A voluptuous woman undresses in front of the upper story window of a tenement apartment building against a backdrop of row houses, onion domes and a sky raging with the colors of flame and heat. Two young boys watch intently from a grassy hill in the foreground.
The boys are Robert Qualters and his cousin, and although the memory was rendered as the painting "Night Watchers" in 2008, it was made in the late 1940s, "when I was about 14," the artist said.
"She knew that we were there. She didn't take it all off. She pulled the blind," Mr. Qualters recalled with the pauses and even delivery of a storyteller, the long past summer evening substantiated by the twinkle in his eyes.
"I was so disappointed. I so wanted to see a whole naked woman."
The painting is composed with artistic license. "That's roughly Clairton. You get the sense of the hillside, that tenement. The road didn't go all the way to the river. The onion domes weren't [in that spot], but certainly there were many of them."
It's vintage Qualters, a fixture on the local art scene for decades and recognized for his quintessential Pittsburgh scenes and inimitable style. But a new exhibition, book and film argue that there is more to his work than casual observation reveals, and that while he is definitively an artist who makes his home in Pittsburgh, his oeuvre reflects a broader humanity and, now, the accrued experience of eight decades.
In the retrospective exhibition "Robert Qualters: A Life," at the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts, curator (and Qualters book author) Vicky A. Clark selected works that show the breadth of Mr. Qualters' style and inquiry, and the art is presented within broad categories -- self-portrait, public art -- rather than chronologically.
Many works contain text that may be historical anecdotes, personal musings or snippets of poetry by the likes of Blake or Rilke. One has the feeling of overhearing a dialogue the artist had with the work as he created it. On recent works, the text is absent.
"It just naturally happened that I stopped doing the words," he said.
That observation aligns with the intuitive approach Mr. Qualters has to his work, something he's noticed more with his later paintings.
"The earlier paintings were pretty much planned out from the beginning. [Now] they're more literal and more fanciful. I allow things to happen without a lot of pre-planning."
In "The Old Men's Dreams" (1994), the view from a one-time studio in Homestead becomes a fantastical scene infused with creatures from childhood nightmares, imagery from favorite artists like Hieronymus Bosch and a cartoonish face that was an appeal to his wife to stop smoking. While painting he followed a direction that he ordinarily wouldn't have, he said, giving as example the evening sky where there are "colors that are not descriptive but just happen. And that funny -- whatever it is -- moon or planet."
All is covered by a veil of falling snow that softens and quiets the scene but also partially obscures it, setting up a push-pull with the viewer that encourages a meditation upon the composition in terms of color. Mr. Qualters is an extraordinary colorist, a talent that infuses his work with a sensory quality, as does a facility with light, illuminating the interior of an architectural landmark, reflecting off streaks of driving rain.
Residents will recognize many subjects, but industrial cities and amusement parks share characteristics that many may claim and project into. The "Night Watchers" are any pubescent boy. Old women as well as old men have dreams that become more vivid and mingle day with night, present with past, as they age. Curiosity, imagination, lust, mortality, wonder are shared human traits. These, and an authenticity unburdened by self-consciousness, are the springs from which Mr. Qualters' expression flows.
All of this does occur within a very strong sense of place, which is the Pittsburgh he chose to return to after serving a stint in England with the Army; completing a bachelor's degree in fine arts at the California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland; being mentored by American master Richard Diebenkorn; and earning an MFA at Syracuse University while teaching at the State University of New York at Oswego, where he met his wife, Joanne. They had been married 46 years when she died in 2010.
Born in 1934 in McKeesport, Mr. Qualters grew up in Clairton and witnessed the once vital town's decline when steel collapsed in the 1980s. His father was a real estate appraiser who didn't object to his son's career choice although he would have preferred he study architecture. His mother, a teacher who lost her job when she married (which was typical of the time), was also an avocational painter who supported her son's decision.
Mr. Qualters said he had opportunities in New York and in California but that those locations "just didn't feel right." When he moved back for the final time in 1968 he felt "this is exactly right. This is the way it should be."
That said, Mr. Qualters asserted that his paintings "are not views of Pittsburgh. They are about the immediacy of the present moment and the rightness of that. They're not travelogues."
For example, "Orangutan Dreams" (1999), which pairs a full-bodied nude woman and the primate on a Squirrel Hill street, is "not about Murray Avenue. It's about aging and it's about vitality and it's about reflection. But it's all put together in artistic terms."
"Dancers," the latest work in the exhibition, painted this year, is a re-imagined dance at a Homestead club where some of the women are nude. None of the men are undressed because "that would make it about sex," Mr. Qualters said, "and I didn't want that. I wanted it to be about freedom and enjoyment. It's not about nude women, and it's certainly not salacious. It's about joie de vivre."
"He deals with the human condition," Ms. Clark said. "It's not one note. His early experience was basically working class yet he became an important artist and a very intelligent man. It's a Horatio Alger American Dream life."
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.