The Philip Pearlstein retrospective now at the Brooklyn Museum [review published in 1983], curated by Russell Bowman, is a dense and satisfying show. Pearlstein’s work has not lost its episodic power of surprise: one tends to feel more familiar with it than one is. What is so new about a nude in a room, done over and over again? Quite a lot, in fact. Pearlstein is by now a fixture of the museums and art history books. He is fifty nine this year, and probably did more to “break the ice” for realist painting in America than any other artist of his generation. What is on the walls in Brooklyn embodies a struggle with convention as tenacious as any in modern American painting.
As Irving Sandler remarks in his catalogue essay, Pearlstein “resumed what an avant garde some three quarters of a century earlier had proclaimed to be academic” modeled painting of the naked human body. The studio nude, posed, had been the very protein (or, to its detractors, the basic starch) of Salon painting from Ingres to Bouguereau. It was thrust into eclipse by Impressionism because it carried an aura of the posed, the stagy, the allegorical, and Post Impressionism finished it off. The nude became a casualty of the means painters chose to assert their pictorial honesty: the near religious cult of flatness. The intricate bumps and hollows, bosses and knots and smooth rotundities of the body’s landscape were generalized down to patches. By the start of Pearlstein’s career, in the ebb tide of Abstract Expressionism, the very idea of rendering the posed body in a room seemed absurd; it required the most taboo act known to late modernism, making a spatial illusion, turning the flat plane into a window.
Taboos are made to be broken; one sees today why Pearlstein was interested in an artist so totally unlike himself, the Dadaist Francis Picabia, who conceived his work as a constant affront to received taste. Painting the studio nude, Pearlstein declared allegiances very different from those common in the New York art world of the late fifties. In neither hedonism nor irony nor self expression, he wanted to go back and start from Gustave Courbet, painting the naked body in a spirit of detached, colloquial reportage, as though all the proscriptions against figure painting had lost their magic. To suppose this was not a radical act, one would need to know very little about the pressure of ideology and convention in the New York art world of the time. Realist figurative painting was as unpopular then as abstract art is now.
Pearlstein’s “look,” with its tallowy largesse, its peculiar blend of remoteness and intimacy, did not appear overnight. In the early fifties his paint was as roiled and heavy as any young abstract painter’s: his interest in Picabia’s machine body images shows in a 1950 Painting of a scrawny nude being attacked by a bathroom shower, and there is even a sign of Pop imagery to come, in a 1952 painting of Superman, blue chinned as a mafioso and bulgy as the Laocoon (to which his pose refers), flying over the pinnacles of Metropolis. But by the mid fifties Pearlstein had begun to concentrate on landscape, and the basic motifs of his later work were beginning to emerge. There are studies of rocks and cliffs in this show, plain mineral matter pushed against the eye, whose closeness and rotundity, cracks and fissures uncannily predict the nude bodies Pearlstein would be scrutinizing twenty years later. But, he later remarked, he chose them because they looked like Abstract Expressionist compositions. For a while he stayed with landscape, painting it in Italy the sun inflamed bricks of Roman ruins, the cliffs at Positano running like wax in a controlled chaos of juicy brush marks paying the necessary homages to de Kooning and, further back, to Soutine’s landscapes at Ceret. Then, on his return to New York City in 1959, he concentrated on the human figure and, with a few exceptions (paintings of the Canyon de Chelly in Arizona, done in 1975, a few cityscapes of lower Manhattan from a Greenwich Village high rise, among others), ignored the outdoors thereafter. What he wanted was something perfectly controllable, a situation rigged by choice, a setup: a hired anonymous figure under floodlights, in a room.
For Pearlstein’s idea of realism had nothing to do with the conventional picture: an artist plants his easel before a scene and transcribes it as best he can. On the contrary, he wanted the rules of the game to be apparent. This meant declaring the artifice of pose, cropping, lighting and visual angle, as conscious elements of subject. Nothing about the final image would seem “found”; if a leg cut the corner, of the canvas at forty five degrees, that was because Pearlstein wanted it to, not because the model happened to sit that way. He said he wanted his art to look “strongly conditioned by procedures,” and thus it came to seem perversely at first, then inevitably aligned with “systematic” art In the seventies, even with Minimalism. Pearlstein’s mature pictures do not suggest that you have walked into a room and come across people sitting or standing there. The framing and angles are too conscious for that. The eyeline jumps up to seven feet above the ground; the top of the canvas slices off the model’s head. Sometimes, particularly in recent works such as Two Models in Bamboo Chairs with Mirrors, 1981, the relationship among body, furniture, patterned cloth and their reflections takes on an almost conundrumlike air. Pearlstein’s space is so transparent that one cannot at first tell the body from its reflection. The eye sorts through the rhymes, counterparts and fragments, reassembling the scene against the resistance of the pattern, its responses dominated by the strong, smooth ovals of the bamboo chair arms. He gives inanimate pattern baseboard moldings, a kilim rug, the herringbone parquet of a floor or the florid Deco geometries of a wrap a pictorial importance equal to that of the sallow flesh. And yet it is not true that everything gets reduced to pattern. PearIstein’s eye is harsh and factual, and it takes in the conditions of pose without eliding them. One knows that his models are tired, their faces sag in boredom, their muscles are barely awake. The mechanics of the studio are acknowledged too, If the edge of an easel casts two shadows because two floodlights are aimed at it, they end up in the painting.
This collusion between the formal, procedural side of Pearlstein’s work and its ungeneralized directness of observation is what gives his paintings their “cold,” unsettling look. And something else: for there is no painter today who rejects, more tellingly, the idealist distinction between the “naked” and the “nude.” There is a blunt sexuality in Pearlstein’s work that the conspicuous formal devices frame rather than abolish. This formality is not voyeuristic, cute, Playboyish or “earthy”; it offers nothing and does not even try to be inviting. It arises from Pearlstein’s fascination with the strangeness of flesh, the otherness of bodies not his own. In other words, his style isolates that quality in nakedness that the conventions of the pinup and the titillations of high art nudes seek to cover: the fact that the skin is a frontier as well as a surface. Most of the objections to Pearlstein’s frigidity seem to connect to this fact without acknowledging it, and yet it is one of the chief insights of his work, very much a part of its growing claim on our attention. Realism, we learn once more, is neither a simple nor an easy matter.
– From Robert Hughes, “Nothing If Not Critical: Selected Essays on Art and Artists”