Saturday, October 25, 2014

Philip Pearlstein


Philip Pearlstein Two models in a window with cast iron toys, oil on canvas 1987 72 x 72 inches


Video of Philip Pearlstein in his NY studio

A couple of Philip Pearlstein shows are going on that may be of interest. At the Betty Cuningham Gallery PEARLSTEIN/HELD: Five Decades
Works by Pearlstein and Al Held on view from 11/19/2009 To 2/13/2010.

On the Betty Cuningham Gallery website there is an excerpt and link to an article by the art critic Irving Sandler that is a good read. I quote here and excerpt as a possible point of departure for discussion.

“By the late 1960’s Pearlstein had committed to the “New Realism”, as stated in John Perrault’s manifesto:

No stories; no allegories; no symbols.
No hidden meanings; no obvious meanings.
No philosophy, religion, or psychology.
No jokes.
No political content.
No illustration.
No fantasy or imagination; no dreams; no poetry.”

I cringed when I first read this thinking that is exactly the reasons I never fully embraced his modernist sensibility – I’m stuck with a romantic streak that wouldn’t know what to do without the last line. However, I respect Philip Pearlstein’s painting enormously and his influence on new perceptual realist painting is monumental. Compared to some prevalent post-modernist works, who no doubt would spit on this manifesto’s Seven-Point program, I find Pearlstein’s work masterful and visually satisfying.

Here is a quote from an article from Art and Optics that has an essay written by Pearlstein about his work and thinking. This article also has a unique image roll-over display showing the progression of him working on a wedding portrait of the art-historians Linda Nochlin and Richard Pommer.

When I decided to become a realist painter I determined that every mark I put down on the canvas would come from my actual visual experience. And I soon learned the technical difficulties of trying to make each mark be a metaphor for the light on the forms, textures, and space in front of me. I found that the greatest difficulty lay in getting those metaphors of form to break the picture plane, to get the forms to look as though they existed with measurable distances from each other, with a sense of air around them. When I stare at the scene I am painting, the distance between the forms assumes a kind of profundity, and it seems very important to capture them accurately. Those spatial relationships seem to characterize the basic life experience of potential movement. I suggest that it is the honesty of the attempt to recreate the forms and spaces visually without artistic editing that is one of the hallmarks of realist painting.

The use of optical devices, whether prisms, sheets of glass or photographic prints, can give the artist only the outlines of three dimensional objects reduced to one dimension. But the struggle to make that reduction and fill the areas between the outlines gives the artist working from direct visual experience some of his greatest kicks. The difference is like the acceptance of the published score of a hockey game as the finished product, while ignoring the physical experience of the struggle that is the point of the game. It is what is painted between the outlines that makes the difference between merely competent painting and really meaningful art.

read the full article at art and optics here.

There is also a big show of his work at the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, NJ – October 19, 2008 – February 1, 2009
A good review of this show with a slide show from the New York Times by Ken Johnson. A good online collection and article about his work can also be found at this archived show from the Tweed Museum of Art; The Dispassionate Body: Philip Pearlstein, Paintings and Drawings of Figures in Still Life link.

Finally I found a youtube video of a Pearlstein opening at the Betty Cuningham Gallery from April 2007 – here is a review to that show from James Kalm.
The video is a little quirky, and Pearlstein didn’t seem all that pleased to be video taped but it was a great way to go to the opening if you can’t stand crowds.

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Comments

17 Responses to “Philip Pearlstein”
  1. Valentino says:

    Thanks for this article, Larry.

    “No stories; no allegories; no symbols.
    No hidden meanings; no obvious meanings.
    No philosophy, religion, or psychology.
    No jokes.
    No political content.
    No illustration.
    No fantasy or imagination; no dreams; no poetry.”

    So…what remains? Who on Earth could actually feel the urge to paint (and find pleasure in the process) following these self-imposed restrictions?
    I admit I have problem with Pearlstein’s pieces for two reasons. I am not fond of (any kind of) art which is devoid of passion. The second reason is that his detached, indifferent-looking figures do not move me at all (probably for the same reason I just mentioned), but that’s just me. I always get an impression that those human beings are just props…like tablecloth or closet. (Besides, despite his ambition to „paint as exact a likeness in that situation as (he) could“ Pearlstein’s flesh tones do not appear convincing. I’ll quote one famous painter (I apologize for the sarcasm): „If you really see this way, perhaps you should visit ophthalmologist“.)

    “It is what is painted between the outlines that makes the difference between merely competent painting and really meaningful art.”
    Well, that contradicts the quote on the beginning of this entry. Pearlstein is after painting devoid of meaning, isn’t he..?

