Beyond Drawing Basics: Philip Pearlsteins Unrelenting Gaze

Beyond Drawing Basics: Philip Pearlsteins Unrelenting Gaze

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This New York artist discovers many of his breakthroughs through drawings, depicting strictly what he sees with little thought for accepted standards of draftsmanship.

by John A. Parks

Study for
Eroded Cliff

1955, sepia wash on paper,
18¾ x 23?. All artwork
and images this article courtesy
Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York,
New York, unless otherwise

Philip Pearlstein (1924– ) emerged as a major force behind the resurgence of representational painting in the New York art world in the early 1960s. At a time when Abstract Expressionism still held sway and the wry sophistication of Pop Art was in its early stages, Pearlstein came up with a vision that swept aside most of the tenets of modernism and its insistence on surface and flatness. In his edgy, intense drawings and paintings he championed a return to the creation of an illusionistic space behind the picture plane observed from a single viewpoint. Moreover, he proposed to take on a central concern of Western painting: the direct observation and rendering of the human figure. His paintings of nudes, presented in a raw, detached, and highly concentrated realism, devoid of either the painterly excesses of the Abstract Expressionists or the layered ironies of Pop Art, came as a complete surprise to the art world and quickly propelled the painter to international recognition. Throughout his career the artist has made drawings, and at times—particularly in the 1950s—his drawings led the way to considerable breakthroughs in his work. To fully understand how Pearlstein’s mature work came about, it is necessary to go back to the very beginning of his career.

Philip Pearlstein was born in Pittsburgh in 1924 and grew up during the Great Depression. He was encouraged by his parents and teachers to paint and draw and was sent off to the Carnegie Museum of Art for Saturday morning art classes. All this youthful activity culminated in sudden and early recognition when he won two prizes for his paintings in a national competition for high-school students sponsored by Scholastic magazine, and the two paintings were reproduced in color, along with others, in Life magazine, in June 1942. The young man went on to study art as an undergraduate but his life was interrupted by World War II. The army used Pearlstein’s talents, employing him in a graphic workshop in Florida, where he worked for several months on signs and illustrations for army training. There he found himself in the company of men who had worked in commercial art in civilian life, and from them he quickly learned the techniques of the trade, becoming familiar with ruling pens and silkscreen printing.

Study for
Glacier Scraped

1956, sepia wash on paper, 19? x 24¾.

Later, Pearlstein was sent to Italy in the infantry, again finding himself working in a shop that was making road signs for the war-torn country after the war ended in Europe. And it was in Italy that he made a long series of drawings depicting army life, works that he mailed to his family as a visual means of communication. Many of the drawings are in pen. “They are done on army-issue paper with army ink,” says the artist. “I’m amazed that they have survived in such good condition.” When Pearlstein had more leisure time he painted in watercolor with materials bought in Italy.

The drawings use a clean descriptive line to conjure up typical events in the life of a soldier: training with bayonets, life in the barracks, and scenes out in the streets. In one drawing a soldier stands on lonely guard duty, while another more complex group of images shows a young Italian boy trying to sell his sister to a pair of soldiers. The drawings have a straightforwardness in which every element is clearly readable. “I guess I was going to be an illustrator,” says the artist, “and that is a quality that illustration needs.” One thing that is evident in the drawings is that the artist already had a very sophisticated feel for pose and posture. In Barracks, [not shown] a 1944 watercolor, a man lies on a bed relaxing as he chats to a seated soldier who is busy adjusting the strap of his rifle. Not only do the figures read clearly but they also exist in a fully realized context in which beds, boots, shelving, and hanging clothes are all rendered with an economical precision.

Rock Forms
1955, charcoal,
18? x 24¾.

Pearlstein was kept on in Italy after hostilities were over, and he used the opportunity to see a number of exhibitions showing art that had been hidden during the war. He also took time to visit the Vatican collections and the churches in Venice, and he remembers paying caretakers in Florence to get into locked churches to see pictures by the great Renaissance painters.

Returning to the United States, Pearlstein went back to Carnegie Tech to finish his training. One of his classroom friends was the young Andrew Warhola, and it was with him that Pearlstein eventually made his way to New York in 1949. The two shared an apartment and both found work, Warhola—or Warhol, as he eventually came to be known—in illustration, and Pearlstein as an assistant to a graphic designer. After about 10 months or so Warhol had become a successful illustrator. The two parted company when Pearlstein got married.

