Subject and object: The collection of Philip Pearlstein

Editorial Staff Art

from The Magazine ANTIQUES, July/August 2013.

The arcane logic that unites the naked human form with a metal fan, a duck decoy, and an inflatable King Tut effigy may not seem self-evident to the average art lover: but for the past generation, these two subsets of creation have come together in the paintings of Philip Pearlstein. An avid collector of fine art and folk art, Pearlstein snatches up anything that catches his eye in a flea market, at an antiques gallery, on a city sidewalk or any­where else, and hauls it back to his studio in New York’s Garment District. There it is almost certain to end up as a prop in one of this artist’s innumerable paintings of nudes.

A representative example of Pearlstein’s latest work is Model with Whirly-Gig and Weathervane, from 2002: a disen­gaged female figure casts a cool eye on the tumultuous jumble of objects that, since the 1990s, has dominated and defined the artist’s compositions. Through their hard artifice, these props, which Pearlstein says he deploys entirely for visual rather than symbolic effect, serve to draw attention to the fragile, perishable human form that has been placed in proximity to them. 

Pearlstein, who was born in Pittsburgh in 1924, has certainly painted fully clothed portraits of art world figures and has displayed an interest in cityscapes throughout his career. But he is best known, since the early 1960s, for his nudes. At first they existed in the sort of vague and indeterminate space that, for centuries, has been favored by academic artists. By the 1970s their pallid forms had taken up residence in Pearlstein’s studio. Only in the 1990s did the props arrive in an important way, as the palette became stronger and more varied. And yet, I confess to a certain perplexity before Pearlstein’s paintings. Usually, when an artist specializes in nude figures, he does so out of what we might call human­istic or erotic reasons, neither of which seems to motivate Pearlstein.

Indeed, his nudes seem more naked than nude. The difference, as best I can define it, is that the nude represents the human figure in a conceptually pure state, before any clothes have been placed upon its frame. The naked form, by contrast, is one from which the clothes have been stripped away. Whereas the nude basks in a state of perfect comfort with its surroundings, the naked figure feels cold, awkward, and exposed. The difference can be seen in a comparison between the nudes of the early Netherlandish painters and those of their Italian contemporaries. Bad things seem to befall the northern nudes: one tends to find them being expelled from paradise or burning, à la Hieronymus Bosch, in hell for their many sins. There is little loveli­ness to their nakedness. By contrast, even in the act of being martyred, the nudes of Italy seem, as we might say today, comfortable in their skin, even beautiful.

The figures in Pearlstein’s secular world inhabit neither heaven nor hell, yet they seem as naked as any sinner in a Flemish miniature. In Two Nudes with Four Goose Decoys, from 1994, a pair of female figures lies on the studio floor, which is covered with a brightly colored Native American carpet. The eyes of one of them are tightly shut, while the other is merely a torso whose head has been cut out of the frame. The flattened patterns of their muscles and bones recall klieg lights shining on living tissue. And one observes the most prosaic disenchantment in the veins and knuckles of the hand in the foreground.

In achieving his distinctive idiom, Pearlstein, who taught painting at Brooklyn College from 1963 to 1988, has been greatly inspired by photography, even though he is determined to dispel any notion that he works from photographs. In a conversation with Edward Lucie-Smith, he recalled that once, when a critic for the New York Times compared his paintings to those of the photorealists, he fired off a letter in which he explained that “the effort of painting from life cost my models a great deal of physical discomfort, and cost me a great deal of money in model fees.”

But even though Pearlstein does not work from photographs, he has clearly been influenced by them. What he claims for painting is not the hard register of reality that has traditionally been the province of photography (there is a slight perfunctoriness to his details), but rather the skewed reality that is unique to photography or to what it had evolved into by the 1960s and 1970s. No earlier artist has sought, with as much determination as Pearlstein, to apply to painting the tilted, ad hoc perspectives that are the signature of the snapshot, as is evident in the headless figure already referred to in Two Nudes with Four Goose Decoys.

Behind these paintings is an embedded formal­ism that is increasingly rare in today’s art world and that emerges out of the context of the New York school, which dominated the art world at the beginning of Pearlstein’s career. “Move one of the model’s feet over,” he said in the same interview with Edward Lucie-Smith, “and you have a totally different composition.” It is within the context of such formal­ism that the role of props must be understood as well. Pearlstein insists that he matches the sitter and the props with no thought to anything other than visual effect. “I’m not interested in making points.”

 One of his more recent paintings, Model with Marionettes and HMV Dog depicts a young woman (her face almost invisible) spread out across a settee that recurs often in Pearlstein’s art. Above her dangle marionettes of an elephant and a gypsy and at her side sits a porcelain model of the dog known to generations of audiophiles. Here the props are intro­duced in such profusion that they threaten to overwhelm the composition.

Yet they too can be understood within the terms of formalism. Throughout the history of art, among those painters who have had the good fortune to survive into relatively old age, there has been a precedent for early austerity giving way to a belated relaxation of control. One sees this in a comparison of the early and late works of Titian and Rembrandt, no less than of Mondrian and Sol LeWitt. And so it is with Philip Pearlstein. Having tired, it would seem, of the formal aus­terities of his middle period during the 1970s and 1980s, Pearlstein has flooded the work of his later years with a chro­matic and compositional variety that has been made possible by those artifacts, from many different ages and civilizations, that he lovingly stores in his home and studio in New York’s Garment District.