    • Larry says:

      So…what remains? Who on Earth could actually feel the urge to paint (and find pleasure in the process) following these self-imposed restrictions?

      Many abstract modernist painters, especially the more formalist, color-field and hard-edged types, would disagree with you and find great pleasure with constructing paintings that followed these restrictions and was nothing but very particular arrangements of shapes of color. In many ways Pearlstein is still an abstract painter in this regard. I think that even though his subjects are the figure, still-life, etc – he is really painting the process of his looking at the figure,etc (like John Lee said)
      I think Pearlstein is a great painter and I am glad he paints the way he does – that said I am also glad I don’t have to paint that way and could care less about no stinkin rules!

  2. John Lee says:

    I am not Pearlstein’s biggest fan. I admire and enjoy his work. But I think he actually DOES want meaning, just not ‘hidden’ or ‘obvious’ meaning. His is the meaning that comes from looking, constructing, building, making, etc. (it seems to me). A poetry may result from that (or not, depending on the read of the individual viewer), but I don’t think Pearlstein wants an injected, or pushed, poetry.

  3. Philip Koch says:

    We humans are by nature emotional creatures, able to feel both great delight and real fear. I think some of us are more comfortable with that than others. Often I don’t think the words exist to describe exactly what the emotions are in various paintings I admire. Painting can’t help but stir out feelings, dreams, and our memories. It just comes with the territory.

  4. Valentino says:

    >Many abstract modernist painters, especially the more formalist, color-field and hard-edged types, would disagree with you

    I am fully aware of it. The quoted passage is in heart of the postmodern esthetic (if they had any estethic at all).

    >and find great pleasure with constructing paintings that followed these restrictions and was nothing but very particular arrangements of shapes of color.

    OK, this is another topic, but if you ask me such colored canvases are closer to wallpaper design than art. Much of postmodernist „art“ has been involved with rudimentary formal exercises and to call it art (let alone „high art“) is a twist of irony. The play of colors and shapes sometimes might be diverting and occasionally pleasant, but who can actually find any particular insight in those? Whose vision of the world was enhanced? I for one can not decide which set of colors are more profound or insightful than any other set of colors.
    Paint alone is just a paint. Nothing else.

    • Larry says:

      Valentino said”

      OK, this is another topic, but if you ask me such colored canvases are closer to wallpaper design than art. Much of postmodernist „art“ has been involved with rudimentary formal exercises and to call it art (let alone „high art“) is a twist of irony. The play of colors and shapes sometimes might be diverting and occasionally pleasant, but who can actually find any particular insight in those? Whose vision of the world was enhanced? I for one can not decide which set of colors are more profound or insightful than any other set of colors.
      Paint alone is just a paint. Nothing else

      I’m not sure what you mean by enhancing someone’s vision of the world or what you would want to offer insight to the viewer. Personally, I tend to side more with the modernists on this issue. Too many contemporary (post-modern) paintings seeking to enhance our vision of the world are just overly sentimental or strident. That doesn’t mean I don’t think Pearlstein’s paintings aren’t boring sometimes, they are, it’s just that I respect his motivation to keep his painting within the boundaries of modern thinking as outlined by the blurb I quoted. I can think of a number of abstract painters who move me on visual level – even spiritual; Franz Kline, Dekooning, Pollock, Rothko who all advanced visual thinking and opened up the world to profound insights into new ways of looking at both the world and art.

  5. martin green says:

    I respect the career of Pearlstein, but I do not find the individual works very satisfying. They are, for me, too posed and arranged, claustrophobic, and altogether too “quick.” Looking at his paintings does not reward seeing. I will grant that his work challenges visual inspection. But I can get this visual workout from Brice Marden, for example, without the distraction of taking inventory of objects and people in the studio–an inventory that does not reveal any meaning. But of course, that is part of the program. I just don’t buy into the program.

    His paintings resist penetration. The image seems stuck to the surface: you can’t move in, the image doesn’t move out. Everything seems to be equal, no one thing or person more significant than another. Again, this is part of his program. Such an aesthetic was certainly different and exciting in the 60’s and 70’s, but it seems rather tired today. As Robert Irwin has observed, artists spent over a hundred years removing layers of meaning from visual art; our challenge today is to add back those layers, but in new ways.

    Pearlstein doesn’t need an eye doctor: the skin tone of his models comes from fluorescent lighting, never flattering and usually flattening, as it produces faint shadows.

    For all my disagreements with Pearlstein’s aesthetics, I still look at his work, for at the very least his career is not insignificant. Thanks for this post.

