Philip Pearlstein

American Painter

Born: May 24, 1924
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Died: December 18, 2022
New York City, New York
I had decided I didn't want my work to have any meaning, it was about the total visual experience.

Summary of Philip Pearlstein

Radically cropped composition of mannequin-like nude models posed under harsh artificial lighting juxtaposed with a Mickey Mouse figurine, duck decoy, mask, whirligig, and other objects is what greets viewers to a Philip Pearlstein painting. Pearlstein is considered one of the greatest figure artists. His realistic portrayal of the figure during the art world's embrace of Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art ushered in a revival of realism painting. Pearlstein's approach created a new and dramatic shift in the perspective of the figure indicating that the body is complex and interesting enough to view without any sexual, emotional, or political commentary.


Progression of Art


Training in Florida (3 soldiers resting)

In this illustrative watercolour, Pearlstein focuses on three soldiers in different states of rest. This early work highlights Pearlstein's ability to provide a visual chronicle of a noteworthy time in his life. During his service in the army at the time of World War II, Pearlstein produced over 100 drawings and watercolours that documented his observations and experiences. Included in this body of works were numerous images of his fellow soldiers during their field exercises. Training in Florida (3 soldiers resting) is a visual recording of soldiers' different physical response to training. The figure propped against the tree with separated legs displays a more exhaustive state compared to the somewhat more relaxed position of his fellow soldier with crossed legs.

Artist and art critic Robert Ayers suggested that Pearlstein's 1943 studies of soldiers resting looked forward to the foreshortened prone figures with their splayed and overlapping limbs that characterize his best-known work. He further remarked that these early works remind us of what Pearlstein gradually stripped away from his art to arrive at the monumental figure works for which he is now celebrated.

Watercolour on paper - Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York



Pearlstein further exhibits his attention to the figure in perspective in this neutral monochromatic watercolour on paper. It features a foreshortened nude male in a sparse environment lying on his left side, leaning on his elbow with his head turned away from the viewer. Portions of the model's body melds into the environment. The work reflects Pearlstein's interest in the nude body as a series of interlocking forms.

Untitled is an indication of the change in his works in the 1960s from abstracted and expressionistic figures to creating figurative works of studio models. Pearlstein has stated that he decided to turn away from abstraction and expressionism because he wanted to paint only what he saw in front of him (usually nude models) without stylistic editorializing.

Watercolour on paper - Alpha 137 Gallery


Two female models on cast iron bed

Pearlstein's monochromatic wash on paper provides a bird's eye view of two nude female models in foreshortened, relaxed positions on a bed that has a bold curvilinear frame. This work is an example of the eventual development of his more complex, staged setups incorporating furniture and other objects into his compositions, and the extreme cropping of the image is a characteristic design element of his canvases.

The diagonal position of the figure near the foot of the bed mimics the directional flow of the bottom frame, and the crossed legs of the figure at the top of the bed is similar to the design of the top frame. This creates almost a marrying of the figures and the bed, as though Pearlstein is treating the bed and models as a combined object.

In an interview, Pearlstein shared that he sees his models as elements of design. This possibly accounts for the seemingly stark quality of the models, and their probable treatment as objects. Pearlstein's perspective suggests an intent to create art for the sole sake of visual experience without an assigned narrative. This piece signifies his contribution to nude portraiture, in widening the possibilities, approaches and aims of works in this genre.

Wash on paper - Betty Cuningham Gallery, New York


The Great Sphinx, Giza

Pearlstein's overall career is not limited to the figure. His body of work also includes depictions of architecture and landscapes. The lithograph of the Great Sphinx of Giza, realistically interpreted from a low upward viewpoint is one such example. Within the Sphinx lies significant detail of the stones, and one can clearly note Pearlstein's fascination with the light's manipulation upon the monument's surface. The variety in values - the range of lightness and darkness of the colours allows the viewer to see the illusion of the numerous cracks, bumps and edges of the surface. The use of contrast between the light and dark colours also draws one's attention towards the textures and details of the Sphinx's surface.

The emphasis upon the shapes, textures, light and shadows directs the focus towards the Sphinx's unique physical properties possibly allowing Pearlstein to deflect attention from mythical, religious or political affiliations. He is known for removing depiction from imposed notions, and this work evidences this ability to detach cultural meanings.

