The Drawing Group, Drawing Naked People

The Drawing Group, Drawing Naked People

Philip Pearlstein

In 1962 I wrote an article that attempted to analyze why the sophisticated art world rejected factual representational painting, of human figures represented with all their parts where they should be. My title for the article, “Figure Paintings Today Are Not Made in Heaven”, referred to the practice of classical Hindu artists sending their minds to heaven by means of fasting, contemplation, and other practices. In heaven they saw the deity. That image became the model from which they worked.

The Museum of Modern Art, shortly before, had staged a major exhibition called “The New Images of Man.” The artist Alberto Giacometti emerged as the star of that exhibition with his super-extended, abstracted, skinny, expressionistic and ancient-looking figures. Willem De Kooning was the leading runner-up with his abstract-expressionistic paintings of women; the title of one was “Marilyn Monroe.” The new images of man were obviously a generation of artists’ expressionistic response to the nightmarish horrors of World Wars I and II. Their visions were conditioned by memories of Cézanne, Italian Futurism and French Cubism, along with Freudian and Jungian Surrealism. 

I started my article by acknowledging all of the above. I wrote, “It seems madness on the part of any painter educated in the twentieth-century modes of picture-making to take as his subject the naked human figure, conceived as a self-contained entity possessed of its own dignity, existing in a habitable space, viewed from a single vantage point. For as artists we are too ambitious and conscious of too many levels of meaning. The description of the surface of things seems unworthy. Most of us would rather be Freudian, Jungian, Joycean and portray the human by implication rather than imitation.”

I went on to define the technical ideas developed in the late 19th century that had been imposed on the sensibilities of the artists of the 20th century that worked against representational painting. Among those technical ideas was that of the flat picture plane. I wrote, “A Moralistic ban has been placed on spatial illusionism. But it is an arbitrary ban. The flatness of the picture plane is no more a truth than was the flatness of the world before Columbus. It’s all a matter of how you look at it.”

I blamed Cézanne’s system of indicating form, in which he notes where two forms overlap in space, creating a kind of blueprint of spatial relationship without describing the continuous surface of forms. Cézanne’s system is most apparent in his drawings and watercolors. This system prefigured the work of the early Analytic Cubists, and became the chief technical means by which my next bugaboo was realized. I termed this one the “roving point of view.” It replaced the single vantage point determined by the Renaissance artist-architect Brunelleschi around 1420. The photographer Muybridge, in the 1870s, demonstrated by his stop-action serial photographs of people and animals in motion, which were taken simultaneously from three different points of view—front, side and back—that reality consists of constant change. We experience the world kinetically. The Impressionists, the Cubists and the Futurists taught us ways of projecting onto canvas a sense of constant change through the fragmentation of forms.

In my article, I went on to define the problems an artist faces when he tries to depict the human body from direct observation. I wrote, “The naked human body is the most familiar of mental images, but we only think we know it. … Only the mature artist who works from a model is capable of seeing the body for itself, only he has the opportunity for prolonged viewing. If he brings along his remembered anatomy lessons, his vision will be confused. What he actually sees is a fascinating kaleidoscope of forms. These forms arranged in a particular position in space, constantly assume other dimensions, other contours, and reveal other surfaces with the breathing, twitching, muscular tensing and relaxation of the model, and with the slightest change in the viewing position of the observer’s eyes… The relationship of the forms and colors of the figure to those of the background becomes mobile and tenuous. …”

I began the concluding part of my article with the statement, “This experience in seeing can be as hypnotic as the swaying head of a cobra about to strike, and … success in making some kind of faithful record of this experience can seem to be as important as it would be to avoid the cobra’s strike. The experience, in fact, approaches the total identification with the image that the Indian [Hindu] artist achieved.”… “The paintings transcend mere description when [the artist’s] interests are conducted in the full knowledge of the complex esthetic we have inherited. Today we cannot pretend to the innocence of earlier American realist artists who tended simply to ignore the inventions of twentieth-century painting.” I concluded the article with the declaration that, “In the battle of painting the figure, to pry open the flat picture plane, and control the roving eye, the weapons must be chosen carefully, and wielded skillfully. A human being, a profound entity, is to be represented.” I am still fully engaged in this battle forty-two years later. 

When I wrote this article I had already been drawing the human figure from life for a few years as part of a floating drawing group. The group continued meeting for several more years.

