Philip Pearlstein, An Appreciation
By Richard Armstrong, Director
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation
[Essay written for the "People, Places and Things" retrospective catalog at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg.]
The work of Philip Pearlstein has an important place in contemporary art. Beyond the paintings of nudes for which he is best known, the spectrum of his art includes unusually interesting drawings from sketches to highly finished large-scale watercolors and over a hundred print editions. His way of seeing calls on the viewer to slow down; that’s one of the reasons his work is so tough and unflinchingly modern.
Pearlstein does not reveal much of himself in his work. Yet if you look carefully and see what props he uses and how he uses them, certain aspects of Philip are evident. There’s a high clarity and credibility in his paintings, yet they’re eccentric. The space is not scientific, even though it looks veristic. What one sees is an objective subject constructed in a very carefully subjective way. His compositions of figures and objects are orchestrated to force you to believe in them, even though they may not be very appealing. His figures are presented in a way that is not particularly flattering. Since we’re used to glamour, it’s tough for us to look at people in such awkward yet still natural poses and situations. Pearlstein understands the irony of looking at undressed people, especially when they are not as attractive and as sexually alluring as we might expect. His figures are average, and that is what’s so surprising and irritating about them. They are not grotesque. They are not exceptional. They are ordinary folk. This may be one quality that will give them continued meaning into the future. Like the German photographer August Sander, who had the goal of photographing every profession in the world, Pearlstein shares a drive for thoroughness and clarity towards the portrayal of human flesh. It is impossible to imagine some of the current figurative painters without his influence, as the expressionist figuration of the 1980s made way in the 1990s for the quasi-academic, observation-based mood paintings of a cluster of erotic and representational artists such as John Currin, Elizabeth Peyton, and Lisa Yuskavage. Without Philip Pearlstein’s figuration and mode of realism, their work might not have happened. It’s right to remember that being popular is very different from being influential: one of Philip’s salient characteristics is that neither he nor his art is hip. In a world obsessed with fashion and fame, operating with the level of intensity and focus Philip does means he occupies a parallel universe.
Philip looks like a regular guy, but he is not a conformist. I use the word “willful” in describing him, and it has many positive aspects. The trait also has a component of selfishness. He knew what he wanted to do from an early age, and he has kept doing it. We don’t have the vocabulary to analyze and describe his pictures. You would normally think of them in academic terms, but there’s no academy they relate to. His work is not conceptual, minimalist, nor influenced by Pop Art, and those are the sets of vocabularies we have, either idea-formulated or sensationalist-based. Philip makes us consider what’s the modern way to makea figure. Warhol went off and did it by mechanical means. Philip has done it through seemingly traditional, handmade effort. His images are based on very close, unstinting observation, but propelled as Warhol’s work was by the necessity to record the information that was in from of him. As Philip, Warhol, and Alex Katz were emerging around 1950, abstraction was the newly dominant mode. How does a young artist overcome Abstract Expressionism, which was and thereafter became the era’s heroic, omnipresent art form? Pearlstein dealt with all of this by staying in his corner, and to that degree one can say he is a nicely old-fashioned artist. His ambition has been almost completely focused on his art and for many decades teaching and some writing. Given how fully realized and singular the vision of his pictures is, I think history will treat him kindly.