Bold, and teetering on the edge of too much: Moses Pearl


Anyone who has tried painting in watercolor at all—let alone painting complex urban landscapes crawling with dozens of figures–will appreciate the work of the late artist and Cleveland public school teacher Moses Pearl. A recent exhibit of his work at the Artists Archives of the Western revealed an artist who used watercolor, not with pallid delicacy, but with the force and fearlessness usually associated with oil painting at its finest. His designs are bold, his colors deeply saturated, and his level of detail sometimes mind-numbing.


Moses Pearl, Flats Looking West, watercolor.

Moses Pearl, Flats Looking West, watercolor.

Moses Pearl was a native Clevelander who studied at the Cleveland School of Art (Cleveland Institute of Art) after WWII, and then at Kent State where he earned a degree as an art educator. During his student years, and as a professional painter, he rubbed shoulders with the region’s most talented watercolorists of the period, including Frank Wilcox, Viktor Schreckengost, and Paul Travis. Although their significant influences rubbed off, Pearl was an artist of independent vision with an expansive, enthusiastic approach to the watercolor medium.


The opening of his AAWR show was a testament to his legacy as an influential teacher: the gallery was absolutely clogged with his former students from three decades teaching in Cleveland Public Schools—specifically at South High School.


Pearl’s exciting paintings of Cleveland—its bridges and ships, its lake, river, and tumble-down frame houses and ethnic neighborhoods–show why he was such a beloved instructor. He was engaged with his environment, and made paintings reflecting his passion for life’s messy complexities and humorous moments. He channeled his love of these subjects with a kind of Baroque vigor. Indeed, “Baroque” is an apt term for the way Pearl conceived his paintings—often sweeping panoramic views with incredible detail on large sheets of paper. Interestingly, while Pearl was inspired by nature and worked outside to record the raw material for his paintings, he almost always finished them in the studio. I think this combination of on-site documentation with fantasy/memory gives his work a very different character than that of many of his contemporaries. It’s more surreal than mere transcription, and to me, that’s more interesting.


The artist’s son, Arnie Pearl, noted in the show’s catalog that his dad really liked the busy energy of Red Grooms’ work, wherein casts of hundreds go about their business. Certainly Pearl’s paintings share this similarity, and in a marvelous painting of a couple talking in a parked car (The Conversation, circa 1959, collection of AAWR) Pearl gives full rein to vignettes: the dog with more interest in a fire hydrant than a cat; or a stack of birdhouses outside a clutch of row houses which look just like them. But to my eye Pearl’s paintings push past caricature (which I’m not sure Grooms’ work really does) and become intensely concerned with painterly issues.

Pearl’s vertical composition of the Cleveland Flats Looking West (Courtesy of the Bonfoey Gallery) provides a marvelous case in point for his painterly approach. Pearl conceived this painting to be read from the bottom to top along the shining crooked river and all of its traffic, into the glorious blustery sky where a plane is disappearing behind a cloud. Proceeding from foreground to background, he shifts gradually from fine-pointed brushes to broader, flatter ones. This produces a shift from tighter, academic rendering in the roofs and ships closest to the viewer, to increasingly abstract forms in the distant landscape and sky. This patchy, quasi-Cubist approach in the background has stylistic affinities with Schreckengost’s cityscapes of the same period. (There seems to have been some cross-fertilization going on here. According to the artist’s son Arnie, Viktor deeply admired Pearl’s work, and told him that he was indeed fortunate in having found his artistic niche.)


Pearl’s riveting sky, with its sun and concentric aureoles, has debts to William Sommer and August Biehle, for whom this watercolor treatment of celestial motifs became a near-trademark. In the foreground where the tankers are moored, Pearl developed deep shadows beneath the vessels by painting deep blue paint on wet paper so that the color bled fluidly. Pearl would have mastered this technique under Frank Wilcox, who used it to great effect in his own work. He would also have seen the same technique on grand display in the sumptuous African watercolors of Paul Travis, which contrast sopping wet passages of paint with dry brush strokes nearby. Pearl was keenly aware that to create a great image in watercolor, you needed passages of crispness and clarity, but also mysterious passages of muddiness. Perhaps to call attention to that brilliant watery passage in the river in the right foreground (he had to know it was a tour-de-force), Pearl placed his signature there. But true to form, he also gilded the lily with a mirror reflection of his signature just beneath it, in the waters of the Cuyahoga.


Moses Pearl's watercolor signature, reflected in the waters of the Cuyahoga

Moses Pearl’s watercolor signature, reflected in the waters of the Cuyahoga

Moses Pearl’s arsenal of watercolor techniques was vast, but his status as a remarkable painter was sealed by his insistence upon finishing his paintings. He fearlessly pushed them all the way to completion—which meant he was willing to ruin them in the interest of getting the ultimate painting out of his effort. In this manner he was the opposite of William Sommer, who didn’t bother to finish a painting when he lost interest in it. The truth is, it’s really hard to finish a painting because there’s always a point in the “making” process where you begin to mess it up. The more complex a painting becomes, the greater the risk of ruin. For Moses Pearl, teetering on the edge of a painting’s failure was doubtless a big attraction to his art. Were his paintings sometimes overwrought? Sure. But by forcing himself to finish, he ended up with a much more substantial body of work than lots of painters who didn’t give it everything they had.