this thing on the pad and watch them put in the liquid oxygen, which would glow in the humid air. And they could hear the sounds of the launch pad, but they could also hear the night sounds of the tropical forests and the night birds by the pad. That was what made the experience for many of the artists: that juxtaposition of the primitive landscape alongside the leading edge of technology.”
“It was a very thrilling event,” says Perlmutter, who keeps his NASA security passes as souvenirs in a cigar box in his study. “I was a little awed by the whole thingnot a little, a lot. I…made a tremendous amount of sketches. I used to take pictures. I thought it was beautiful.”
The NASA program added to Perlmutter’s résumé and threw him in the mix with some big art-world names; participants included James Wyeth, Robert Rauschenberg, Norman Rockwell, and Andy Warhol, whose Moonwalk silkscreen became an MTV emblem.
Perlmutter met Warhol at an event at the Corcoran, and for a time, the two were friends. Whenever Warhol was in Washington, he and Perlmutter would grab pastrami sandwiches at their favorite E Street deli and talk about art.
“I was afraid to go out with him; a lot of people would recognize him,” Perlmutter laughs. “He was very quiet, very introspective. Was he smart? I don’t know, but, boy, was he creative. I had a tremendous amount of respect for him, for the way he combined printmaking and painting. He was so influential.” But eventually, Warhol stopped calling. “When he didn’t need me anymore, he didn’t need me,” Perlmutter says with a shrug.
These days, Perlmutter, who retired from the Corcoran in 1982, continues to paint, though serious back and leg problems make it hard for him to get around. He’s working on some pieces inspired by the events of Sept. 11 and says that he has more ideas swimming around in his head than he knows what to do with. Sure enough, when he takes me upstairs to the room where he does all his painting, on the easel is an almost-completed landscape, and on the floor are a few other works just waiting for finishing touches. He says he usually works on more than one piece at a time.
“He tells me that when he was younger, he used to stay up painting all night,” says Gloria Cole, a local collector who has been interested in Perlmutter’s work for the past 10 years. “I don’t know if he does that anymore, but I know that sometimes when he’s involved in something, he’ll forget to eat, and he won’t answer the phonehe just focuses.” Even though she owns about 20 of Perlmutter’s pieces, Cole still can’t get all of her questions answered: “He’ll never tell me what he was thinking when he was painting something. He just says the painting speaks for itself. Sometimes I think he talks to his paintings, and sometimes I think they talk back.”
Indeed, when I ask how he comes up with some of his ideas, how he chooses the colors, Perlmutter remains mum. “They just come. I don’t know, I don’t think. It just happens,” he says. “I knew Herblock of the Washington Post very well, and he said people would ask him, ‘How do you come up with that?’ And he would always say, ‘Jack, that’s my life. I keep in touch with politics, and I put it together. That’s all. I don’t think.’”
The recent death of the legendary political cartoonist was not easy for Perlmutter, who has lost many friends in the past few years. He says he considers himself somewhat of an isolationist. “Who’s in my inner circle now? Well, there’s El Greco. I like him a lot.”
Perlmutter’s wife, with whom he had two daughters, passed away many years ago. But he does have a roommate: He shares his row house with Jim Carrington, a formerly homeless poet and musician who came by five years ago asking if there were any work to do; before long, Perlmutter had taken him in, supplied him with a steady stream of odd jobs around his studio, and set up a cot for him in the roomy basement amid the paintings, stacks of paper, empty frames, and lithography supplies. A photo of Carrington even hangs near the front door, opposite a self-portrait of a Jerry Garcia-like Perlmutter from his hippie period.
Nowadays, you need an appointment to get through that front door. But until a few years ago, art collectors, gallery owners, and friends were invited to stop by each December for Perlmutter’s open house, during which the doorbell never stopped ringing and people squeezed inside, inching their way around to see all the works on display.
Neither Perlmutter’s age nor his health is to blame for the suspension of the annual event. “You want to know what ruined me?” he asks in a vaudevillian way. “You would never believe it. Are you ready?
“You’re asking; I’m telling: It was parking. I’m serious. It was the parking. All of these houses are apartments now. So then I’d have my open house, where there were so many people you couldn’t get into the place, and all of a sudden people started saying, ‘Jack, I rode around the neighborhood and couldn’t find parking.’ So little by little, I had to cut it out. I became a much better painter, I became a much better printmaker, but then they couldn’t find parking. That’s a true story. Can you believe it?” CP