PRINT May 1966

Philip Pearlstein and the New Philistinism

IT IS A LONG TIME since modernist art seriously offended anyone, at least in a way that was enduringly significant culturally. “Le Dejeuner Sur L’herbe,” or, rather the scandal provoked by it, has become one of modernism’s most durable legends, and the cultivated bourgeoisie, assimilated to the tradition of the new, is now among that tradition’s most enthusiastic patrons. It not only expects to be shocked but counts on it as the most valid and visible criterion of esthetic judgment, which ironically assures it that (its) tradition is safe. It takes, in fact, extreme gestures to arouse the public conscience and—since figurative painting has fallen on hard times—these most frequently occur outside the plastic arts, as in the case of Lenny Bruce or Jack Smith’s “underground” film, “Flaming Creatures.”

But even these seem exceptions to the rule of increasing permissiveness in the arts, since it is generally sensed, I believe, that these flareups of an antediluvian morality are increasingly anachronistic. For while they provoke, in those cases that actually reach the courts (that is, prior to their receiving, foundation support), charades of liberal indignation, the fact is that culture has become a kind of imprimatur for the public dissemination of what was once regarded as immoral, obscene or perverse. It was not, Stanley Kauffman complained, that many heterosexual dramas today are really about homosexuals, but that real homosexual drama, with the participants undisguised as man and wife, has yet to be written. In short, virtually anything short of live orgies goes today—from smearing strawberry jam on a nude at a Happening or dancing in the nude (Bob Morris and Yvonne Rainer) in a discreet but decidedly ambiguous embrace.

How then explain the generally hostile artistic and moral reaction to the nudes of Philip Pearlstein? In recent months, at least one of Pearlstein’s nudes was banned from an exhibition at a fashionable girl’s college; another was defaced at an exhibition at the University of North Carolina; an exhibition of his in the Northwest aroused considerable resentment; a noted collector returned one of his paintings which the collector had chosen from a reproduction, and, in my presence, a youngish Midwest matron, who apparently knew where the artistic action was, said that she couldn’t have a Pearlstein hanging around the house where her kids could see it. In New York, where everyone is much more sophisticated about these things, so that an exhibition of sculptured feces is simply recognized for the desperate exhibitionism it is, they simply say that Pearlstein can’t draw, or that he is “academic.” They say this, however, with considerable feeling. Yet only last season, Larry Rivers’ far more scatological and scarcely better drawn full length nude portrait of Frank O’Hara was just another painting in his retrospective at the Jewish Museum. Furthermore, increasing quantities of “erotic” art, in which the drawing is usually execrable, are noticeable each season.

The explanation of this seeming disparity of esthetic and moral standards and values is to be found, I believe, in the social role art has played in this century. That is, it has had virtually no social role whatsoever, despite the efforts of the Dadaists, the Surrealists, the Futurists and, lately, optical and kinetic artists to relate it to some extra-esthetic discipline in pursuit of a meaningful relationship to the world at large. Instead it has been almost completely occupied with form as content and style as the ultimate objective. All the modernist movements have been short-lived because they could not support for long a conflict between proposed social objectives and the esthetic imperatives upon which they had been superimposed. The “crisis” esthetic of modernist art was the inevitable expression of this profound misunderstanding which it tragically proceeded to magnify. And it killed Abstract Expressionism.

The Rivers portrait of O’Hara is wholly a product, and a superficial one, of this bifurcated tradition. Its scatology does not offend because, besides being intended to amuse, it is immediately recognized as an expression of modern style, as gesture rather than image. O’Hara’s phallus and combat boots, insofar as they are titillating at all, merely link the work to the anti-bourgeois tradition of the avant-garde. This exploitation of vanguard “alienation” confirms an essentially stylish and self-conscious pose while, like most of the art of this century, trying to appear otherwise.

On the other hand, a typical Pearlstein nude, in which the genitals are rarely as obvious as in any of Rivers’ earlier nudes, establishes so corporeal a presence that, despite its seeming somnambulant apathy, it bursts through the limits of style. The nude, in other words, regains its existential dignity. Not that Pearlstein is not concerned with style—art is style, and he is concerned with it in its highest sense; but, rather, like the few artists who have engaged more or less the same pictorial problems, he is committed to freeing modern style of the illusions that have been imposed by a century of disordered taste. I might add that I believe that artists at the other extreme from realism, artists such as Frank Stella and Donald Judd, are similarly committed to the cause of a disillusioned style, the main difference being the function of the erotic element. In the latter it is completely repressed; in Pearlstein it is simply sublimated in a logical object—the figure.