Lithograph - Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio


Rob Storr

Pearlstein's portrait of the curator, artist and writer Robert Storr provides a close-up view of the sitter's face and neckline achieved through extreme cropping. The portrait is an examination of how light affects surface features. The fragmentation of the skin from the stark studio lighting striking its raised surfaces, and the layering of shadows of varying saturations on the neckline, showcase his technical abilities and adherence to detail. Pearlstein's intention appears to be a straightforward accurate image of Storr without any emotional content.

The portrait is similar to Photorealism, a style in which artists focused on producing a hyper exactness of images through painstaking attention to detail. An additional emphasis of Photorealism was the interaction of light and colour. A difference, however between Pearlstein's approach to capturing details, light, and colour, and the photorealists is he worked directly from observation, whereas the photorealists relied heavily on the use of photographs.

Oil on canvas


Two Models, Polished Steel Chair and Swan Decoy

This disoriented, angled portrait evidences Pearlstein's tackling of the compositional puzzle created through intertwining human bodies with contrasting artefacts. To the left, we see a nude model, slouched on a silver steel chair with her left leg positioned through the chair's exterior gap. Beside her lies another nude model clutching a grey swan decoy. The complexity of the painting is extended through the inclusion of a vibrantly detailed rug and patterned sheets and cushions, which are faithfully and intricately recreated.

Pearlstein's faithfulness to their details allows the viewer to enjoy the rich features and colours of these objects. Linda Nochlin, the art historian proposes that the objects in these paintings offer a large amount of visual pleasure while simultaneously provoking and demanding active looking. Active looking is also encouraged in this piece by the depiction of the reflected fragmented distorted figures and objects in the glossy surface of the chair. This work portrays Pearlstein's ever-increasingly complex paintings in which multiple intriguing objects share intimate space with the models.

Oil on canvas

Biography of Philip Pearlstein

Childhood and Adolescence

Philip M. Pearlstein was born in Pittsburgh in May 1924 to David and Libby Kalser Pearlstein. His mother was born in Lithuania and his father was born in Pittsburgh shortly after his parents arrived from Russia. Up until the age of nine, he lived in large, racially-mixed neighbourhood, in which many of the white families were first-generation immigrants from various European countries. During the height of the Great Depression of the 1930s, after briefly living in Wheeling, West Virginia, the family relocated back to Pittsburgh. Prior to obtaining their own apartment, they shared a small house occupied by his father's seven siblings and mother. It was in this location that Pearlstein says he began to make art.

His early, more formal, artistic experience began when he attended classes on Saturday mornings at Carnegie Museum of Art. And later, he became a member of Taylor Allderdice High School's art club helping create sets for school theatrical productions. And a milestone took place when in 11th grade he won first and third place prizes in the National High School Art Exhibition by Scholastic Magazine - the winning paintings were featured in Life Magazine.

Education and Training

Pearlstein graduated from high school in 1942, and after a year of study at art school of the Carnegie Institute of Technology, he was drafted into service during World War II in 1943 by the US Army. During his training at Camp Blanding in Florida, he worked in the Training Aids unit creating charts, weapon assembly signs and diagrams. He also created road signs for the Army during his military tour in Italy.

He additionally created personal sketches and watercolours, which documented life as a soldier. Furthermore, his life in the army sparked an intrigue into the human form, as a result of noticing how his own body composition underwent significant changes.

Following his discharge from the Army in 1946, Pearlstein returned to Pittsburgh and resumed his education at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. After showing professor Robert Lepper, head of the Design Program the work he created during his time in the Army, he was hired as an assistant. The two worked together for three years, with Pearlstein assisting Lepper in creating illustrations and layouts.

During his return to the Institute, he met fellow art students Andy Warhol (at the time, Warhola) and Dorothy Cantor. Pearlstein and Warhol became friends, and after graduating college in 1949, they moved to New York City and shared an apartment. The two moved in 1950 to another apartment, sublet by the American dancer Franziska Marie Boas (daughter of the famous anthropologist Franz Boas). This was also the year in which Pearlstein and Cantor married and subsequently moved to their own apartment.

Pearlstein gained additional experience in graphic design working with the designer Ladislav Sutnar, who is known for his work in the field of information design. This working relationship continued for eight years. With encouragement from his friends and family Pearlstein enrolled into the master's program at New York University Arts Institute in 1950. He received a M.A. in art history in 1955 producing a thesis on the French Dadaist Francis Picabia.

