Qualters exhibit offers unique look at Pittsburgh
At the moment, there is perhaps no testament greater to an artistic life well-lived than the exhibit “Robert Qualters: A Life,” on display at Pittsburgh Center for the Arts.
Qualters, who was born in McKeesport and grew up Clairton, lives in Squirrel Hill. He will turn 80 on March 13, the night of a book-launch party for “Robert Qualters: Autobiographical Mythologies” (University of Pittsburgh Press, $29.95), written by Vicky A. Clark, who also organized the exhibit of 64 works that fill the first floor of the center.
A retrospective exhibit spanning more than four decades of the artist's career, the earliest piece on display is a small, colored etching done in 1969, titled “Steam Plant.” Highly detailed, given its tiny size, it's a telling work. A good start to an exhibit that showcases, above all else, the evolution of the artist's work as it changed from mere pictorial representation to the more loose interpretations of Pittsburgh's gritty urban sprawl that Qualters has come to be known for.
“The show is a combination of retrospective and greatest hits,” he says.
Some of those greatest hits include the paintings “Persephone” (2011), “A Rainy Day in Homestead” (1994) and “City-County Building” (1988). Each quintessential canvas is jam-packed with intense colors and exquisite details. So much so that, especially with the latter piece, Qualters bends the rules of perspective just to get it all in.
“The perspective is not correct in that painting, deliberately not,” he says. “You couldn't see both sides with as much detail as the way I painted them if you were just looking through the single eye of a camera. It's a composite view, really.”
A massive work, “City-County Building” affords a near-180-degree view of the interior of one of Qualters' favorite Pittsburgh buildings.
“I've always liked that space very much,” he says of the building that was designed in the neoclassical, Beaux-Arts style by Carnegie Tech Department of Architecture founder Henry Hornbostel (1867-1961) and opened in 1917.
“First, I like that space. That's a great interior space,” Qualters says. “Secondly, I must have been there one day when the light was coming in through those great, tall windows from the upper right. It just lit up the interior so well.”
Spaces and places are what Qualters' works are all about, specifically Pittsburgh places. “I grew up in McKeesport and Clairton, and the look of these places is all kind of the same, really. You go up and down the hills. There's a whole bunch of ethnic churches, a lot of onion domes, and you can often, when you are going down a hill, see across the river to the other side.”
One of Qualters' favorite neighborhoods is Homestead, where he has maintained different studios since 1990. Currently, his studio is housed in an old school building in West Homestead, where he has painted nearly every day for the past seven years in a former elementary classroom. Before that, his studio was in a building down on Eighth Avenue.
Homestead suits him well: An ever-changing neighborhood, it still has some of the grit and charming grime it did a half-century ago when the steel mills and metalworking plants located throughout it were bustling.
It's a perfect place for a man who grew up in the Monongahela Valley. After graduating from Clairton High School in 1951, he attended Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University) to study painting and design, taking two years out for service in the Army.
In 1956, he left the Pittsburgh area to study at the California College of Arts & Crafts in Oakland, where he studied under influential West Coast abstractionist Richard Diebenkorn (1922-93). It was there that Qualters became part of the movement that came to be known as “Bay Area Figurative Painting.” This was the most influential three-year period of his career and largely shaped the development of his artistic style.
Returning to Pittsburgh in 1959, Qualters landed his first teaching job at Woodland Junior High School in Munhall, before leaving to teach at the State University of New York at Oswego. But, after pursuing a master of fine arts degree at Syracuse University, he returned to Pittsburgh in 1968 to teach at the University of Pittsburgh. And he has been here ever since.
Part of the reason Qualters has thrived here is his camaraderie with other local artists. Several pieces in the exhibit can attest to this, being either inspired by or the direct result of collaborations with artists such as Nick Bubash, photographers Mark Perrott and Charlee Brodsky and the poets Gail Ghai and Jan McReery.
Even artists of the past have become collaborators of sorts. The painting “For John Kane” (1982) is a homage to John Kane (1860-1934), the self-taught Scottish immigrant artist who rose to fame when his painting, “Scene From the Scottish Highlands,” was selected for inclusion in the 1927 Carnegie International exhibition.
“The center of that painting is me in the pose of John Kane in his own self-portrait,” Qualters says. “In his painting, he's staring straight ahead, just like I am in mine. It's (Kane's) a wonderful painting; it's one of the best American portraits, I think.”
Qualter's portrait is surrounded by Pittsburgh scenes, a few of which Kane painted ,as well, Qualters says, such as the Panther Hollow Bridge. “The idea behind all these little paintings was, that like him, I go around Pittsburgh, to all of these different places.
“Those are all separate canvasses, but they were always intended to be part of one big piece.”
The show culminates with his latest work, “The Dance,” a large painting of a dance-hall event complete with jubilantly dancing nudes, which was completed just a few weeks before the opening of this exhibit.
It was inspired by an old photograph found in the studio of another artist-friend, ceramicist Ed Eberle, who maintains a studio in the old Elks Club building in Homestead.
Qualters surmises the source photograph, which features a community dance event, dates to the 1950s or '60s. “Right away, I got the idea that I wanted to do that painting, and I almost immediately had the idea to include nude women in there to make it celebratory.
“At one point, I had a naked man in there, but, in my mind, it would have made it (appear to) be about sex. And I didn't want it to be about sex. I wanted it to be about a natural, joyous feeling. The clothed dancers don't pay any attention to the nude dancers, and everybody is having a great time.”
The painting is a fitting end to an exhibit that is itself a celebration. But the party doesn't stop there. Besides the book launch party March 13, there will be a screening of the documentary “Bob Qualters: The Artist in Action,” by Joe and Elizabeth Seamans, on March 20 at Melwood Screening Room in Oakland. It will be followed by a reception with Qualters at Borelli-Edwards Galleries in Lawrence-ville.
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.