As they emerged from the Fort Pitt Tunnels, the painter Robert Qualters asked his far more famous colleague Edward Hopper whether the view would be “good to paint.”
The tiny aperture of the tunnel had suddenly expanded to a panorama showing the curving arches of the bridge, the skyscrapers set back from Point State Park and the hills forming a horizon in every direction. It was near sunset. A dying burst of yellow light reflecting off the city produced an orange and red sky scattered with faint blue clouds.
It was the mid-1990s, and Qualters was decades into a career that would make him the most recognizable and admired artist of his generation in Pittsburgh. Certainly, he knew what made for a good composition. It was a leading question. He was proving a point.
It’s the same point Vicky A. Clark proves in Robert Qualters: Autobiographical Mythologies (University of Pittsburgh Press), the first book-length examination of the artist. The independent curator believes Qualters has been unfairly relegated to the status of “regional” artist because he painted scenes of life in western Pennsylvania during a time when the region was struggling hard to shed its reputation as a smoky industrial center. “These two factors — the enduring image of Pittsburgh as Steel City and Robert Qualters as local artist — combined to stereotype the artist and his work, leading many to overlook his bravura brushstroke and masterful handling of color as well as the content of his work, which went way beyond the idea of illustrating or recording the city and its history,” she writes in her introduction. “He is definitely a part of these ideas, but he also moved beyond them, even while painting the transformation of the city.”
To elevate Qualters, Clark often speaks to a national audience, but her goal is much bigger than rescuing Qualters from the irrelevance of “regionalism.” She wants to redeem the label. As in Popular Salon of the People, her earlier book about the Associated Artists of Pittsburgh, Clark argues that the relationship between an artist and a region is special, because it speaks to how people live their lives: close to home. Qualters tells her, “Whatever uniqueness I have is because I’m in Pittsburgh and not part of a movement.”
Clark also curated an accompanying retrospective of Qualters at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. The exhibit documents what might be the deepest relationship between an artist and this region — certainly between a painter and the region. A recurring theme of Pittsburgh art has always been fascination — with the topography, with the cityscape, with the industry, with the people, with the history — but fascination is fickle, and many artists abandon Pittsburgh for other places or other styles when the city becomes too familiar or too evasive. The book and the exhibit illustrate what is gained and what is lost when a representational artist stays put in this region, but moves beyond fascination.
In reality, Hopper died in 1967, but in Edward Hopper was Driving, the print Qualters made in 1997 to document the fantasy, Hopper tells Qualters, “Anything will make for a good composition.” He was remembering all those diners and lobbies and offices he had painted in glamorous and vertical New York City. “The artist’s sympathy with the particular and his understanding of light and space will determine the choice of subjects.”
The day after Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev died, in November 1982, Qualters climbed Sarah Street in Homestead to consider a different panorama. He could see a tall purple house rising beside an empty lot, power lines crisscrossing in every direction, beat-up cars parked beside the brick storefronts of Eighth Avenue below, green hills across the river turning to autumn reds and the marbled sky glowing in purples and oranges.
The view is less grand than the panorama of downtown, but more representative of the region. Similarly unexpected and dramatic views lay in wait all over the place. You’ll be walking some way you’ve walked a thousand times before when conditions suddenly reveal tremendous beauty in a familiar scene. The next day, it’ll be gone. For more than two centuries, painters have been searching for the specific combination of geometry, depth, light, color, nature and architecture that will capture the disorienting and fleeting quality of these views. Qualters succeeded by adding two factors: memory and history.
A neighborhood character known as “Ken the Railroad Man” came up Sarah Street wearing a blue baseball cap, thick glasses and a scruffy orange beard. He glanced at Qualters. A few other people headed here and there, but mostly the streets were empty.
Off to his left, Qualters could see the Mesta Machine Company. He recalled the time Nikita Khrushchev toured the storied manufacturing powerhouse in the late 1950s, an era when world ambassadors occasionally came to Pittsburgh. “One of the workers shouted at him in Russian,” Qualters remembered. “Kruschev gave the man his wristwatch.”
The scene feels like the weigh-in before a boxing match: the proud immigrant worker and the leader of the global superpower playfully taunting each other while their respective nations plot mutual annihilation. On the same visit across this country, Khrushchev ominously predicted the death of the American steel industry at the hands of the Soviets.
Qualters started up the hill. What world leader would think to visit Homestead in November 1982, with Mesta on the verge of bankruptcy? Who, in the late 1950s, would have expected to fatal blow to come from those crippled enemies across the Pacific?
Another view leapt out at Qualters. It was a simple yet radiant scene. A chain link fence gave way to the zigzagging handrail of a set of concrete steps. The steps descended toward two rows of houses leading to four smokeless smokestacks. Autumn leaves blew everywhere, covering the ground and filling the sky. “Now the mills are quiet,” Qualters thought, “the Japanese, instead of the Russians as Kruschev predicted, are burying us.”