What I am trying to suggest is that the dismay and anger which has greeted Pearlstein’s work stems largely from his violation of the ritualized ambiguity of modern sensibility. Furthermore, the offense to taste that one of his paintings is apparently capable of provoking in the sophisticated modern collector or artist or one of respectability’s old guard is no less significant. It testifies to a source of power in his work other than that of style. (The same holds true for Judd’s austere receptacles.)

A Pearlstein nude is first of all very large, larger, in fact, than life. Two such giants, and Pearlstein’s nudes are now invariably composed in pairs, are exceedingly visible. One is made acutely aware of the mountains that are knuckles, knees and elbows, of the corrugations that are the soles of the feet, of the simian limbs that are toes and fingers, of the lunar valleys that fall between protuberant scapulae. One sees fibrous ropes that are muscles and one is impressed with the fact that the eyes, when they close, clang shut with a monumental and irreparable crack. These figures when they stand are obstinate yet somehow vulnerable; when they sit they fall into a kind of depressive stoop; when they recline they give in entirely to their ennui. They are, however, painted from life, and it is not the least of his achievements that Pearlstein translates the model’s ancient function into a new visual presence whereby a pose becomes a metaphor of form and perception in which, if idealism is absent, heroism is not. It represents a new kind of grand manner, real yet transcendent. Pearlstein’s scale, in conjunction with his particular subject, is a measure of his attitude toward both art and life—a noble banality. And if the work, or rather, certain of its anatomical details, give offense, it is not merely that sex is not yet so public that its instruments can be described with impunity, but that the simple moral offense is compounded by making sex (or even sexlessness) part of a heroic image when sex is still largely not admitted as one of Man’s more virtuous pursuits.

It is, however, not the sexual element which disturbs—sex there was in abundance in the art of 19th-century academicians—but the absence of a necrophile but prophylactic classicism, masquerading as beauty, that would make sex respectable. Ironically, the controversy stirred up among artists by Pearlstein’s work revolves around a similar objection. For the esthetic issue of a heroic style that is devoid of idealism is a preoccupation with volume whose alternately craggy, tuberous, tough and otherwise uningratiating, even ungainly, character is devoid of the hallmarks of traditional draftsmanship. Inevitably, his critics frequently accuse him of being unable to draw or of processing outmoded “academic” problems, projecting onto him their own feeling of deprivation in respect to the problem of drawing the figure. For between abstractionism in art and traditional figurative painting nothing has been introduced until now as an alternative to either. The natural, the inevitable tendency is to fall back on traditional canons of good drawing in order to rationalize the rejection of a style whose extremity of dispassion makes all but the most correspondingly extreme abstractionist work either a compromise or a pastiche.

The mistake that Pearlstein’s critics have made is not to have realized, even now, that the evolution of his draftsmanship (which has indeed improved since his first exhibition of figures over three years ago) was not in the direction of an obsolete classicism of line but of a tough sense of mass and volume as extricated from the confounding and dissipated bravura of Abstract Expressionism. The huge landscapes that preceded his figures were, from the painterly point of view, incredibly packed affairs which recapitulated the problem of the relationship between mass and edge from Cezanne to Abstract Expressionism and with it the problem of the credible representation of depth. But by the time of his first figure exhibition, Pearlstein had pulled his sense of form together, and with it color, previously as broken and as flaked as his forms, coagulated into a contiguous form surface, lurid of hue yet refreshingly local. It was not, however, until his second exhibition in November, 1964 (in all, Pearlstein has had more than a dozen one-man shows), that his scale was to make evident that he was more interested in a heroic concept of mass than an ideal version of form. And with the achievement of scale, he locked into place an appropriately majestic sense of structure, a distinctive feature of which is the lopping off of the figure wherever it encountered the canvas edge. (The significance of cropping in modernist composition is too complex an issue to add to the discussion at this point. Suffice it to say that cropping in modernist art was first used to conscious advantage by Degas and that it is of considerable importance that it should emerge again in the best figurative painting presently being done.)

Meanwhile, a more fundamental misunderstanding exists in respect to Pearlstein’s intentions. Pearlstein’s critics, that is, critics of post-abstractionist realism generally, fail to perceive that figurative art can be as “abstract” and as powerful as any other style. Specifically, they ignore the fact that Pearlstein paints in a manner that is not only common but inevitable among abstractionists, as formal considerations increasingly dominate the nature and form of their expression. Which is to say that Pearlstein’s paintings form a series which deals with a single formal problem—the depiction of a credible, highly structured illusionistic space within the picture frame. As Michael Fried has pointed out, serial painting is “an institution that arose during Impressionism in concomitance with the exploration throughout a number of pictures of a single motif, but which has come increasingly to have the function of providing a context of mutual elucidation for the individual paintings comprising a given series.” That Pearlstein’s figures form such a series is an aspect not only of their modernity but evidence of their concern with the relevant formal problems of modernist art. He has simply transferred them to a non-symbolic context. Why he has done this is mainly a matter of expressive preference. Otherwise, there is a complete organization (structuring) of the picture surface for a total, or “field” effect rather than a less monumental format in which the objects are not assimilated to the structure but insist on an independent narrative identity. By these standards, Giotto was a “field” painter. Pearlstein’s critics have failed, in other words, to see the painting for the subject; and moral repugnance follows “sui generis.”

