Art is, in some ways, always a reckoning with death—an attempt to ward it off, to live beyond it, to forget about it, or to laugh at it. It can be simultaneously disarming and comforting to see an artist’s work shortly after she has died, especially when, as in the case of beloved Baltimore artist Joan Erbe, who died of complications from a stroke on Aug. 21, both the work and the artist are somehow larger than life.
Erbe’s work, on view at the Fleckenstein Gallery, remains vital and vivid, as if oddball photographer Diane Arbus had developed a tremendous sense of compassion and a Fauvist sense of color. ‘Red Hat,’ from the 1970s, is romantic and wistful with its melancholy, muted oil figure of a woman bursting from a bright red background. ‘Untitled,’ also from the ’70s, features a corpulent woman who would not be out of place in a John Waters film of the same period. But, as a painting, what is so remarkable about it is the way the woman stands out in an almost shocking 3-D against a baroquely patterned background of blue vines and flowers. Sometime in the ’80s, Erbe began working in acrylics, which allowed her to use more electric colors—but the sense of carnivalesque vitality remained.
Erbe, who was born in 1926, traced her love of the carnivalesque to her childhood, when her father, a coffee wholesaler, would take her to the circus, where they would talk to the sideshow performers and watch the animals (she published a drawing of a circus animal in The Sun at a young age). “The characters of her youth always stayed in her head,” says Terrie Fleckenstein, who represented Erbe and hosted her last show. “I imagined a big, bawdy party in there—and she occasionally let some manifest themselves on whatever material was at her disposal.”
This sensibility has had a major impact on Baltimore’s art scene. Raoul Middleman, who has also championed the carnivalesque and burlesque, was inspired to paint when he first encountered Erbe’s work at the legendary artist hangout Martick’s. “She had a show at Morris’ [Martick’s] and I went to a show there and I was terrifically impressed. [It was] before I thought of being an artist,” Middleman says. “But her work especially knocked me out with that kind of warm whimsy, that kind crazy whimsy, delectable whimsy. It was great and she maintained that level of invention and fantasy and could translate it into real painterly terms.”
Middleman was not the only one to notice the show at Martick’s in 1957; it brought Erbe— who had studied at the Maryland Institute, now MICA—critical attention. Within the next decade, she had a solo show at the BMA and exhibited widely thereafter.
Erbe, whose first marriage, when she was 18, produced two daughters, married George Udel, who founded the Baltimore Film Forum, in 1956. “With all of our problems and misadventures, the reason we stay together is when we contemplate being apart that seems even worse,” Udel told The Sun’s Mary Corey in 1991, just after he resigned from the Film Forum over a censorship issue regarding two films called “Dick” and “We’re Talking Vulva.” When Udel, with whom she had another child, died in 1999, friends say that Erbe’s last words to him were the ones she usually uttered upon departure: “See you in the funny papers.”
That sense of gallows humor also suffused Erbe’s work. She was a longtime fan of Mexican painters, such as Frida Kahlo, who were influenced by the Dia De Los Muertos motifs, and often featured a skeletal architecture in her work.
Later in life, she began to teach a group of professional women painters at the Edward A. Myerberg Center in Pikesville. She made her last paintings in 2008, when she quit due to arthritis. But two drawings she did during that period show her sense of humor and whimsy remained. One, called ‘The Flirt,’ shows a shirtless man reclining, his hands behind his head, with mischief in his eyes. In another, ‘Big Catch,’ a masked man erotically wrestles with a reverse mermaid which has a fish head and a woman’s legs and vulva. The eyes of both figures seem to follow a small fly hovering near the fish’s mouth.
A memorial for Erbe was, appropriately, held on Nov. 2, the Day of the Dead.