PRINT September 1993

Philip Pearlstein’s Portrait of Linda Nochlin and Richard Pommer

PHILIP PEARLSTEIN’S Portrait of Linda Nochlin and Richard Pommer ties together the personal and the intellectual strands of my life like no other work of art. It was commissioned in 1968, as a wedding portrait, and we are both wearing more or less the clothes we were married in: Dick, white linen trousers and a blue shirt; I, a white dress with a bold blue geometric pattern. We are represented sitting in Philip’s studio in Skowhegan, illuminated by the cold light of dentists’ lamps, sweating in the heat of a Maine summer, though this latter condition is not recorded.

The painting engages a long process of creation and an afterlife of experience. Temporality is necessarily involved in this process, whether in the seemingly endless and discomforting—at times even agonizing—sitting for the portrait, or, equally important, in living and aging with it after its completion. In the beginning we thought we looked old; but a time came when we overtook the painting and looked back on it as a record of a moment when we were in fact quite young. There was never a time when we looked at it and said, “Ah yes, that’s us, exactly.”

All portraits are related to the history of portraiture as much as to the subjects they portray. In Pearlstein’s image, this relationship is conceived as a rejection of most aspects of the portrait tradition as constituted by such practitioners as Rembrandt, Sargent, and Degas, though there is something of Degas in the indifferent cropping. But the traditional pretexts are missing: listening to music; the eyes lifted as though from reading; the glimpse of the subject, seized as though unaware, in a box at the opera; the accoutrements of social position; the probing of character or personal psychology. In few previous portraits is the existential condition of simply sitting for the artist registered as ferociously as it is here. It is not merely that depth and psychological profundity are avoided: they do not seem to have existed even as possibilities for representation.

This is a painting of surfaces alone. But what surfaces! It is as an abstract construction of surfaces that the painting makes its most intense impression. In a certain sense, it might be thought of as the work of a willful and determined camera. The texture is complex and dryly perverse. At the bottom of the canvas, triple-cast shadows play out an intricate relationship with a vigor that the human figures, isolated in their torpor, cannot summon. The wrinkles in our clothes, the various slight protuberances and indentations of our flesh, incised by variations of cold light and colder shade, the strange and previously unknown excessiveness of a shoe strap or an eye pouch—the Unheimlichkeit of a body you had thought you knew and was yours in a space you had taken for granted—are recorded with obsessive fidelity. All the painting’s liveliness is in the details, the fragments, the footnotes, as it were. We, the sitters, are put to death, or, at the very least, into a state of suspended animation, for the sake of truth to the detailed surface.

But then again, is it only a surface that is engaged here? The period around 1968 was a time of radical questioning, including the questioning of canonical Modernism. Why must a painting be a flat, self-reflexive demonstration of its own identity as a surface? In the portrait, Pearlstein revalues the illusion of depth and painting’s historical engagement with that illusion, creating a limited but definite recession in the picture, a self-conscious evocation of space and distance. My figure looms in the foreground; Dick’s recedes rapidly from the middle distance. There is even some hint of aerial perspective: my dress and hair, though distinctly washed out, are nevertheless more intense in saturation than Dick’s more distant shirt and trousers.

There is, of course, a natural urge to read “psychology” into a portrait, especially where a couple is involved. The portraitist Alice Neel is reported to have said that (like van Gogh) she wished to “capture the anxieties of our times,” or words to that effect. Pearlstein made no such claims, indeed he denied any psychological or social intention at all; he may have rejected flatness as an absolute but he certainly refused any notion of “depth” in the larger sense of the word. If we look bored, lifeless, frozen in place, it is because we were. The pose was purely fortuitous and meant to look that way. Philip tried me standing at first, but I felt faint, so I sat down. He had only two chairs in the studio, so we each sat in one of them. He tried out two alternative poses and we quickly chose this one, both because it worked and because we were in a hurry: he had only seven days and then we were leaving for a year in Italy.

We sat six hours a day in the heat. It was a strain on us all, an experience at once intense and enervating: different for us who must do nothing and for Philip who had to do everything—and fast. Sometimes I felt my mind floating away, like a balloon on a string; sometimes I felt an irritability approaching madness; sometimes obscene and violent thoughts would race through my mind; a series of itches and twitches afflicted my beleaguered body. In vain Philip played music, talked endlessly to us, and we talked back. It was, in the end, a kind of high-minded endurance contest. Every afternoon, Philip would photograph us in front of the picture, so that we have a record of its coming into being. And every day, after the sitting was over, I recovered, almost immediately. There were no aftereffects, no posttraumatic shock. Sitting was sitting, real life was as it had always been.

Of course a lack of intentional meaning does not imply that meaning is absent from the portrait. It is there, and forcefully so. To sit for a portrait that is a representation of sitting for a portrait—an image of absolute stasis, an emptying of the self under the direction of a higher power—is in a sense to mimic the condition of death. One has just enough will to sit up rather than lie down, to keep the eyes open rather than closed—but otherwise: nothing. Endless blankness. To record this is of course to record an existential condition of serious import: not many dare represent such denial of the animation that is thought identical with the human itself, such empty stillness, such deathlike arrest not merely of motion but of the very potential for mobility, present even in such works as Courbet’s sleeping figures.

The year 1968, a quarter of a century ago, was an important one in every way. It was a year of political and cultural revolution, a year when canons were questioned, assumptions swept away. Flatness, abstraction, formalism, patriarchy, racism, cultural authority of every kind: the doctrines of Modernism were never accepted so unquestioningly again. The portrait, for me, was part of the end to the simple acceptance of what art was about and had to be. The next year, women’s liberation made its dramatic entry, with a whole new set of revolutionary rejections and innovative projects, including the women’s movement in art. The portrait, then, simply by being painted when it was painted, became a kind of talisman of change and new beginnings; despite its apparent representation of stasis, it is resonant with a certain mental energy, poignant with the congealed memory of lost hopes and achieved desires.

Linda Nochlin