Philip Pearlstein American Realist Figurative Painter Dies Aged 98

Philip Pearlstein, Two Nudes with Four Goose Decoys

Philip Pearlstein (May 24, 1924 – December 17, 2022) an American painter best known for his nude realist paintings that rivalled Lucian Freud has died aged 98. He had an active career in the US and abroad since the mid-1950s. 

Philip Pearlstein was an American painter who rivaled Lucian Freud often surpassing his brilliance – PCR

Pearlstein first studied painting at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, where he met Andy Warhol. Upon graduation, Warhol and Pearlstein moved to New York together to seek work in commercial design and pursue their fine art careers. Pearlstein worked in an abstract expressionist style in the 1950s before shifting to realism. His depiction of the human nude was a subject that preoccupied him from the 1960s – as he said, ‘it is a shape that is always changing.’ In the 1980s, Pearlstein began to surround his sitter with objects from his collection to engage the viewer further and challenge himself.

Philip Pearlstein, Two Nudes with Four Goose Decoys
Philip Pearlstein, Two Nudes with Four Goose Decoys

For his 2018 exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery, the pre-eminent art critic Edward Lucie Smith wrote, “Pearlstein is sometimes associated with the Pop Art movement due to the fact that in the dim long ago, he once shared a studio with Andy Warhol, who, like himself, was born in Pittsburgh.

In fact, he has almost nothing to do with the Pop sensibility but a great many links to the tradition of American Realism. And maybe, even more to do with the grandest traditions of European art. In a brief statement written for a catalogue that accompanied an exhibition at the  Saatchi Gallery in 2018, Pearlstein declared: “As to developing a sense of three dimensions, I turned to the art of Piero della Francesca, who had been one of my heroes early on when I had studied the art of the Italian Renaissance.” He also mentions both Mondrian and Matisse as being among his exemplars. A formidable trio of heroes.

It may, therefore, come as a surprise when one realises that one of the keys to Pearlstein’s work, and one of the things that makes it so intensely pleasurable to look at, is its wonderful playfulness.

Essentially his big paintings are about the studio as a playground. There are nude models, always female, and an extraordinary array of objects. One painting, dated 2016, is entitled as follows: Two Models, Rooster Weather vane, Luna Park Lion and Blow Up Dinosaur. Another produced more than twenty years earlier offers – once again – two models, plus a toy blimp on a stand, a miniature Michelin Man and what appears to be a swan decoy.

One of the things one gradually notices while studying these compositions is the sophisticated nature of the cropping. It has been suggested, because of the way the images concentrate on the life of the studio, that Pearlstein’s paintings have a relationship to the work of Lucian Freud. In fact, despite the skill with which nude female bodies are depicted, they are very different in mood. This difference arises, above all, from the skill with which the artist crops what is shown. Only rarely is a figure shown complete.

The cropping relates to a very specific aspect of the Modernist photographic tradition – an aspect that is also very American. I am referring to the early 20th-century Photo-Secession Movement, particularly the work of Paul Strand. Philip Pearlstein, Two Nudes with Four Goose Decoys (above) pays homage to Strand’s drastic cropping tends to refer to details of mechanical objects or architectural information – in the image called Porch Shadows, 1916, for instance. The device forces the spectator to imagine the rest of an object when just a part is presented to the eye. This, in turn, creates a dynamic, participatory situation. The observer can no longer be passive.

The same thing happened when you look at Pearlstein’s big paintings. You are not outside. You are precipitated into the scene. The artist’s choice of ancillary objects enhances the effect.”


Top Photo: P C Robinson © Artlyst 2022

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