Artist, Printmaker Jack Perlmutter, 86

Jack and Norma Perlmutter work in the basement print shop of their D.C. home, from which they operated a greeting-card business.
Jack and Norma Perlmutter work in the basement print shop of their D.C. home, from which they operated a greeting-card business. (1956 Photo By The Washington Post)
By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 14, 2006

Jack Perlmutter, 86, a Washington artist who portrayed vibrant scenes of action and movement in his semi-abstract paintings and prints, died May 4 at Suburban Hospital. A longtime District resident, he had lived for the past three years at Maplewood Park Place retirement home in Bethesda.

Mr. Perlmutter, who was self-taught, was one of Washington's best-known artists from the 1940s to the 1980s. Born in New York, he had a love of urban life, which was reflected in his bold, energetic and colorful works.

In the 1950s, he called himself an abstract realist, as he combined two seemingly irreconcilable artistic styles. His works were typically built around recognizable urban scenes, such as railroad tracks, milling crowds, buildings or bridges, overlaid with busy linear forms, often in bright colors.

"The paintings are full of raw color and jagged lines," Washington Post critic Leslie Judd Portner wrote in 1956. "They are so complex in their organization, so overbusy, that they hit the eye like broken glass. And yet you feel the artist's excitement, his love of the rawness, the newness, the beautiful, exciting, crushing city."

A yearlong visit to Japan as a Fulbright scholar in 1959-60 introduced Mr. Perlmutter to new printmaking techniques, and he began to incorporate elements of Japanese design into his work.

He taught printmaking at the Corcoran College of Art and Design from 1960 to 1982, and he was commissioned by NASA to portray Apollo and space shuttle missions in the 1970s and 1980s. His work can be found in dozens of museums, including the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Phillips Collection, the Corcoran Gallery of Art and New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Mr. Perlmutter was born in New York on Jan. 23, 1920, grew up in the Bronx and had an early interest in art, but other facts of his life appear to have been embellished with a touch of artistic license.

In his résumé, Mr. Perlmutter said he had master's and doctoral degrees in fine arts. He told one reporter that he worked his way through New York University, planning to be a doctor. One article claimed that he was a close friend of Andy Warhol's and that the influential art critic Clement Greenberg would not speak with Mr. Perlmutter after he refused to join the popular Washington Color School of painting in the early 1960s.

As far as can be determined, all of these statements are false.

According to his daughters and Washington Post stories from the 1950s, Mr. Perlmutter moved to Washington no later than 1940 and took a job in the Navy's Hydrographic Office -- now the Naval Oceanographic Office -- as a lithographer. He learned the complicated art of lithography by drawing and printing nautical charts. He never attended college.

He enlisted in the Navy during World War II and stayed in Washington, working at the Hydrographic Office. In 1947, when some of his prints were displayed at the Anacostia branch of the D.C. Public Library, a Washington Post article said he "has been painting and exhibiting in Washington for about six years." At the peak of his career in the 1950s and 1960s, he was represented by galleries in New York, Washington, Japan and Europe.

Mr. Perlmutter continued to work as a civilian with the Navy until 1959, when he went to Japan on a Fulbright scholarship to study printmaking and to lecture on American art. From 1951 to 1968, he was on the faculty of the old Wilson Teachers College in the District, and he also served as an art curator at the Cosmos Club. He often walked around the city, taking photographs -- which he developed himself -- of urban scenes for his paintings and prints.

His wife, Norma Mazo Perlmutter, was also an artist, and for several years in the 1950s they operated a greeting-card business from the basement of their home, designing and printing the cards themselves. His wife suggested the "Studio Days" open houses, for which Mr. Perlmutter became known later in his career.

Their daughters said she also co-wrote some of the articles that appeared under her husband's name in art journals. They were divorced in 1994, after 51 years of marriage. Norma Perlmutter died in 2001.

Survivors include two daughters, Judith Means of Bethesda and Ellen Mazo of Pittsburgh; and two grandsons.

A 1956 Washington Post article described Mr. Perlmutter as "a man of tremendous vitality, with the kind of alert, inquiring mind that extends the frontiers of the creative process," and he remained an active artist well into his eighties. When he vacated his townhouse three years ago, he donated dozens of his works to Hood College in Frederick, the Washington County Museum of Art in Hagerstown, Md., St. John's College in Annapolis and the Cosmos Club.

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