Early Period

Pearlstein is best known for his works of the figure; however, a significant volume of his work during this early period were landscapes. An early display of one of his paintings was in a group show in 1952 at the Tanager Gallery, which was one of the first co-operative galleries in New York City. In 1954, the art critic Clement Greenberg noticed his work, and selected him to exhibit in a show for emerging artists at the Kootz Gallery. Pearlstein's first solo exhibition in 1955 was held at the Tanager Gallery. His paintings were a fusion of ideas from medieval Chinese landscape painting, Paul Cezanne, and Abstract Expressionism.

In 1958, he was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship, and while on leave of absence from Life Magazine as a graphic designer, he travelled to Italy where he spent a year producing images of ancient ruins. The paintings from the drawings were initially highly influenced by Abstract Expressionism, but gradually showed an increasing realism with a more defined representation of the images.

Mature Period

After returning from Italy, he taught at the Pratt Institute from 1959 to 1962 before moving on to Brooklyn College where he taught from 1963 to 1987. Teaching allowed him the opportunity to articulate his mental process of producing art.

The mental process involved focussing on the problems realistic painting presented. He established several rules regarding his personal work. He wanted his paintings to possess enough strength and intrigue to be competitively exhibited alongside his friends' more abstract work. He chose to draw more directly from his visual experiences, avoiding any preconceived knowledge and understanding of the human form, colours and perspective. His work additionally was to be detached from social, political and mythological discourses as well as not providing any insight into his models' concerns, beliefs, and emotions.

In the early 1960s, he began hiring models to produce portraits in tightly controlled studio conditions. The paintings initially followed the expressionistic style of his earlier landscape work, but eventually became more realistic and larger in size.

His figurative works gained exposure in 1962 at the Allan Frumkin Gallery in New York City. The work shocked the art scene, as the detached, emotionless qualities of his pieces contradicted the overly emotional and dramatic works that were currently accepted. In 1963, his work received a positive response from the art critic Sydney Tillim, who praised him for his portrayal of the human figure without any attachment to history or tradition. Tillim stated that Pearlstein had regained the figure for painting, putting it behind the picture plane and deep space without resorting to nostalgia or fashion. Soon after, his work gained greater recognition.

During this period, he began to include props from his home, which played key roles in highlighting the movements and compositions of the models. Art historian Linda Nochlin commented that in his work of the 1960s and 1970s, he was as engaged with the empty spaces as with the subjects.

Later Period and Recent Work

His later and recent work evidences his journey of refinement in exercising a hard, sculptural and technical meticulousness to faithfully depict reality. In the 1980s, his works became more increasingly complex in which nudes were entangled with assortments of props. These complicated works consisted of amplified compositions with surrounding objects that were as dominant as the models themselves. Whirligigs, Japanese lanterns, pond boats, masks, large model airplanes, carved figures, folk art horses, and decorative fabrics are examples of the prominent objects.

Still active in his nineties, Pearlstein continues to work and participate in exhibitions. The press release for his 2018 Philip Pearlstein, Today exhibition at Betty Cuningham Gallery stated that "Pearlstein remains sustained by a voracious hunger to paint exactly what is in front of him. Over time his paintings have evolved in their visual complexity, challenging his skill yet adhering to the original premise of an abstracted realism that he set forth in 1971."

The Legacy of Philip Pearlstein

Philip Pearlstein's successful fight for realism challenged Abstract Expressionism and Pop Art, generating a renewal of representational painting in America. He is quoted as saying that he decided his fight would be to have realism accepted as a valid modern style, upsetting the basic proposition of contemporary critics and tastemakers that abstraction was the only valid path of contemporary art.

He inspired his students to approach art with an open mind, exploring a variety of artistic styles and works. He also encouraged the notion of exploring an idea as deeply as possible and approaching it with ambition.

Curator and artist Charles David Viera, a former student of Pearlstein organized the 2017 exhibition, "Philip Pearlstein: A Legacy of Influence" to pay homage to his former teacher. The show featured Pearlstein, Viera, Janet Fish, Altoon Sultan, Tony Philips, Stephen Lorber, Thomas Corey, George Nick, and Lorraine Shemesh. In an interview, Viera stated that the artists in the exhibition had the opportunity to study under Pearlstein at some point in their careers, and that in speaking for all of them, Pearlstein's full legacy of influence has yet to be felt.

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