Philip Pearlstein: A Figure Of Speech – Video Interview By Edward Lucie-Smith

Philip Pearlstein

Last month Edward Lucie-Smith filmed this exclusive video for Artlyst with the well known NY figurative painter Philip Pearlstein, at the Saatchi Gallery, London.

Interviewing Philip Pearlstein is a pretty simple, pain-free process

You set up the camera, seat him comfortably in front of it, put yourself in a position out of shot, and ask the first question. Off he goes – fluent, quietly comfortable with the situation, feeling no need to big himself up. Since I’ve met him in the past, and have myself been the subject of a Pearlstein portrait, I had no qualms about the situation, With Pearlstein, in the best sense of the old cliché, ‘What you see is what you get.’ Paradoxically, this does not altogether apply to his work. He is a realist painter, celebrated for that, but he knows a lot of different ways to surprise, disconcerts and then enlightens his audience, as his exhibition currently at the Saatchi Gallery demonstrates.

Philip Pearlstein, born in Pittsburgh 1924, is the most eminent of all living American Realist artists. This is a major claim since Realism has been such an important part of the story of art in America. However, when he first entered the American art world, after studying at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and at New York University, Abstract Expressionism was king and Realism was in retreat. He had to find a way of making it relevant again, and, throughout a very long career, this is always what he has striven to do. His paintings are not Pop, though he once shared quarters with the young Andy Warhol, and they are not photographic, though they do share some characteristics associated with experimental photography, in particular, the use of drastic cropping. He says categorically: “I paint people and landscapes from direct observation. I do not use optical devices of any kind to make my drawings or paintings.”

In the series of recent and relatively recent works, on view at the Saatchi Gallery in London until 15th March, landscapes are absent. We are introduced to the life of the studio, which is filled with heterogynous objects, ranging from a blow-up baby dinosaur to a folk- art weather vane. Sprawling among these are female nudes, painted on a heroic scale. Pearlstein knows that nudes painted exactly on the scale of life tend to seem smaller than they actually are, and he wants to call our attention to the importance of humanity, and with this of humane values, within a complicated cosmos. But this is never done solemnly. This is ‘big art’ sure enough, but always art blessed with a sense of humour. Good reason why Pearlstein has had such a durable reputation. Fashions in art come and go, but his art remains obstinately present.

Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2018 Video Exclusive Jonathan Aitken Fisheye Moments © Edward Lucie-Smith 2018 all content copyright 2018

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