Kids clustered in groups on the sidewalks and chugged up the hills on their bikes, and Qualters remembered his childhood in McKeesport and Clairton during the Great Depression and World War II and the first Renaissance. “No more high school P.O.I.D. classes for young steelworkers,” he scribbled at the bottom of Homestead, his painting of the two panoramas later that year. “These kids will study Fortran and Pac-Man and see the decaying mills as interesting examples of three-dimensional abstract form.”
All those stories from an empty street. Was that what Hopper meant when he spoke of having “sympathy with the particular”? Or was he referring to the giant pink rabbit Qualters envisioned as he stared at the same vacant smokestacks on a rainy day in 1994?
He stood closer to the mill this time. The neighborhood was still lightly populated, but it no longer felt empty. Instead of words, rainy brushstrokes told the story. Sharp white streaks pelted the street. They gathered in vibrant puddles. They drowned the hills in waves of blue and purple and green, and melted the sky into yellow and pink. They liquefied the light from the streetlamps, and the fire escapes, and the brick smokestacks.
The rain obscured two central images: the translucent pink rabbit in the middle of the street, and, hidden beneath the smokestacks, two yellow backhoes combing through the rubble of the Homestead Steel Works. Each was as unnerving and hopeful as the other.
By the time Qualters and Hopper crossed the Fort Pitt Bridge, Fortran was obsolete, Pac-Man was a novelty game and the mills along the river in Homestead were being turned into The Waterfront, an epic shopping center. The smokestacks would adorn a steakhouse. The hills were the same as before, though, and so was the dying light, and the way the leaves swirled each November. “Speaking of light, you’d better turn yours on,” Qualters told Hopper, “and do you think this cityview would be good to paint or not?”
The question silenced Hopper. Qualters remembered something Josephine Hopper once said about her husband, how talking to him could be “like dropping a stone in a well.”
Qualters first gained self-awareness when he looked out his bedroom window and saw his reflection superimposed on the world. The centerpiece of Autobiographical Mythologies is a long chapter called “Looking Out, Looking In,” where Clark shows this theme recurring through Qualters’ entire body of work. Such fantasies and memories are why she credits him with going “way beyond” mere illustration or documentation.
Qualters grew up amid transitions. Born between the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boom, he arrived at the Carnegie Institute of Technology in 1951, when many of its most admired art professors had already retired. He studied under Robert Lepper, though, and took part in the legendary Oakland Project, where students used exterior details of the neighborhood to imagine the lives of the people who lived there. There were also stylistic transitions underway. While stationed in England with the U.S. Army, Qualters toured the great museums of Europe studying the works of the Old Masters. Back home, he enjoyed the infamous pair of Carnegie International exhibitions from the early 1950s, when Pittsburgh got its first gulp of abstract art and promptly spit it all over the place.
After Carnegie Tech, Qualters studied under Richard Diebenkorn in California and floated briefly in the currents of the Bay Area Figurative movement, which responded to abstract expressionism by simplifying the recognizable world to form and color. The movement aimed to capture the psychic feeling of a given moment as simply as possible.
Qualters carried all these ideas to Pittsburgh in the late 1960s, but it took him a while to synthesize them with his home. In a city of views, he found a toehold in modest subjects — five-and-dimes, bakeries, shoe repair shops, bus stations, department stores and intersections. To capture the feeling of the city, he arranged these simple settings into striking visual compositions, and scribbled thoughts or quoted poetry in the margins.
The two panels of Homestead allow viewers to move through the neighborhood, the words create a bond between the narrator and the reader, and the colors are far more impressionistic than they initially appear. Together, these techniques reveal the uncertainty and change present in the everyday scene. That’s the essence of sympathy.
By the time Qualters painted A Rainy Day in Homestead, the physical details had given way to emotional details. In Homestead, Qualters took time to paint every link in a chain link fence, as well as the five exposed bricks at its base. He painted the awnings, and the roof tiles, and the white lines of the crosswalks. You can go to Sarah Street today and see the purple house. The setting of A Rainy Day in Homestead is familiar without being recognizable. Instead, Qualters devotes his attention to the overlapping brushstrokes and colors. His sympathy grew much deeper when he moved beyond fascination, but his paintings became less evocative and more expressive. Homestead is best viewed from a few inches away; A Rainy Day in Homestead is best viewed from a few paces away.
Qualters reused the setting in 1997 for Masters of Rain. This time Vincent Van Gogh in a Pirates cap held the spot occupied by the pink rabbit. The print established a lineage: Qualters was building on Van Gogh’s homage of an Ando Hiroshige print. The smokestacks and the fire escapes and the power lines are still visible in the background, but the rain falls so heavily in streaks of yellow and orange, and needles of black and white, that it seems at first like abstraction. The techniques obscure the view of the city.
