Philip Pearlstein was born in Pittsburgh, PA in 1924 and has been exhibiting in New York since 1955. His work can be seen in 66 museum collections, including The Art Institute of Chicago, The Cleveland Museum of Art, the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, and the Whitney Museum.
In addition, Pearlstein has garnered numerous awards and recognitions throughout his life. Most notably are the National Council of Arts Administrators Visual Artist Award, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship, and the National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship. Pearlstein has received honorary doctorate degrees from the New York Academy of Arts, Brooklyn College, and the Center for Creative Studies and the College of Art & Design, Detroit. He served as the President of the American Academy of Arts and Letters from 2003 through 2006.
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“Hello and Goodbye, Francis Picabia”
By Philip Pearlstein
One of the prime movers of modern art is subject of a major retrospective at the Guggenheim; here an American painter tells how he first studied Picabia, felt liberated by his vanguard ideas, and finally rejected them
With the Museum of Modern Art in New York preparing to open a much-anticipated Francis Picabia retrospective on Monday, we turn back to the September 1970 issue of ARTnews, in which Philip Pearlstein wrote an essay about the artist. The Guggenheim Museum had staged a Picabia retrospective in that year (MoMA’s show, reviewed in these pages by Andrew Russeth, is the first the United States since then), and Pearlstein took this article as an opportunity to pen a love letter to the artist. Pearlstein’s piece follows in full below. For more articles about Picabia from the ARTnews archives, consult the Retrospective that appears in our Fall 2016 issue.
Please find a press release from the Morgan Library & Museum regarding a recent gift of a collection of World War II drawings by Philip Pearlstein. Click the Morgan Library's link to PDF below.
This would be an intriguing show no matter who the artist: in 1943 a young American is drafted and spends three years serving in World War II; throughout the entire time, he records his experience in dozens of drawings and watercolors. The fact that the young man in question is now the major figure painter Philip Pearlstein (who is still going strong at 92) makes the show all the more compelling.
In 11th grade the young Pearlstein had won first prize in both the oil painting and watercolor sections of the National Scholastic High School Contest. His paintings were reproduced in full color in Life magazine. A couple of years later Pearlstein took his copy of Life with him when he reported for duty—evidence that he might be better employed as a sign painter than a frontline infantryman.
The little pictures that make up this exhibition document Pearlstein’s time in training camps in the United States, aboard troop ships crossing the Atlantic, and as a G.I. in occupied Italy. Occasionally, they provide hints of the artistic personality that would blossom in his work from the 1960s onward. There are even a few of them—like the 1943 group of studies of Soldiers Resting, for example—that look forward to the foreshortened prone figures with their splayed and overlapping limbs that characterize his best known work, though of course no naked women appear among his wartime subjects.
Featuring drawings from the 1940s by the revered realist painter Philip Pearlstein, “WWII Captured on Paper” manifests as a stunning historic document. Made from observation and personal experience, the works tell of the physical and emotional realities of a G.I. in an infantry replacement unit during the Second World War.
Pearlstein recalls: “During my freshman year at Carnegie, most of the male student body took the introduction to military training [ROTC] instead of gym, and at the end of the school year, in June 1943, we all met at Fort Meade, Maryland. After being interviewed, all of my friends were assigned to the Signal Corps.” Already recognized for his artistic talent, Pearlstein was able to avoid the same fate, perhaps saving his life. In the National Scholastic High School Art Contest, he had been awarded first and second prize for two paintings that were subsequently featured in the July 16, 1941 issue of Life magazine.
“On instinct, I had taken a copy of the issue with me,” he explained, “and I showed it to the officer who interviewed me. He seemed impressed, but I was assigned to the Infantry rather than the Signal Corps, packed into a very crowded train, and sent to Fort McClellan, Alabama, where four months of violent physical activity, training in a very hot, sun-blinding summer, transformed me from a pudgy, non-athletic person into a surprisingly muscular G.I.”
