Why I Became a Realist

Why I Became a Realist

Philip Pearlstein

I will attempt to answer the question I have been asked about the switch I made as a painter from abstraction to realism.

I considered myself a mature artist when at the age of thirty seven I chose to concentrate on the problems of painting realistically (or naturalistically or descriptively, or illusionisticlly, or however else it may be called), but I set several rules for myself on how I would approach realist painting.

First rule: I would draw and paint directly from life, whether from the actual person, or landscape or object, attempting to depict the light as it fell on their forms, and the space they occupied, as accurately as I could, guided by my visual experience of them, without resorting to any preconceived knowledge of anatomy or so-called correct academic measurements of proportions, color or rules of perspective.

Second rule: I would depict the people I hired as models hi my studio setting, or the landscapes I would paint, without references to classic mythology, or contemporary social/political concerns, or any other literary concerns, and as far as possible without paraphrasing works recalled from the history of art.

Third rule: I would not presume to play amateur psychiatrist with my hired models (or occasional portrait sitter). I would not seek to explore their individual human concerns or problems, nor would I exploit their sex or race. I would be neutral in my depictions of them.

Fourth rule: I would make my paintings aggressive, and structured as strongly as I could invent, based on my knowledge of modern picture making in most of its phases (up to 1960 when this self imposed conversion took place), so that my paintings could hold their own if they would be exhibited alongside the abstract and expressionistic works of my friends. (I had no interest in producing paintings that would be polite, pleasing or picturesque).

As I was still ambitious to have a career as a painter in the "art world" of New York City that I was already involved in, I would have to be prepared to live with, and continue to work with my set goals despite either being written-off and sent out of the game by my contemporaries, or at best, the harsh criticism that I expected from a generation of art critics tuned into abstraction and painting based on freedom of gesture and expressionism. 

This conversion to realism took place due to a convergence of circumstances. I had begun teaching at Pratt Institute, and teaching made me articulate my thinking processes of drawing and painting. One course I taught was figure drawing, but rather than; stressing the study of anatomy, or emphasizing the "gesture drawing" (leading to abstraction) that was popular at the time, I taught styles of drawing based on my study of art history: for example, emphasizing the difference between the silhouetted Egyptian manner and the Italian Renaissance geometric manner, and so forth. The most difficult drawing procedure for me to explain, and do myself, was the geometric manner. And in trying to explain it I suddenly realized that the geometric manner had very little to do with what an artist actually sees, and the drawing that is produced. Drawing optically, by trying to reconstruct the experience of seeing, produces another kind of drawing that is entirely different. With that thought I leaped off into unknown artistic territory. In my own work I became an explorer.

At this time I joined a drawing group organized by one of the instructors (MM) that meet in her studio once a week to draw from hired models for several hours, and I practiced drawing from vision only, without preconceptions of any style, to see what I would come up with.

All this time in my studio I was painting expressionistically from naturalistic descriptive drawings of Roman rums, and of cliff formations along the Italian coast that I had made while on a fellowship in Italy the year before.

At this time, in 1960, the editor of Art News magazine asked me if I would be interested in writing a review of an exhibition the Museum Of Modern Art was about to open. For this exhibition MOMA held an open competition, inviting any figurative artist to submit work. This was the Museums response to criticism it had received for a previous exhibition that it had titled "the New Image of Man", which had featured depictions of human figures that were abstracted and distorted as if tortured, shredded and burnt, images that were probably the direct response by artists to the horrors of World War 2 in Europe.

To review the work that had been chosen by a jury, I visited the storeroom in which all the works were placed. Those chosen were on one side of the room, and those rejected were on the other side. The chosen works by and large looked like those in the previous exhibition, while the rejected were the ones that approached naturalistic description. The article I subsequently wrote I titled "Figure Paintings Today are not Made in Heaven", hi reference to the ancient Hindu artists practice of sending their mind to Heaven to see the divine deities that would become the models for their art, whereas contemporary painters of human figures create their images from their knowledge of previous art. The article was an examination of the art-historical factors that I felt were at play on the part of the Museum of Modern Arts sophisticated jury that had made it so difficult for them to accept naturalistic description, and conversely the historical factors that made it so difficult for the naturalistically inclined artist to produce work that would be acceptable to that jury. The article became my declaration of intent to seek the answer in my own work, and fifty years later I am still dealing with the problems.

Until that moment my development as an artist followed the course of the history of painting in the United States during the 1940s and 50s. Starting as an artist in my years in high school, I followed the dominant naturalistic style of America, called "American Scene". During those years Modernist abstract art was considered foreign, dangerous and un-American. That held true for the drawings I made during the years of World War 2, of which I spent three years in the US Army. When I returned to studied art in undergraduate college, in 1946 that all had reversed. Modernist abstract styles dominated the United States art world, and realist art dominated in Soviet Russia. So for the next few years I experimented with various combinations of abstract painting styles. I studied Art History at New York University and did my Master of Arts thesis on the DADA works of Francis Picabia and Marcel Duchamp. My original research and the intensive study of background material for the thesis gave me a valuable acquaintance with the major ideas of early modernist painting in Europe. When Picabia died while I was working on the thesis I was invited to publish a major article him.

As a young artist during this time, I was absorbing and producing my own variations of the newly dominant expressionist painting style called Action Painting, but which I tied to my interest in landscape painting, producing a kind of combination of impressionism, post impressionism and expressionism.

I was experiencing an early career success with that approach when the problems of painting from direct visual experience took over, and sent me off in a new direction. When bothered by the question of why I changed my style so radically, I quoted my favorite line from Picabia's writings: "Our heads are round so thought can change direction".

There actually was a particular incident that convinced me that I should become aggressive in my art and also in my public presentations of the problems of realist painting when I was invited to give talks as a visiting artist hi various art schools and art centers around the country, and when I had the opportunity to publish articles in the art magazines. The incident, around 1961, that convinced me to become aggressive happened after I had been teaching about four years. I had decided to take a field trip with a group of students from Pratt Institute to have them see an exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum and then write essays about the paintings that impressed them. The exhibition was the selection by the art critic Clement Greenberg of those younger artists who he decided would define painting for the rest of the 20th century. Though a few years earlier Mr. Greenberg had selected my work (of my expressionist style) for an exhibition in a commercial gallery that he had called "emerging talent", he had I left me out of this much more significant show. So I felt a personal challenge, as well as anger that Mr. Greenberg could get the support of a major institution to effectively eliminate me and many of my fellow painters from history.

I decided my fight would be to have Realism accepted as a valid a modern style, and thus upset the basic proposition of almost all contemporary critics and taste-makers that abstraction was the only valid path of contemporary art.

I was aware that it would be a very real battle, and that my own career would likely be a casualty. I remember that when the class met again at Pratt, we discussed the essays, which were mostly polite descriptions of the works that interested them, I became agitated that no one had questioned why those particular works had been selected. I launched into a tirade against the dictatorships the major critics had managed to create which put the artists in the position of being sheep, following the critics dictates about style. I asked the students to learn to verbalize their own critical thoughts about art, and to defend the ideas about their art that they would develop themselves in the future. But I became my own best student. Realist paintings of un-glamorous nudes painted from life became my weapons, and coincided with one of the political sayings of the moment: ''saying it like it is".

Within a rather short period of time the battle dissolved. Pop Art and Neo-Expressionism arrived, and so did Photo-Realism and the issues became confused. But I made the decision not to be diverted, and kept to my original aim of painting only from my direct optical experience of the part of the world I set myself in front of.