The increasing busyness of Qualters’ paintings — Clark calls it horror vacui, or fear of emptiness — must come in part from longevity. A flat city can change horizontally and a rich city can change vertically, but a hilly city of booms and busts stays consistent over time. The longer Qualters lived, and stayed put, the more his memories and fantasies accumulated on his favorite haunts, and as they accumulated his art became increasingly personal, until what Hopper called “the particular” became exclusive to his experience.
As Clark notes, the defining feature of Qualters’ work for the past fifteen years has been the grid. It obscures a surrealistic image in Orangutan Dreams from 1999, it fragments an impressionistic scene in Antler Way in 2009 and it segments several later self-portraits, particularly A Life in 2012. Visually, a grid divides. By carving up an image, the grid allows one thing to also be many smaller things; the city can now host unending memories and fantasies. A grid also separates from the viewer from the scene, though.
Over the years, Qualters has increasingly placed barriers between what he sees when he “looks out” at the city and what he sees when he “looks in” at his life. The earlier paintings feel like watching a parade with a friend. The later paintings can feel like peeping through a window. They might be more honest for being more personal, but like any foreign place they require a guide. Clark greatly succeeds in this regard, but it is hard not to crave the works where Qualters’ fascination and sympathy are perfectly balanced.
In 1994, the year of A Rainy Day in Homestead, Qualters painted the view from his studio at Eighth Avenue and Ann Street in Homestead. He saw rooftops fading into the distance and bundled pedestrians crossing the street, but he also saw unseen things.
The Old Men’s Dreams shows creatures swarming a snowy night. Boxy monsters bounding down Eighth Avenue pass screaming birds and smirking demons and ghostly faces in the neighborhood facades as they climb to the roof, where shadowy men furiously paint everything they can see and everything they can remember. The night is dim, but wild. No brushstroke or color survives more than a few inches before being overtaken.
Early on, Qualters captured scenes, but this painting started with a childhood fever dream, according to Clark, and grew to incorporate a lifetime of memories and fantasies. “He has talked about what he calls ‘the importance disease,’” she writes. “If he tries to make an important work, he generally fails, but if he starts with a small idea and builds from there, and especially if he struggles in the process, he generally completes something that is meaningful for him. This piece, more complicated than almost all of his work, took time and effort to finish and thus becomes important in the process.”
When the Dutch master Pieter Breughel visited Homestead in 1997, several centuries after his death, Qualters showed him the view. Breughel opened his easel. It was a quiet afternoon, but the monsters must have sensed a painter nearby because they quickly emerged. Nude women spilled from the sky. A man on the sidewalk toted a fiery erection larger than his body. Flying fish appeared, as did smiling little catlike beasts, a disembodied vagina, a floating penis, and many tongues. A mustachioed worm slithered down Eighth Avenue proclaiming, “Taxes. Taxes. I’ll cut taxes.” The monsters were even wilder than before, but Breughel was older than Qualters. He had more memories.
A red bird with one green wing swooped past the easel, “What’s it supposed to be?” it cackled. “I liked your other work much better. It won’t sell.” As a final insult, the bird crapped on a stunned pink figure standing outside the bank. Impassively, Breughel painted the bird, and the figure, and the crap. Qualters leaned in to study the canvas. “Even the great Breughel sometimes had to hear such dreck,” he thought, as he grabbed a pen and paper to draw the master at work. “That’s where the monsters come from.”
Even the Great Brueghel appears in the retrospective in fragments. In a collaboration from 2000, the photographer Mark Perrott snapped a portrait of Qualters, and Qualters decorated it in paint and collage. He scribbled a tale about flying paper airplanes from the top of the USX Tower with Marcel Duchamp. “Dada is a way to get free,” Duchamp told him, “a sort of nihilism.” Qualters told Duchamp, “James Ensor told me: ‘Never surrender to good taste. Disdain ideals of design and composition. Jam every inch of the surface with gross and vulgar images.’” And then, Qualters punned, “I do do that.”
As proof, he dissected Even the Great Brueghel. He pasted Breughel’s face on one side and the tax-cutting worm on the other. Qualters sits between the master and the critic.
It must have been liberating because Qualters further cannibalized the print in 2011, as he compiled a preliminary sketch for an autobiographical painting called A Life. The autobiography takes the form of a grid, which allowed him to remove images from their original context and use them as symbols. Breughel’s hand holding the paintbrush became the discovery of his artistic abilities. The giant red penis floating over Homestead became his youthful vitality and the glowing vagina became his desire. A pair of pink figures holding hands behind the bakery became Qualters and his late wife. The stunned pink man dotted in bird crap became Qualters after her death. The steps to the bank occupied the next to last frame. They were death, which would come when it came.
In the empty frames, including the last one, Qualters added blowing leaves, just like the ones covering Homestead the day after Brezhnev died. Like before, they mark passing time, but they also mark the distance between looking out and looking in, between what Qualters can see and what he can picture. The familiar city is nowhere to be found is in this painting, unless you first go through the entire retrospective chronologically, in which case you’ll see the city all over it, and all under it, and behind every brushstroke.