Michael Schreiber's journey into renowned gay artist Bernard Perlin's ( 1918-2014 ) life started with a fan letter and that blossomed into his current role as curator of Perlin's estate. He's also the author of One-Man Show: The Life and Art of Bernard Perlin.
Schreiber grew up in Fargo, North Dakota, and graduated from Minnesota State University-Moorhead with a degree in American studies. He received his master's degree in film history from New York University in Manhattan and for the past 20 years has called Chicago his home.
"For the past 18 years, I have been the private teacher of an amazing young man with autism," said Schreiber. "I also work as a play therapist with other children and young adults with special needs."
Schreiber first discovered Perlin and his artwork through his interest in the gay social and artistic circles of the legendary photographer George Platt Lynes.
"Bernard was an intimate member of this great New York gay 'cabal,' as he called it, whose members and visitors included such artists as Paul Cadmus, Jared French, George Tooker and Pavel Tchelitchew, the impresario Lincoln Kirstein and such literary figures as Glenway Wescott, E. M. Forster, Somerset Maugham and Christopher Isherwood," said Schreiber. "He was the last living member of this extraordinary company so I screwed up my courage and sent him a 'fan letter.'"
Schreiber explained that Perlin called him after receiving the fan letter and they communicated via phone for awhile. That led to Schreiber visiting Perlin's home in Connecticut in 2011 ( when Perlin was 92 ) where they had, as Schreiber related, a drunken all-night conversation on a myriad of topics. They struck up a friendship and from there Schreiber's book was born.
When asked how he would describe Perlin to someone who doesn't know of him or his work, Schreiber explained that Perlin is best known for his iconic work as a World War II propaganda artist for the United States government and war artist-correspondent for Life magazine. Schreiber noted that along with his war work, Perlin was a social realist and magic realist painter.
"Over his 80 years as a working artist, he rejected all labels except for one: that of 'gay artist,'" said Schreiber. "His most famous painting, Orthodox Boys ( 1948 ), depicts two Jewish boys standing warily on a subway platform under an intimidating wall of graffiti and references the Holocaust and continuing postwar prejudices of all kinds on the American home front. It's a pretty timely subject even today. Bernard also moved in extraordinary social circles in the arts, counting amongst his most intimate friends such legendary figures as Vincent Price, Leonard Bernstein, Arthur Laurents, Jerome Robbins, Samuel Barber, Gian Carlo Menotti, Aaron Copland, Martha Gellhorn, Carson McCullers and Truman Capote."
Schreiber said that what stood out to him the most about Perlin was that he was a fearlessly openly gay man during a time when that wasn't the case for many LGBT people. Of the many stories Perlin related to Schreiber was the day he went into a department store in Nazi-occupied Danzig in 1938 that had a sign stating 'no Jews allowed' and bought a pair of Hitler Youth shorts and then walked around in them as a young Jewish gay man. Schreiber noted that Perlin was arrested in a Parisian bathhouse in 1951 and later in Key West, Florida and Virginia for "behavior against public decency."
The intention for his Perlin book, Schreiber said, was "to give this extraordinary, unheralded artist and gay figure his due in art and LGBTQ cultural history, but I didn't start off with such a lofty goal in mind. Without realizing I was starting a book, One Man Show began after my first weekend visit with Bernard, when I transcribed my audio recordings of our first long conversations about his life and art. I sent these transcripts to Bernard, who enjoyed them so much that he encouraged me to keep recording our talks. It just grew from there. Initially, I only thought that perhaps this would lead to some sort of 'oral history' project about Bernard's life and artistic career. But there was always the nagging question of what to do about his tremendous 'visual history,' especially as I began to discover more and more of his incredible artwork. A book started to seem like an inevitability."
Instead of a narrative format, Schreiber explained that he decided to publish the book as a Q&A because Perlin was a captivating storyteller who could tell his own life story. Schreiber noted that when he was in Perlin's presence he felt privileged to be there because it was like witnessing a one-man stage show, hence the title of the book. He said the writing process was an interactive experience and Perlin told him that he loved the format of the book calling it "more real and honest and less pretentions" than the "monologuing" he was doing with his own essays.
"Upon his passing three years later, I was amazed and deeply honored to learn that Bernard had entrusted me with his artistic legacy," said Schreiber. "As his appointed curator, I am overseeing the distribution of the remaining artwork in the estate collection to museums and private collections, and am also cataloguing Bernard's papers. I also handle various rights requests and have co-curated several exhibitions of Bernard's artwork, including shows in New York, Missouri and most recently a retrospective exhibition of his drawings at the Harnett Museum of Art in his hometown of Richmond, Virginia. More shows are in the works, as is a documentary film adaptation of One-Man Show. It's all been such a crazy, unexpected, wonderful journey and it just continues."
Schreiber noted that of the many works that Perlin created, his favorite is The Shore ( 1953 ) which depicts a young man in a rowboat suspended on a transparent lake over a bed of pebbles. He said he also loves Perlin's Night Pictures which is a series of paintings of the swinging "cocktail culture" of the 1950s New York City jazz clubs, street dances and underground gay bars and includes The Bar ( 1957 ) which is in the Smithsonian American Art Museum collection and is the cover image for the book.
"For me, Bernard was an incredible example of a fellow gay man who had the courage to fully embrace and live his own life in his own way, without apology, to the very end," said Schreiber. "And what a rich long life of incredible explorations, experiences, creativity and connections he had. One-Man Show is filled with delicious name-dropping gay gossip, of course, but none of the juicy tales Bernard tells about any of his famous friends can truly rival his own astounding story."
As for what he likes to do for fun, Schreiber said he channels all of his energy into restoring/updating the rural Iowa Frank Lloyd Wright-designated house that he owns with his husband Jason.
"When we're not stripping paint off of old woodwork and bricks or hacking away at our backyard jungle, we try to keep up with chronicling our adventures as 'gay pioneers' on our blog, thisamericanhouse.com/,&; said Schreiber.
Schreiber will be doing a Q&A and book-signing at Unabridged Books in Lakeview on Wed., Nov. 16, 7-8:30 p.m. See www.facebook.com/events/1857848831114441/ for more information .