Ladislav Sutnar, the graphic designer for whom Pearlstein worked for nearly eight years, had close ties to the Bauhaus—a school in Germany that combined crafts and the fine arts—and so Pearlstein absorbed a lot of the Bauhaus aesthetic while pursuing his ambitions as a painter in the evenings. At this time he was very much involved with the artists who lived around 10th Street, a group that included De Kooning and Philip Guston, and in 1954 he joined the Tanager Gallery, one of the first co-op galleries in the city. “Really it was like a graduate school for me,” says Pearlstein. “People like Greenberg or Guston would just stop by and chat. One morning, I found De Kooning sleeping on the steps outside when I went to open up the gallery. I had an exhibition of paintings up and he eventually came in and asked if he could talk about the work. He took me through each of the paintings in turn, talking about them in my terms rather than those of his own paintings. It was the best critique I ever got.”

Study for
Forest Landscape

1956, black watercolor, 19 x 24½.

Following the lead of the Abstract Expressionists, Pearlstein’s paintings at the time were heavily painted but not exactly abstract. He produced images based on popular American culture—including an American Eagle, a dollar sign, and eventually Superman—in the early 1950s, years before Pop Art was born. Clement Greenberg had already spotted Pearlstein and included him in an “Emerging Talent” show at the Kootz Gallery in 1954 along with Morris Louis and Kenneth Noland. Meanwhile, Pearlstein had another venture underway. In 1950, with the encouragement of Ladislav Sutnar, he undertook a serious study of art history, enrolling for a master’s degree at the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University, in Manhattan. This program was oriented by its director, Irwin Panofsky, toward the study of iconography. Pearlstein wrote his thesis on the work of Francis Picabia, and it may have been the study of this artist that moved Pearlstein to begin doubting the orthodox viewpoint of the development of art championed by Greenberg. Rather than a grand advancement toward flatness and the dominance of the picture plane, Picabia’s work—with its lively and inventive shifts between Cubism, Dadaism, and Surrealism—suggested that all kinds of approaches might be viable.

Drawing for
Tidal Inlet

1956, charcoal,
18? x 24¾.

Another important development of the mid-1950s was the artist’s association with Mercedes Matter, an artist who would later go on to found the New York Studio School of Drawing, Painting and Sculpture. Early on, with Charles Cajori, she organized small informal groups that met when it was convenient. But toward the late 1950s, she began to invite a number of artists who were mostly faculty at Pratt Institute to make figure drawings in her studio during six-hour marathons on Sunday evenings. The group included Lois Dodd, Mary Frank, Paul Georges, Charles Cajori, Philip Guston, Jack Tworkov, Stephen Green, George McNeil, and occasionally Alex Katz, among many others. Various versions of this group continued to meet for a number of years in different studios. Pearlstein, who had moved uptown, welcomed the chance to fraternize with fellow artists but quickly discovered an intense working atmosphere. Generally there were two models, students rather than professionals, and the poses were simple and natural rather than the classical contortions favored in the art schools. In the early days poses were short—10 minutes or so—and Pearlstein drew quickly using a soft 6B pencil on hard drawing paper, or with brush and raw-umber watercolor on charcoal paper and later on Arches watercolor paper. The lighting was bright and overhead as opposed to the soft directional lighting so often adopted in the art schools of the time.

Seated Female Model and
Leaning Male Model

undated (1960s), graphite, 18 x 23¾.

From the earliest examples it is clear that these drawings were anything but classical. They were generally executed in a continuous line that developed from an attempt at completely direct seeing. The artist was obviously trying to confront the problem of rendering head-on, without recourse to any preconceived standards of draftsmanship. He started almost anywhere on the body and followed the form wherever it might have led. This approach sometimes resulted in oddities or quirks in the drawing that the artist chose to keep. Indeed, the drawings of this era, like the drawings that would come in later decades, show little or no signs of correction or erasure. “I accept what I do,” says the artist. “I don’t second-guess myself. The drawing is a result of considerable concentration and intense effort on my part. If that is the way I saw it then I stand by it.”