The group’s history was long, and the surviving members seem to be in conflict about when it started. But essentially it was the enthusiasm of Mercedes Matter for drawing from the model that got the motor running. I think it must have started sometime in 1955, because one evening Charles Cajori, Mercedes Matter and I talked about rocks. I had been drawing and painting some rocks I had picked up on the beach at Montauk Point. Mercedes described the rocks on Deer Isle, Maine as being very special. My wife and I went to Deer Isle the following summer. Early one afternoon we rented a crude cabin with no electricity, telephone or indoor toilet, on the edge of what looked like a calm inlet of the ocean. We drove into the town of Stonington to shop for supplies, and returned late in the afternoon to find the water of the inlet drained away, exposing a landscape of glistening boulders draped with seaweed. It looked like a graveyard of petrified prehistoric monsters. The view was so scary we spent the first night waiting for a maniac to attack us. No one had told us about the tide of the Bay of Funday—the largest tidal drop anywhere. But I spent the next several weeks drawing those fantastic rocks. My drawings were linear, usually done in brown-umber watercolor wash with Chinese silk brushes; sometimes I used charcoal. I had brought a couple of dozen sheets of thin watercolor paper, and I did a drawing a day. I trained my eye-hand coordination by drawing the contours of the rocks slowly and as precisely as I could, across the page, and in the last few minutes I would add some washes to indicate the shadows made by the volumes of the rocks. I spent the following winter in New York making oil paintings based on that collection of drawings. But I developed these paintings with calligraphic, freely-brushed marks that I appropriated from the Abstract Expressionist painters I greatly admired then. 

Two years later I was in Italy on a Fulbright fellowship, and I spent a great deal of the winter drawing the ancient ruins in Rome, and later, in the summer, the cliffs along the Amalfi coast, in the same manner as I had drawn the tidal rocks in Maine. However, the paintings that I worked up from those precise drawings while I was still in Rome were still very influenced by the calligraphic aspect of abstract-expressionistic paint handling. When I returned to New York I continued to base paintings on those drawings done in Italy, but my brush work calmed down as it became more consistent with the realist drawing, more naturalistic in color.  

It was now 1959 and I had started to teach at Pratt Institute. I joined the Sunday evening drawing group that Mercedes Matter now gathered in her living room in her house in Macdougal Alley. The group was composed of several artists then teaching at Pratt Institute, and other interested artists who knew Mercedes. I remember Philip Guston, Jack Tworkov, George McNeil, and Stephen Green, being there, along with Paul Georges, Charles Cajori, Lois Dodd, and occasionally Mary Frank, Gabriel Laderman, and Alex Katz, but the make up of the group varied weekly. Everyone worked in their own style, there was never any discussion, and everyone was polite and tried not to look at the work of the others. We drew usually from 6 PM to midnight. Mercedes had a collection of Indian saris: translucent rectangles of silk in pastel colors that she scattered over a heap of pillows for the models to pose on. There were usually two models posing together. I immediately saw the models on the draperies as I had seen the rocks of Deer Isle, and I drew them the same way. I filled many drawing pads with line drawings in watercolor using the Chinese silk brushes, which come to a very fine point, and splashed wash to indicate shading. Occasionally, I made more carefully developed and shaded drawings with a fat #6 soft graphite stick, sharpened to a fine point. We always worked very fast, as each pose lasted only 20 minutes. After a while some of us requested that the pose be taken twice, for a total of 40 minutes. Intensity prevailed. There was no conversation or music while we drew. Perhaps I am romanticizing the experience in retrospect, but Mercedes made the drawing sessions seem like a religious rite. We were worshippers, with the models as objects of worship on the altar—and of course Mercedes was the priestess in charge.

The setting changed. Over the next several years we moved to different locations. First we moved to the studio Mercedes rented, which was the former shipping room in the now-empty Whitney Museum building. Then, after the Studio School was formed, our Sunday evening drawing group moved to its first location, an upper floor of a large old commercial building on the corner of Broadway and Bleeker Street, I believe. The cast of characters changed. By then I had a Volkswagen bus, and picked up members of the group on my way downtown. The distinguished art historian Meyer Shapiro joined us for a while, and was one of my passengers, but he never spoke. After some months there, the students of the school decided we were in the way of their cleanup for the following week’s classes. We met for a while in a loft on Second Avenue that Mercedes had sublet from another artist who was out of town. I believe that is when Bill White joined us. Eventually we moved to Lois Dodd’s studio in her house on Second Street, and met there for a couple of years. Lois introduced the use of interesting old furniture and a mirror in our setups. After that we moved to Bill White’s studio for about one season. It was Bill who introduced the use of rugs into the setup, simply to make the model’s feet more comfortable. To me, that was another revelation. I had been hiring models to paint from in my own studio by this time, and I decided to use a patterned rug, with a mirror resting against the wall. My model took a standing pose, but after a while she felt faint and lay down on the carpet. I had her remain in her curled-up position and proceeded to paint her, her reflection in the mirror, and the pattern of the rug with equal care. And that set me off on a search for interesting rugs and furniture to use with the models. Bill White and I also shared an enthusiasm for collecting Japanese prints. We especially liked those of Utamaro and Hiroshige, and Bill discovered a cache of antique Japanese prints at the Weyhe Gallery. The prices, especially for damaged ones, were low. I remember being jealous when Bill acquired a beautiful Utamaro print of a mother and child. One morning we ran to a department store that advertised a collection of ancient Korean pottery for sale. We each bought a piece. Bill later described his Korean vase as being alive. Its form was so supple it seemed to change with each new view. The one I bought has remained motionless.