Yet it is precisely on the grounds of this serial style that Pearlstein may prove vulnerable to criticism. The serial approach is eminently suitable for a style as refined symbolically as abstractionist art has become. For in the absence of pronounced particularity the slightest adjustment carries considerable formal and expressive weight, though the hairsplitting frequently involved threatens to make sincerity a new version of absurdity. For Fried, this appears to be precisely the source of the heroism of the artists he admires. In figurative painting, however, where images replace symbols and where literal facts present an entire new range of possibilities, repeated manipulation of one or two figures does not allow the complexity, that is, the renewed involvement with particularity, to pursue its implications, especially that of greater involvement with illusion. In historical context the function of illusionistic volume is the creation of a new space as an antidote to the merely decorative surfaces most abstractionist art had become. Continued serialization of this idea can reverse the intention and produce a no less mechanical image, as opposed to one that is constantly being discovered anew.

I am, however, far from sure that figurative serialization is nearly so fatal as all this seems to imply. For one thing, it is, as I have already suggested, a link with the modernist tradition which, if it is as self-critical as some critics assume, may be approaching a climactic self-confrontation. For another, and more important—in fact, it is the momentary heart of the matter—it provides a refuge of impersonality while the implications of subject and feeling are being explored, testing the space as it were for its hospitality to change.

Nevertheless there has been some attrition of concentrated illusionistic power in several of Pearlstein’s recent paintings. Two or three paintings in his most recent group, which was another in his series of mostly larger than life-size figures, are perhaps equal to those of his 1964 exhibition; but elsewhere the sense of discovery (and recovery) does not appear to be so strong. Though allowance should be made for seeing the pictures under cluttered studio conditions, it is especially noticeable in his drawings in which the outside contour is not as searching as it was in the smaller drawings done around the time of his second figure exhibition. (As in photographs, a graphic image does not work on a large scale.) The loss is confirmed by a couple of small paintings in which the sudden reduction of scale hardly accommodates the powerful generalizations he is capable of when he tackles monumental sizes. Yet the smaller paintings in his previous exhibition were better for having been better drawn to their scale. At the moment Pearlstein is, then, more capable of subtlety than variety as is evident, for instance, in the depiction of shadowy flesh tints on the thigh of one of his reclining women. For as he spins out his serialization of the figure, a greater mastery of technique leads not to mere facility but to greater concentration on the particular rather than the general which so far has been his strong suit.

Portentous, then, are his recent efforts at portraiture. In exceptionally visualized studies of Alex Katz and dealer Allan Frumkin, the difference of scale (the Katz portrait is perhaps one-third life size, or so memory suggests; the Frumkin portrait is Michelangelesque in its figurative proportions) produced little variation of quality, as involvement with the sitter, or the problem of taking a likeness, appears to have renewed the act of discovery. The Frumkin portrait is probably Pearlstein’s best painting since his last exhibition, and one of his best figurative paintings besides.

The continuity of formal development in art is probably dependent on some semblance of continuity in the social experience, or, in other words, a measure of certainty as opposed to constant change. In the past, such certainty as has befallen the artist, most frequently success, has usually translated itself artistically into self-mannerism. A dedication to an image replaces the idea of an evolving style for which it is usually confused by the public while the artist himself confuses it with “maturity.” It is true of course that the number of ideas anyone has in art is limited, and that repetition is to a certain extent a matter of course. This is another reason why there have been so many palace revolutions in modernist art. Consequently, the revival of the figure, and post-abstractionist realism generally, represents an effort to establish a basis for the creative principle upon something else besides ideas, besides the Logos of style itself. It means, I believe, an effort to restore the erotic principle, of which Camp is an indicative parody, to form. In the long run, vitality is the only principle of certainty in a changing world, and vitality without the sexual principle is inconceivable.

There is thus a measure of truth, however misplaced, in the response which has greeted Pearlstein’s work. As I have suggested, the artistic reaction and the moral one are related, and obviously the audience, characteristically, one has to suppose, is getting his signals but interpreting them wrongly. But hardly enough time has passed for us to determine if history is repeating itself, that is, if a new division of taste between art and what I would call the new respectability is taking place. But that philistinism has completed its modern cycle and has come home to roost in the avant-garde can no longer be doubted.

Sidney Tillim