It was a long time before this early figure work was to yield fruit as paintings, however. Throughout the 1950s Pearlstein painted Abstract Expressionist landscapes, often based on rocks that he collected outdoors. These paintings, hovering between abstraction and traditional landscape, were very much part of the artistic currency of the day, and Pearlstein was able to show them and garner some support. In 1958 he won a Fulbright grant and went to live for a year in Italy, where he continued his landscape work. The drawings and watercolors he made at this time, however, show an increasing realism and a tendency to render more precisely and fully. A drawing of the Palatine Hill, for instance, carefully depicts a complex warren of ruined archways and collapsing walls. This year also marked the end of Pearlstein’s work as a graphic artist. Upon his return from Italy, he began teaching at the Pratt Institute and went on to teach at Brooklyn College for many years.

Female Model on Chrome Stool,
Male Model on Floor

1978, sepia wash on paper, 40 x 59¾.
Private collection.

It wasn’t until 1962 that Pearlstein first showed his figure drawings at the Allan Frumkin Gallery, in New York City. After the Expressionist years, in which the figure had only been acceptable if it was charged with enormous emotion and painterly drama, the cool, almost clinically detached quality of Pearlstein’s drawings came as somewhat of a shock to the art world. There was also the curious quality of images in which two nude people were displayed in a situation that was potentially sexual, but which, in fact, involved nothing more than posed figures forming a dynamic composition. Writing a long statement about his art that year for ARTNews, Pearlstein insisted on the directness of his approach: “The naked human body is the most familiar of mental images, but we only think we know it. Our everyday factual view is of the clothed body, and on those occasions when our dirty mind will strip a person, it will see something idealized. 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 viewing position of the observer’s eyes. Each movement changes as well the way the form is revealed by light: the shadows, reflections and local colors are in constant flux.” Pearlstein was also conscious of the requirement of the artist to be selective about what he chooses to draw. “The rules of the game are determined when the artist decides what kind of faithful record of which aspect of the experience shall be made. For, regrettably, the artist cannot transmit the total experience.”

Back of Seated Model
Facing Mirror, No. 1

1967, graphite,
14 x 11.

The artist began making paintings from his drawings and eventually painted directly from the model. The resulting pictures were a considerable departure from his early work, eventually dropping all the heavy manipulation of paint favored by the Abstract Expressionists and instead using a lean and economic style. Part of the change in quality was attributed by the artist to his leaving the world of graphic design. “After I left that kind of precisionist work and got into teaching for a living, my work became more precise. Once I wasn’t doing it for a living the same impulse went into the painting.” Another more prosaic event had increased his interest in precision. In the late 1950s he had worked for a few months for Life magazine where, for insurance purposes, he had been given a routine medical exam that included an eye test. “I had been wearing the same prescription lenses since high school,” says the artist. “When I was in the army they just copied the prescription, and I never thought to change it. When the doctor popped a different set of lenses into the apparatus I suddenly saw the world jump into sharp clarity for the first time. I said, ‘Give me those!’ It was such a pleasure seeing clearly I never wanted to look at an Impressionist painting again.”

In the early 1960s Pearlstein had three young children and money was very tight. Nevertheless, he took the plunge and began hiring his own models. Right from the beginning he carefully controlled the studio conditions. He used three blue-tinged floodlights facing slightly toward the wall, and he curtained the windows to keep out daylight. Painfully conscious of the cost of paying a model, the artist worked quickly, vowing to complete each painting in a limited number of hours. This was another circumstance that contributed to the economy and sense of directness in the paintings.

Two Seated Models,
One on Eames Chair

1982, charcoal, 30¼ x 44?.

The drawings of this period remained linear and were completed in either graphite or brush. Pearlstein favored a Chinese brush that allowed him a combination of delicate line and broader swaths for washes. As he tended to begin in the middle of the paper and worked along the forms as he found them, the resulting images would often be cropped when he finally arrived at the edges. Heads, feet, or any other part of the body might be missing, but the artist felt comfortable with this outcome as long as he felt the image made sense. Pearlstein attributes part of his interest in cropping to his time at Life magazine, where he would often be obliged to lay out the same page in a number of different ways. Photographs were copied at different scales using a Photostat machine, and Pearlstein was required to manipulate them through cropping. “I became more interested in what was left on the outside after the image was cropped,” he says. “In some ways it’s surprising that I never did paintings about that.” The artist acknowledges that in his drawings a sort of reverse cropping takes place. The image travels and unfolds until it reaches the edge and is stopped. And if the edge is slicing through a thigh or a breast or a neck, the artist simply accepts the outcome. For the viewer, however, the effect can be somewhat alarming, even harsh, as though some heartless creature has simply decided to chop up his creation. Pearlstein saw it differently. “For me what counts are the movements, the axial movement, the direction in which the forms move,” Paul Cummings quotes him as saying in his book Artists in Their Own Words: Interviews by Paul Cummings (St. Martin’s Press, New York, New York). “So if the torso is moving well, it doesn’t need the head. If the head is moving in an altogether different way and I like it, I’ll start with the head and let the feet go. It’s how these things crisscross across the surface of the canvas that really matters.”

