In the 1960s, Philip Pearlstein first turned the iconic female nude on its head. The uninitiated might say he beheaded her. For centuries, artists exalted the female body as a thing of beauty, typified by Titian’s perfected Renaissance paintings of Venus and Peter Paul Rubens’ fleshy 17th-century Baroque nudes. Pearlstein painted it otherwise.
The artist, who died in December at age 98, leaves behind a legacy of puritanically non-sensual female nudes that stimulate the senses in their own sui generis way. At the same time, he revolutionized an art world dominated by abstraction.
For more than a half-century, Pearlstein painted nude studio models under harsh, artificial light with a clinical eye and icy precision. The truncated limbs and indifferent cropping that surprise some viewers were the byproduct of his technique; he painted from the center of the canvas outward to the edges.
“While Pearlstein’s contemporary realist Chuck Close was interested in the landscape of the face,” says Stephanie Stebich, the director of the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), home to several of the artist’s works, “Pearlstein was unwaveringly interested in the landscape of the body.”
Approaching the human figure with painstaking realism in the 1960s and '70s positioned Pearlstein against abstract art trends.
At first viewing Pearlstein as regressive, critics soon recognized the crucial importance of his innovations. “Pearlstein breathed new life into figuration in the 1960s,” says Melissa Ho, the museum’s curator of 20th-century art. “In large paintings like Two Models in a Window with Cast Iron Toys in SAAM’s collection, he approached the nude without allegory or eroticism, instead portraying the human body with cool objectivity. He took a traditional genre and made it shockingly modern.”
SAAM’s Two Models in a Window with Cast Iron Toy, a 1987 piece measuring 72 inches square, is typical of Pearlstein’s work. Painting from a high vantage point, Pearlstein took full advantage of the women’s contours and bony structures of their bodies, rendering them unidealized with sagging, wrinkled flesh. Here and elsewhere, Pearlstein privileged accessories as much as the humans depicted. Favorites included toys, mirrors, and especially patterned rugs and furniture. Two Models exemplifies the working formula that dominates Pearlstein’s oeuvre: anonymous studio models carefully posed amid staged props. On large canvases, Pearlstein rendered objects in a rich palette that strikingly contrasts with the pallid skin of his detached human subjects.
Even as the human figure stood at the center of Pearlstein’s art, he professed disinterest in the psychological aspects of his models. Instead, he focused on color, light and composition. “Pearlstein was a pioneer. He made us look at representation—exact representation—differently,” says Betty Cuningham of the Betty Cuningham Gallery in New York, who worked with Pearlstein for the last 40 years and will now manage his estate. “He chose the loaded subject of the female (sometimes male) nude and removed the storyline. No narrative. As time went on, his paintings became more complex and he reveled in the challenge.”
“I’m concerned with the human figure as a found object,” Pearlstein himself asserted in a 1975 interview for Art in America. Nearly a decade later he elaborated in a book that showcased him alongside other realist painters of his generation, among them Alex Katz and Wayne Thiebaud: “I’ve deliberately tried not to be expressive about the models I’ve been painting for almost 20 years now, not to make any kind of comment but just to work at the formal problems of representational painting in relation to picture structure.”
Almost two decades ago, when writing a book about Jewish American artists, I sent a letter to Pearlstein who wrote back in some detail. He then generously agreed to talk on the phone after I had formulated further questions, one of which received a short response. I asked if he ever tired of painting nudes, and Pearlstein matter-of-factly replied: “Never.”
Born in Pittsburgh, Pearlstein garnered national acclaim for his art as a teenager. He was awarded first and third prize in Scholastic magazine’s National High School Art Exhibition; the winning paintings were reproduced in Life magazine. After completing one year of study at the Carnegie Institute of Technology (now Carnegie Mellon University) he was drafted into the Army. While enlisted, Pearlstein made documentary sketches and watercolors of infantry training scenes and military life. Discharged in 1946, Pearlstein returned to Carnegie Tech on the G.I. Bill. With a degree in hand, he moved to New York City and shared an apartment with classmate Andy Warhol. The pair initially worked as graphic designers.
The ambitious Pearlstein earned a master’s in art history from New York University in 1955, writing his thesis on French avant-garde painter Francis Picabia. That same year, he showed expressionistic, heavily painted landscapes influenced by Abstract Expressionism in his first solo exhibition at Manhattan’s Tanager Gallery. It was in the early ‘60s that Pearlstein began to privilege studio models, first expressionistically akin to his landscapes before he found his signature style.
During this experimental period, photorealist artist Audrey Flack, also represented in three Smithsonian repositories, sketched shared live models in Pearlstein’s brownstone on the West Side. “Philip was steadfast and strong, making intelligent art that wasn’t fickle,” Flack says. “It was based on direct vision as opposed to the cerebral emotionality of Abstract Expressionism. He came along at a moment in history that I was in, too. Philip was a father of the American Realist movement the way Picasso was a father of Cubism.”
In the 1970s Pearlstein reintroduced watercolors to his repertoire, a technique explored while in the Army. Like his paintings, Pearlstein’s watercolors are factual, dispassionately rendered representational works that eschew symbolism and narrative. Watercolors of languid, nude studio models occupied the artist, as did sepia washes of both landscapes and nudes.
Pearlstein’s teaching helped him to refine his own art, first at Pratt Institute (1959-63) and then at Brooklyn College until his retirement in 1988. By then he had been elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters; he served as president from 2003 to 2006.
“Pearlstein was one of the great artists of the second half of the 20th century,” says Michael Berger, director and owner of the Michael Berger Gallery in Pittsburgh, who mounted six solo exhibitions for the artist, the first in the 1970s. “Pearlstein was the ultimate realist, especially epitomized by his nudes.”
Although best known for his monumental studio nudes in perpetual stasis, he was also an intriguing and original portraitist, with several examples held in the collections of the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery. Among them is a 1979 Time magazine cover featuring politician Henry Kissinger. At the time, most modern artists ran from portraiture, but not Pearlstein. His likeness of Kissinger takes cues from a very different visual language in striking contrast to more traditional portraitists like John Singleton Copley or John Singer Sargent.
“What I find most innovative about Pearlstein’s approach to portraiture is how those works border on abstraction through cropping and brushstrokes yet the figure remains at the forefront. By combining figuration and abstraction he pushed the genre forward,” says Dorothy Moss, curator of painting and sculpture at the National Portrait Gallery. “At the same time, a sense of objectification blends with deep psychological complexity as seen in his subjects’ gestures, expressions and poses.”
Pearlstein’s personal papers in the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art provide a treasure trove of information about the artist through letters, scrapbooks, catalogues, artwork, interviews and photographs spanning 40 years. “The Archives of American Art is honored to hold the papers of Philip Pearlstein, documenting the life of this legendary painter and educator,” says Liza Kirwin, the Archives’ interim director. “As Pearlstein noted, he painted nudes, ‘as a kind of complex still-life object,’ and his papers are evidence of his unflinching commitment to realism and the figure as object. They also reveal the community of artists, art dealers, curators, collectors and critics in his circle, spanning five decades, from his student days in Pittsburgh with classmate Andy Warhol to major exhibitions and lifetime achievement awards.”
His connection to the Smithsonian Institution extends to service on SAAM’s advisory board for four years in the early 1980s. As a commissioner, Pearlstein was a champion of American artists.
“Philip said, several times, how very important it was to him to have his paintings and papers with the Smithsonian: the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the National Portrait Gallery and the Archives of American Art,” Cuningham remembers. “Those institutions along with so many other museums hold his legacy—a legacy which will certainly endure around the world for centuries to come.”