The American artist has pursued an independent path for more than 60 years. Here, he talks about his life and career, from his time in Italy during the second world war and his student days with Andy Warhol to his current practice
Pearlstein, Warhol, Cantor: From Carnegie Tech to New York,—featuring the work of three provocative artists—is as informative as it is pleasurable. As you enter the gallery you are faced with their ensemble photograph, taken on the front lawn of Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Tech in the late 1940s, the beginning of their lifelong friendship.
I'm not for a second accusing Warhol of anything close to plagiarism; his greatest talent, as I've said before, may have been his skill as a sponge, soaking up ideas and imagery that others threw away then turning them into vital parts of our culture. But Pearlstein does deserve some credit as spongee.
“Pearlstein, Warhol, Cantor: From Pittsburgh to New York” at The Andy Warhol Museum feels a bit like a family gathering where you learn things about your relatives you hadn’t heard before. It’s a rare look into the career beginnings of two talented young artists who achieved considerable success in both commercial and fine arts, and an opportunity to discover another who later chose to apply her talents elsewhere.
In 1949, two young, aspiring artists, Philip Pearlstein and Andy Warhol, bought bus tickets out of Pittsburgh. They arrived in New York with a few shopping bags stuffed with clothes, art supplies, and little else. This summer, the Andy Warhol Museum tracks the friendship and flight of the two painters, along with fellow classmate Dorothy Cantor, from their industrial hometown to the lodestar of the 1950s art world. Through paintings and drawings—bolstered by a bewitching cache of ephemera including photos of the friends painting in class or lounging on the beach—“Pearlstein, Warhol, Cantor: From Pittsburgh to New York” balances the legacies of three artists who, in the end, followed distinctly different trajectories.
The Andy Warhol Museum presents Pearlstein, Warhol, Cantor: From Pittsburgh to New York, the first exhibition to explore the work of Philip Pearlstein, Andy Warhol, and Dorothy Cantor as students at Carnegie Tech (now Carnegie Mellon University), and as young artists breaking into the New York Art World in the early 1950s. This early period was one of close association between Warhol and Pearlstein as they were fellow students, roommates in New York, and enthusiastic artists working in commercial illustration. Cantor, one year behind them in school, was equally pursuing her work, but left her practice to start a family with Pearlstein.
Six Paintings, Six Decades
February 27 – May 11, 2014
National Academy Museum
1083 Fifth Avenue
Opening Reception: February 26, 6 PM
(RSVP to email@example.com or call 212.369.4880 x215)
In the late 1950s, Philip Pearlstein abandoned the expressive painterly language favored by his elders and many of his contemporaries and set out to work directly from observation. He ignored contemporaneous aesthetic programs based on Greenbergian next-step assumptions about art history and the various self-reflexive aesthetics that permeated the New York art scene during those years.
One of the many wonderful things about Philip Pearlstein's work is its independence. For about 50 years, since he found his metier while in his 30s, Pearlstein has gone his own way, ignoring the big trends and influences that have shaped most of the important art of our time. He's pretty much a singularity in a world that likes to put art into categories.
Pearlstein is best known for his nudes, and there is a full complement of them in a retrospective at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg. But "Philip Pearlstein's People, Places, Things" is a broad, deep show that begins with a high school painting, continues through 2011 and includes portraits and landscapes.
That youthful painting, Merry-Go-Round, created in 1940, won first place in 1941 in the prestigious Scholastic magazine art competition and was reproduced in Life magazine. It's pretty and nicely worked in a style associated with regionalism (a category!) and especially Reginald Marsh. It is the work of a gifted student and shouldn't be overanalyzed, but it's interesting in its connection to an art movement considered a throwback in its adherence to realism and its rejection of abstraction, which would become the defining principles in Pearlstein's mature work.
But he was a product of his time and teachers, so in the 1950s he flirted with abstraction and abstract expressionism, another movement defined in general terms as combining nonobjective forms with spontaneous, emotion-fueled technique. Superman (1952), for example, is composed of a mass of self-conscious brushstrokes. Another interesting footnote about Pearlstein is that he and Andy Warhol were classmates at Carnegie Institute of Technology in Pittsburgh (now Carnegie Mellon University). They were roommates when they moved to New York, where Warhol worked as an illustrator and Pearlstein as a graphic artist. He painted this image long before Warhol embraced pop art.