Nude and New York
1985, graphite, 23 x 29.

Some of the drawings of this early period introduce a further device: a broken or dotted line that the artist used to notate a surface feature for later work in another medium. The line might show the position of a bone or muscle beneath the surface or merely indicate the edge of a cast shadow. The artist is clearly interested in limiting his observation to visual events rather than looking for visual clues that will enable him to render a fully volumetric form along classical lines. He accepts the distortions, quirks, and flattening of space that often result from this approach because his faith is grounded in the authenticity of the act of looking. In a sense Pearlstein is making art more closely related to that of Cézanne than that of the academies—the appearance of the work is dictated by the process of looking at the world.

Pearlstein showed his paintings at the Frumkin Gallery in 1963 and received an enthusiastic review from Sydney Tillim, an important critic at the time, who wrote in Arts Magazine that the artist “Has not only regained the figure for painting; he has put it behind the plane and in deep space without recourse to nostalgia (history) or fashion (new images of man).” Tillim recognized that Pearlstein had returned to a traditional concern of art—the depiction of the human being in real space from a single viewpoint—without having recourse to all the baggage of that tradition. Gone were the academic poses and the carefully balanced compositions of academic art, and gone were the drama and angst of Expressionism. They had been replaced by a cool, fearless, and unrelenting gaze. The models remained in relaxed and more or less natural resting poses. There was no attempt at gesture, interaction, storytelling, idealization, or any of the other garnishings of representational painting. The pictures looked radical, groundbreaking, and somewhat challenging. Pearlstein quickly gained a wide reputation. As the 1960s progressed, the focus in the paintings sharpened. Moreover, the backgrounds and physical contexts of the models were worked up to the same hard finish. Gradually the artist started to include one or two props, usually furnishings from his own house: a sofa, a chair, a carpet. Often these objects played pivotal roles in the composition, reflecting and reinforcing movements that occur through the figures. Pearlstein also began to introduce pieces of heavily patterned textiles, a move that involved the challenge of reflected color and dynamic shifts between the subtleties of flesh color and the brilliant local color of the fabrics.

Model With Leg Extended
on Wooden Bench

1983, Conté, 30 x 40.

Parallel to his work as a painter, Pearlstein has produced a large body of work as a printmaker. His early prints are lithographs, a form that allows direct drawing on the stone from the model. The artist’s disdain for changes and erasure in the line is well suited to this medium, and the prints follow his concerns in painting as he presents often large-scale figures singly or in pairs. The somewhat soft and dense nature of the lithographic line adds a small degree of warmth to the artist’s drawings, which is often reinforced by somewhat heavier tonal hatching than in most of his graphite works. Later, Pearlstein ventured into etching, a medium that also allowed him to work from life, drawing first with brush and varnish as stop-out for the first acid bite, then painting with the varnish as stop-out for the succeeding areas of tone, building the tone and color in aquatint. He also produced some elaborate prints of views of famous archaeological sites and a cityscape of lower Manhattan.

Later Pearlstein made a foray into woodblock, producing a truly spectacular print. In 1986 he traveled to Jerusalem and made an enormous watercolor showing a panorama of the Kidron Valley. The work involved some technical challenges, not the least being the wind, and the artist completed the picture on two five-foot pieces of watercolor paper, set on an easel secured heavily by ropes. “They’d probably shoot at me if I worked up there today,” remarks the artist, adding that the viewpoint was in East Jerusalem. The print was made at Graphicstudio at the University of South Florida, in Tampa, and involved a novel process: The artist created the nine color separations of his watercolor drawing on individual sheets of Mylar, and the resulting images were then transferred to the surface of the blocks using a photographic emulsion. The print was to be done in 10 colors, and since it was divided into two halves, like the watercolor, there were 20 five-foot blocks cut in several different woods to exploit their various textures—cherry, birch, walnut, and gumwood. This work was left to a professional. “I’m afraid it was such a big task that the poor man wound up in the hospital,” [with tennis elbow] says Pearlstein. “And then I had to go down to work on corrections for quite a while.” The final print was made using transparent inks that reflected the watercolor finish of the original.

