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Philip Pearlstein - Biography and Legacy

American Painter

Born: May 24, 1924 - Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Movements and Styles:
American Realism

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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Content compiled and written by Marie Brammah

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

"Philip Pearlstein Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Marie Brammah
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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First published on 03 Mar 2020. Updated and modified regularly
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