His rosy skin, his friendly voice, his happy calm surprises, for in his numberless self-portraits the face of Raphael Soyer is almost always greenish, serious, wan and gaunt.
"They look pretty good," he says. He walks from room to room, looking at the Soyers from the 1920s, the '40s, and '50s, the '60s and the '70s, hanging on the walls. "Pretty good," he says again. He starts, then stops, a smile. His cheeriness seems to contradict the alienated wishfulness that somehow haunts his art.
His little retrospective, which goes on view today at the Hershhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, is called "A Birthday Celebration," but last night's party held there was a bit premature. He will not became 80 until Christmas day.
"Can you believe he's almost 80?" asked actress Maureen Stapleton. "I used to work for him. That was in 1945 and he has hardly changed. He painted and I posed -- for a buck an hour."
"I am lucky," Soyer says. "Some artists seem to flare. They need short lives to fulfill themselves -- but I'm not one of them. I am one of those guys who need a long life. The longer the better. I still paint every day." g
For a monent he was quiet. "There was a time, some years ago, when my work alarmed me: It had become pedestrian." Again he looked around the room at the portraits of his colleagues, his family, his friends. Of the paintings on display there, the finest are the newest. "They're not youthful, they're not innocent. But they're honest," Soyer says.
His pictures, it was agreed last night, have improved with the years. "It's the Iitian syndrome," said painter Joe Shannon. "The more you do the better you get."
Painter Mervin Jules, immediately recognizable from the handsome portrait which Soyer made last August, said "Posing for Raphael is always very pleasant. There's no stiffness. We talk about art. He came by every morning to work on the picture. My 6-year-old grandson J.J. was visiting and staying in the studio. One day he told Soyer, 'You're doing a good job.' Soyer liked that. A few weeks later J.J. said, 'Hey, you're getting better.' Raphael liked that more."
Raphael Soyer's portraits are wholly unpretentious. A Raphael he's not. His line is rarely graceful, his colors rarely sweet. Soyer does not prettify, he does not idealize. Soyer's art is straight.
In the last years of the 1950s, abstract art swept by him and his paintings did not change. He kept on painting people, people famous and unknown, rich and poor and old and young, partying or reading or walking on the street.
"If non-representationalism is the only art of our time," says Soyer, "I'd rather not belong, artistically, to our time.
Soyer is a twin. His painter brother, Moses, died some years ago. "Moses was outgoing. He brought the first friends to the house. He brought the first girls to the house. I was the more timid. There was, to tell the truth, much rivalry between us. People saw within our work a family likeness which we both sought to destroy. As soon as we were able we went to different schools. We worked in different studios. But there was a closeness between us. At times I'd have a thought, and I'd call him up, and he'd say he'd had the same one -- which always impressed me. He was the only person I would speak Russian to. We'd agree upon an hour, and call up every day, and speak Russian for a while. He was the more proficient painter. But my work may be deeper.All Russians are psychologists. I reach into the psyche of my subjects deeper than did he."
Most of Raphael Soyer's drawn and painted portraits here -- of Edward Hopper, Edwin Dickinson, Lloyd Goodrich, Jack Levine -- have about them something tentative and intimate. Before a Soyer portrait we know, but do not wholly know, the people that we see.
"My poitics were left during the Depression, but I would not paint the usual -- heroic workers struggling, fat capitalists in top hats. It was not like that then. The unemployed just sat there. They did nothing, they just sat there. Occasionally they yawned. In one picture from those days I portrayed myself among them. I am yawning, too."
The young women Soyer paints are beautiful, not beautified. "That one in the green sweater was once married to Claes Oldenburg. The one beside her was a jeweler. We worked in the same building in New York on Lincoln Square. They tore it down in 1959 to build Lincoln Center. This is a picture of the dispossesed," Raphael Soyer said.
Between the women in the picture, a small man with dark eyes is staring at the viewer. It is Soyer looking sad. His hand is raised as if he's waving goodbye.
Soyer is 5-foot-2. Rebecca, his wife of 48 years, is a little taller." "I used to be 5-foot-4," she says. "Now I'm 5-foot-3. You shrink as you grow older."
The birthday cake, though large, was not large enough for 80 birthday candles. There were only 10. The crowd sang "Happy Birthday" and Raphael blew the candles out with a single breath.
A well-wisher asks Soyer how he plans to celebrate his 80th on Christmas.
"I'd prefer not to," Soyer says.