After a couple of more temporary moves, we settled in for a couple of years at Diana Kurz’s loft on Wooster Street in Soho.

I decided I had to retire from the group because I simply needed more time to make my drawings, either in wash or graphite, working on them for as many hours as I wanted. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the wash drawings changed to fully developed watercolor paintings on heavy Arches paper, and the graphite drawings became lithographic drawings made with grease pencil on metal plates as I got involved in printmaking. Some time in the 1980s, after years of concentrated print-making, I stopped spending so much time working on prints, and made a series of carefully developed graphite drawings.

 I have always started my oil paintings with a quick drawing in thinned oil paint or charcoal made directly on the stretched canvas that then gets lost in the over-painting. However, every mark I make is done directly from the visual experience of looking at the models posing in front of me. I have always worked under artificial light because my painting sessions with the models had to be arranged around my teaching schedule, day or night.

From the late 1960s through the 70s, almost as a continuation of the drawing group, I always invited several artist friends to my studio. They worked along with me on their own paintings or drawings from the same model. My studio space was small, about 14 feet wide and about 20 feet deep. About twenty years ago I moved into a much larger studio, but have only seldom invited more than one or two artist friends to work alongside me, and for the past few years I have been usually alone with the models.

What is it that I have learned from working from direct observation? The answer surprises even me. In my own way I experience a variation of the Hindu artists’ experience I described in my article, “Figure Paintings Today Are Not Made In Heaven.” Being as faithful as I can to recreating the visual experience before me leads to a state of being totally absorbed in the forms I am trying to recreate, whether in a line drawing or a fully-developed painting. It is, I suppose, self-hypnosis, a kind of high. 

I have long been interested in how the styles of art have been conditioned by the use of drugs and alcohol by artists in the creation of art. I keep waiting for some perceptive art historian to do a serious investigation of how the writing and painting of the poets and artists of the Symbolist movement were affected by the artists’ acknowledged use and reliance on absinthe and opium. Or how the paintings of the Abstract Expressionist artists were characterized by their acknowledged reliance on alcohol; and how the now-common use of amphetamines, cocaine, marijuana and newer drugs like ecstasy has affected the character of OP, Pop, Graffiti, and Concept art. What did the more imaginative artists of the Renaissance drink? What did DaVinci smoke? However, there are legal ways to get high. Any one can lose themselves in reading, playing a musical instrument, or jogging at least five miles. We commonly have what can be called out-of-body experiences, when nothing in the rest of the world matters except what we are intensely experiencing at the moment.

But for what purpose do artists bring on these intense out-of-body experiences? Perhaps because we want that feeling that one we are on the verge of understanding something about being, about existence. Creating the painting, the drawing, music or story promises a profound illumination to the creator. The observer of the art work, the listener of the music, the reader of the story, can—if they are “tuned in” to the artists’ work systems—project themselves into a recreation of the artist’s mesmerizing experience.

Perhaps the best historical illustration of the proposition is the history of Abbot Sugar, Abbot of the Cathedral of St. Denis in the 12th century. Because he loved to collect precious stones, he was accused of the sin of avarice and put on trial by fellow ecclesiastics. His defense was that, by staring into the diamond, ruby, or emerald, he would lose consciousness of his worldly self and find his way to God. He was acquitted. To celebrate, Abbot Sugar designed a chapel with the greatest amount of window space possible in a stone structure, and he commissioned artists to fill the window spaces with biblical scenes executed in brilliantly colored glass, to recreate his personal hypnotic experience on a public scale. Thus he changed the course of architectural history by inventing the Gothic style.

And there is another way of looking at the picture plane, a way that is not flat. In medieval China, it was the practice of the Chan (or Zen) sect of Buddhist priests, who were also artists, to lose themselves in the contemplation of a subject—often details in a landscape—with paper, ink and brushes at the ready, and when the Chan priest-artist emerged from their trance, they swiftly splashed down their insight into what it was they experienced. The image floated in empty space. The picture plane was the symbol of the space of eternity. The classical paintings of the medieval Buddhist priest-artists were meant as vehicles of contemplation—the observer loses himself in the scene, climbs the mountains and is launched into the space of the universe.

In another article I wrote long ago, I stated that, “I get my highs from using my eyes.” Perhaps it is this addiction that keeps me trying to recreate my visual experience of the models in front of me.