  6. Philip Koch says:

    Was thinking more about Pearlstein.

    Many years ago when I was just starting out as an art major at Oberlin College, his work was just about the ONLY realist painting that ever got reproduced in Art News magazine. This was around 1967-8, Just the fact that I could see that while living in relative isolation in a small Ohio town proved important- it gave me a kind of permission to at least consider switching from the abstract work I was then doing to try working from the model. Later on I would find other realist painters who influenced me more, but Pearlstein gave me a good nudge in a new direction when I badly needed one, so I owe him a “thank you.”

  7. Valentino says:

    >Pearlstein gave me a good nudge in a new direction when I badly needed one, so I owe him a “thank you.”

    I see. Fortunately, an art student today can seek both inspiration and guidance from more than one good realist artist out there.

  8. Linda says:

    I have heard the sentiments that Philip expressed from other realist painters. In some sense, Pearlstein gave them not only permission, but validation also. In that regard, Pearlstein stands like a lonely beacon.

    I personally have had a hard time with Pearlstein because of his seemingly objective stance. I do find his compositions to be interesting and his work is well crafted. Whatever negative things you might say about his work, at least it is original. I think there are many great unique realist artists out there. I also think that there are vastly many more that are competent technicians but have nothing to say. I can celebrate Pearlstein for his accomplishments.

  9. It just hit me what it is that’s so unsatisfying in Pearlstein’s pictures. Besides the intentionally jarring cropping of the figures, which owes so much more to photography than to any kind of first-hand experience, what’s lacking is his odd way with light. Every object, including the limbs and torsos, seems to exist with its own light source and once the edge of that object is reached, a new lamp or sun lights the next thing. No two things exist in the same world in these paintings, each is a universe unto itself. Some things tend to command a more lively touch, usually the knickknacks, rugs, and furniture, yet each is rendered to completion before the next is begun. This, of course, is what I’m getting as a viewer; I’m not familiar with his process…Another odd thing is that what everything is made of here is not what they’re made of in the world; the body parts remind of tan or brown leather, the furniture, while replete with surface detail, can’t possibly be wood or metal, poly-chromed hollow plastic perhaps…And despite all that, the pictures are worth thinking about, if for no other reason than their beige and bland otherness…

    • Larry says:

      One thing I’ve noticed when looking at a number of his recent works (all seen just in jpegs) is how his painting seems a little looser, drawing seems somewhat less perfect, foreshortening in particular seems off sometimes. I wonder if he is doing this intentionally, loosening up in his old age or is it just his work is in decline? He is 85.

  10. Valentino says:

    >Personally, I tend to side more with the modernists on this issue. Too many contemporary (post-modern) paintings seeking to enhance our vision of the world are just overly sentimental or strident.

    I am not sure what you mean exactly. Did you mean the canonical artists from roughly 1870s to the 1970s, as opposed to postmodern kitsch…? In that match I’d side with Modernists, too.

    >That doesn’t mean I don’t think Pearlstein’s paintings aren’t boring sometimes, they are, it’s just that I respect his motivation to keep his painting within the boundaries of modern thinking as outlined by the blurb I quoted.

    Everybody play by the self-imposed rules and limits. If there were no any limit, there would be no art. However, in discussion like this I can not help but quote Mies Van der Rohe: “It is better to be good than to be original”. (Or novel for novelty’s sake, I’d add.)

  11. Valentino says:

    > drawing seems somewhat less perfect, foreshortening in particular seems off sometimes.

    I noticed that too. Foreshortenings in some of his recent paintings are not unlike those made by camera when it is positioned too close to the subject. Either that or he has problems with sight (if we take seriously his insistence on painting exclusively from observation).

  12. Philip Koch says:

    Just by chance I was looking through a book I have on the British romantic figure painter J.W. Waterhouse last night. His moody and brooding figures are as far removed from Pearlstein’s as is humanly possible. I confess I’d much rather look at Waterhouse’s openly emotion-driven images.

  13. Hunter McKee says:

    I’ve always had a problem with Pearlstein’s paintings. I find myself
    feeling sorry for the models. I would enjoy his painting more as straight still life without the figures.

  14. Richard Dean says:

    “Paint alone is just paint. Nothing else…” well, yes. Exactly. Paintings are made out of paint and paint is always itself, not a tree or a horse or somebody’s nose. But how is paint not “alone”? What else is there? And how do you add this other thing or things if they exist? I don’t think you can; the other things occur in the mind and heart of the viewer. You can’t explicitly paint content or meaning but what one does with the paint can create those things for the viewer (or not!)

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