Kidron Valley

undated (1980s), graphite,
26¾ x 18¾.

Since the early 1980s, Pearlstein has been making increasingly complex paintings and drawings in which his nudes are joined by a wide array of props. These artifacts are drawn from the artist’s large collection of American folk art. The nudes are suddenly entangled in compositions that might include a large model airplane along with a child’s car-plane toy. In one painting a nude woman embraces a large carved swan decoy. Wooden rocking horses, model zeppelins, and fire engines compete with antique chairs, carved lions, and weather vanes, crowding and threatening the human models with their sharp edges and hard surfaces. With so many powerful images at play, the viewer is naturally tempted to look for literal meaning in the work. Surely a pair of nude women, dozing while a zeppelin dives vertically between them, must be an image of war and destruction. Or perhaps not. “I’m making puzzles for future art historians,” quips the artist, who points out that it is difficult, if not impossible, to control the meaning of a work of art because the context in which it is seen is always changing. On one occasion, he recounts, he was making a painting in which a pair of 19th-century marionettes depicting two black musicians are shown facing a white male nude. While he was working on the picture a series of race riots erupted in Los Angeles. “I realized that the meaning of the piece had changed,” said the artist. “But then I decided to ignore it and finish the painting.” Pearlstein acknowledges that some viewers have had a hard time with the marionettes, which have been used in several of his pictures. “They were made by a black artist for the entertainment of blacks,” says the artist, “and I’m told that the style of carving can be identified with a particular African tribe.” There was no racist intention when the works were made, Pearlstein implies, so that if they now strike some viewers as negative stereotypes it is only because of a shift in context over which the artist has no control. It seems that what Pearlstein is up to in these paintings is to overload the work with symbols, signifiers, and potential meanings so that in the end they simply point us back, exhausted, to the electric pleasures of seeing the objects and models themselves. “I posed one model with a diving airplane and a model of Mickey Mouse,” says the artist. “The model told me that the work was certainly a comment on 9/11 with Mickey Mouse standing for American culture. I told him that I was more interested in how the shape of his hairline mirrored that of Mickey. I think he got a bit upset, and after the painting was done he shaved his head.”

Tree Roots Clutching
1959, sepia wash on paper,
13? x 16¾.

Drawing has continued to play an important role in the development of each of Pearlstein’s paintings. Most pictures begin with a brush drawing on paper. These days the artist uses a large sable round made by Winsor Newton, and draws with a burnt-sienna or burnt-umber wash. This image is then worked up into a watercolor of the whole scene so the artist can get some idea of the viability of his composition before he begins work on a large painting. “A kind of preview,” says the artist. Once he begins the painting however, he does not transfer the drawing mechanically. Rather, he starts over from the beginning, drawing directly from life in charcoal.

Pearlstein is still intensely active at the age of 84. A recent visit to his studio in Manhattan’s garment district found him working on several very large canvases, aided by three models. The artist’s collection of American folk art is joined by collections of Roman and Greek fragments, Egyptian pots, Japanese prints, and much more. An antique circus poster shares wall space with a painting by an old student and a drawing by the 19th-century French artist Antoine-Louis Barye. Pearlstein takes obvious delight in exploring his collection with a visitor, making it clear that the pleasures of looking and the enjoyment of discovering how other artists have seen the world continue to fuel the creative energy of this wonderful and important artist.

About the Artist

Philip Pearlstein has had well over 100 solo shows in his career, and his work appears in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York City; The Museum of Modern Art, in New York City; the Smithsonian American Art Museum, in Washington, DC; The Art Institute of Chicago; the Whitney Museum of American Art, in New York City; the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and dozens of other major public collections. Pearlstein’s many awards include a National Endowment for the Arts scholarship, a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation fellowship, and a Fulbright fellowship. Learn more about Pearlstein by visiting the website of his New York City gallery, Betty Cuningham Gallery, at www.bettycuninghamgallery.com.

Watch the video: Philip Pearlstein New Paintings at Betty Cuningham Gallery (August 2022).