In 1961, the artist found a subject that would preoccupy him for the rest of his life: the nude.
In a recent interview when he visited the St. Petersburg museum, he said he began attending a figure-drawing group in another artist's studio "every Sunday night for years. At first it was a social event for me but gradually I became more interested. In my experience, life drawing was boring. The question became, 'How do you turn a study of the figure into a total composition?' "
Nudes have been around as long as there has been art, and modern and contemporary artists have continued to work in that genre, so it was, on the surface, not an obvious revelation. But Pearlstein, who by then had earned a graduate degree in art history and was teaching studio art, decided to ignore the long tradition, from ancient statues to Lucian Freud's paintings, of imbuing the nude human figure with symbolism, emotion or eroticism. They would, instead, be about compositional problem solving.
"The bodies become incidental," he said.
Which explains why Pearlstein paints them with detachment from himself, the viewer and each other when more than one model is used in a work. The arms and legs are moving parts in a puzzle he sets out to piece together when he begins a painting.
"I start in the middle and then let it grow. What happens around the edges just happens."
What often happens is that the entire body is rarely in a painting, a foot or part of a leg lost at the edge of the canvas. The bodies are always ordinary, nothing exaggerated as in beautiful or grotesque, with the flesh tones rendered in a straightforward way.
As time has gone by, Pearlstein has raised the bar ever higher in his compositional game of problem solving, adding all kinds of objects from the trove he and his wife, Dorothy, have collected over the years. But don't look for subliminal messages. While the toy train in Model on Lawn Chair With Tin-Toy Locomotive may be a homage to surrealist painter Rene Magritte, for example, it isn't a threatening phallic symbol.
Though not as well-known, Pearlstein's landscapes, architectural renderings and cityscapes have, in most cases, the same fascination with formal arrangement. In the 1950s, while getting his art history degree, he created what we call today his bucket list of places he wanted to visit when he could afford to travel. He prefers watercolor to oil for these vistas that take us to, among other places, the Great Sphinx in Egypt, Machu Picchu in Peru and Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Two prints in the show, of Rome and Jerusalem, may be familiar; they were created by Graphicstudio at the University of South Florida during visits Pearlstein has made there for the atelier's famous collaborations.
He also created cityscapes of New York, where he has lived for most of his adult life. It has sometimes been a background for his nudes, but his gallery representative jokingly told him to paint more of the city because it sold better than the naked people. He paints the same scene by day and night, and they make a great pair. In the day version, Pearlstein can't resist a prop: One of his weather vanes — a horse — looks as if it's leaping through the window.
One gallery at the museum is devoted to portraits. Like his nudes, they are highly realistic and don't aim to flatter or sensationalize the sitter. Also like the nudes, the sitters, when more than one are on a canvas, seem each unaware of the other. Unlike them, the subjects of the portraits often look at us and the artist. Pearlstein rarely loads them with random objects either. Instead, he lavishes his love of detail on the clothing, Chuck Close's cable sweater and Beth Levine's blouse, for example. And independent curator Patterson Sims' observation in the catalog is true: Pearlstein is a master at painting hands. In general, his portraits can be an acquired taste. Maybe it's the clothes. The most successful in the group, in my opinion, is of fellow artist Scott Burton, who is shown shirtless (and with a great hand).
"I'm interested in how a painting is put together," Pearlstein said. And we see that in all his works. But the nudes are his lodestar.
This is an important show for the Tampa Bay area. It's the first retrospective of the work of this major living artist since 1983. It was organized for the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg at the request of museum director Kent Lydecker by Sims with Pearlstein's participation, and won't travel to another museum after its run ends on June 16. To further burnish the exhibition, Sims and the museum staff have created a handsome catalog with excellent essays by Sims and Richard Armstrong, director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation, that's worth its $25 cost.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.
Philip Pearlstein's People, Places, Things
The exhibition is at the Museum of Fine Arts, St. Petersburg, 255 Beach Drive NE, through June 16. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday with extended hours to 8 p.m. Thursday and from noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $17 adults, $15 seniors, $10 students 7 and older including college students with ID. Admission is $10 on Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m. fine-arts.org or (727) 893-8293.